I’m Jewish. Ed Miliband is Jewish. We’re all Jewish. So maybe Britain is One Nation, after all

Ed's father Ralph wasn't exactly a priest in the Temple of Solomon, but by invoking his roots the Labour leader makes a fearless - and flattering - point about Britain


Ed Miliband did something extraordinary this week. I’m not referring to his speaking for over an hour without notes, though that was extraordinary enough. Nor to his delivering that speech with the fluency and timing of a seasoned stand-up comedian, though that was more extraordinary still. No, what was truly astounding was his assumption that right this minute the British people would rather put their trust in a Jew than a toff.

I don’t say it’s a subject burning a hole in the mind of the British public; we have better things to do, in these grim times, than adjudicate between the competing claims of the Bullingdon Club and the synagogue. And I doubt that the electorate has an attitude to Ed Miliband’s Jewishness, if it’s aware of it at all. But this week, he chose to make us aware of it, gambling that we do have an attitude to David Cameron’s toffishness, and that it’s negative.

Whether this is a gamble that will pay off only time will tell. I don’t doubt he’s right about the way Cameron is currently perceived. His Chief Whip’s unguarded, but by all accounts characteristic, tirade against the “fucking plebs” struck many as coming from the soul of Cameron’s party. I’m still not sure which word Andrew Mitchell continues to deny he employed – “fucking” or “plebs” – but we know which is worse, and it isn’t “fucking”. “Plebs”, we surmise, is exactly what the Tories call the rest of us, not because it’s in the nature of men like Cameron to have reached that conclusion for themselves – I suspect Cameron hasn’t – but because some attitudes are ingrained and ineradicable.

Once upon a time, we could have lived with that surmisal. There was advantage in knowing one’s place. But we have lost sight of what that advantage was, and the insult is no longer one we will swallow on the understanding that class is God’s plan. Money has entered the grand design, and with money a new disdain. Now we are contemptibly plebeian on two accounts: by accident of birth and by virtue of not knowing how to get rich.

“My family hasn’t sat under the same oak tree for the last 500 years,” Miliband quipped. It was a well-constructed jibe, suggesting unchanging privilege, supine arrogation of power, and country matters, remote from the concerns of a populace sweating blood (those who are lucky enough to have a job to sweat over) in the cities. But by calling up his own, radical, Jewish family, who’d have had trouble finding anywhere to sit peaceably for the past 500 years, Miliband risked a more daring assault on the entrenched.

When challenged on his Jewishness by Daniel O’Connell, Disraeli famously replied, “Yes, I am a Jew. And when the ancestors of the right honourable gentlemen were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the Temple of Solomon.”

Miliband didn’t quite go that far. Sitting under an oak tree for 500 years might make you out of touch, but it doesn’t make you a brutal savage; and Ed’s father Ralph wasn’t exactly a priest in the Temple of Solomon, though he did officiate at the Temple of Karl Marx. But there was a point in invoking Disraeli, beyond reminding us that a Jew could be, and had been, a British prime minister; without exactly “reimagining his Jewishness as a glorious inheritance”, to quote Disraeli’s biographer, the critic Adam Kirsch, Miliband nonetheless enlisted his Jewishness on the side of probity, toil and the dignity of the once-excluded.

And that was the great gamble. Would enough people recognise themselves in that delineation? Had we become, thanks to the Tories, a nation of the alienated, and could an immigrant Jew speak for this sense of dispossession, if indeed dispossessed was what we felt?

That leaves out a subtler touch still. If the Milibands had come from somewhere else, they had been made welcome here. Through the eminence he has himself attained – as Disraeli had attained an even greater one before him – Miliband exemplifies the mobility this country at its best facilitates. He was thus returning to us British a benign portrait of ourselves.

We are a kind and tolerant people. We move over, make room and make possible. I can speak openly of my Jewishness, Miliband implied, because I have every confidence that it will not alarm you. If Disraeli had climbed to “the top of the greasy pole” by means of his outlandishness, a wizard Jew dazzling the nation and enchanting its Queen by his dark arts, Miliband was proving the opposite case. He had got where he had got a) thanks to the magnanimity of the British people, and b) because we are all now, in a manner of speaking, and because of the squeeze put on us by those who consider the country theirs to do with as they wish, Jewish.

Jeremy Paxman gave Miliband’s supporters a hard time after the speech, for not being able to put the poetry of “One Nation” – another allusion to Disraeli – into plain prose. But it does have a meaning in the context of his address: Miliband was uniting all those who feel they have come from the margins of society, or been forced back into the margins of society, with those whose nature is essentially liberal and welcoming. One Nation, but also a New Nation, not only far removed from the landed and the wealthy who have been dozing undisturbed under the same oak tree for 500 years, but inexplicable to them. A new nation with which the Wandering Jew is in tune, and the Rooted Toff is not.

And anti-Semitism? Well, there always was more of it to be found in the oak tree mob, who seldom if ever met a Jew, than in the population at large. Miliband simply assumed its non-existence, anyway. I call that a significant moment not only for Jews, but, if we are One Nation, for the country, too.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Noddy Holder must be glad he wrote 'Merry Xmas Everybody' as he'll earn £800,000 this year from royalties.  

Noddy Holder: A true rock ’n’ roll hero, and a role model for sensible people everywhere

Rosie Millard
Ian Paisley used to pick out journalists in his congregation  

The Only Way is Ethics: Ian Paisley is rightly remembered for his intransigence

Will Gore
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam