Seumas Milne is by common consent a very clever man. He without doubt possesses the brainpower to act as “Executive Director of Strategy and Communications”, the grand role which Jeremy Corbyn last October persuaded him to take on. And yet from the first there were grave doubts about the wisdom of this appointment.
Corbyn had previously attempted, without success, to persuade Kevin Maguire, of the Daily Mirror, to take on the post. Maguire would undoubtedly have been very good at maintaining a relationship with journalists with whom he felt no ideological affinity.
Milne is hopeless at doing that. It is not that he tries to get on with such journalists and fails, but that he cannot even see the need to do so. At the Guardian, where he worked for over 30 years and from which even now he is merely “on leave” (a most improper arrangement), he made no attempt to engage with colleagues of a different outlook to his own. In some ways, I find this admirable, and even attractive. As a small-c conservative, I approve of people who do not bend to every passing gust of fashion.
Corbyn compels respect for maintaining, so far as one can see, precisely the opinions which he held 40 years ago. Like a perfectly working steam engine, he possesses a period charm. It was nevertheless a mistake, from the Labour Party’s point of view, to choose such an anachronistic figure as their leader. And Corbyn has compounded the error by calling to his side Milne, who is just as intransigent, though in a slightly different idiom.
Milne, who is nine years younger than Corbyn, was crammed to the gills with the finest education England can provide. He attended, as a scholar, the intellectual forcing house of Winchester College, followed by Balliol College, Oxford. John Whittingdale, the Culture Secretary, who like Milne is a Wykehamist, recently produced, to general amusement, at a Commons press gallery lunch, a poster from a mock election held at Winchester in 1974, which urged:
FOSTER & MILNE
Foster, whom I knew slightly at Cambridge, is now a successful lawyer in Hanoi, in what used to be North Vietnam. Milne is Corbyn’s press man. But Milne’s lifelong interest turned out to be in Soviet rather than Chinese communism. He stands accused of being a Stalinist rather than a Maoist.
Even today, Milne feels an exaggerated pride, one might say an unconscious vanity, in sticking to the verities of his youth. He is, in fact, a completely traditional figure. He displays the immaturity of a clever Wykehamist. For many years, he looked younger than he really was, and the truth is that he has never grown up.
The Labour Party used to be stuffed with clever Wykehamists, including Hugh Gaitskell, Richard Crossman and Douglas Jay. Milne continues, in a less cerebral age, this intellectual tradition. His articles are without doubt lucid and intelligent.
What they lack is the human touch. Claud Cockburn, a brilliantly amusing leftie of an earlier era, described how, as a correspondent for The Times in Berlin in the Weimar Republic of the late 1920s, he drifted, while drinking beer with the Foreign Minister, Gustav Streseman, from liberalism towards the altogether harder but apparently more realistic creed of communism:
I think it was Stresemann, sitting under a fruit tree, talking about European unity, who first sowed in my mind the doubt as to whether my warm-hearted enthusiasm on behalf of the victims of the [First] World War, my romantic belief in the Nationalist movements of Central Europe (Nationalist even when they were disguised as the resurgence of Central European democracy), and my conviction that the Treaty of Versailles had been a disastrous diplomatic crime, really covered all the facts.
Milne sees no need to include the influence of human beings in his writings. He is somehow above all that human interest stuff. Which is why he is such an arid writer. And yet there is human interest in his own life. He suffered, a few years ago, a bad case of cancer, from which both his sister, Kirsty, and his mother, née Sheila Graucob, died.
His father, Alasdair Milne, educated at Winchester and at New College, Oxford, rose to become Director General of the BBC, only to be sacked during the prime ministership of Margaret Thatcher. Milne fils remains characteristically loyal to his father, and characteristically indignant:
In the autumn of 1986, Thatcher installed Marmaduke Hussey as BBC chairman, a man with impeccable Conservative connections and a fiercely anti-union record. She did so, Seaton reveals [in her book Pinkoes and Traitors, here under review], only after first seeking the approval of Murdoch, the BBC’s “most committed commercial and political enemy”. Hussey then consulted Victor Rothschild, a security adviser to Thatcher (and one-time associate of the Cambridge spies). According to Hussey’s memoirs, it was Rothschild who proposed firing the director general. That was finalised over lunch with the home secretary, Douglas Hurd. Within three months, it was done. No explanation was given. And Hussey used a threat to my father’s pension to persuade him to resign for “personal reasons” – and prevent him speaking out in public.
The British Establishment will stick at nothing. It is forever conspiring to do down people like the Milnes. How to strike back against the Establishment? At least Milne thought it worthwhile, with whatever reluctance, to take the job with Corbyn.
But he has attracted a certain amount of adverse comment since doing so. In a profile in GQ, he was condemned, with much circumstantial evidence, for briefing against Hilary Benn, the shadow Foreign Secretary, during Corbyn’s catastrophically cack-handed first reshuffle.
Many Labour people detest Milne. As one of them said to me while I was researching this profile,
This kind of sixth-form plotting that he’s used in little communist-party groups doesn’t work when you get into a big political party – you can’t exercise the same level of control. He’s strangely incurious about people either unlike himself, or with different views.
That was certainly my experience of carousing, as a correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, with colleagues from the Guardian at party conferences, and especially with my dear friend Simon Hoggart. Almost everyone in the enormous contingent of journalists from the Guardian was approachable. One could share a joke while agreeing to differ about, say, the merits of Margaret Thatcher. Only Milne held himself aloof, walking around the press room as if in a world of his own. He used to do the same in the Guardian offices.
His detached manner renders some people incandescent with rage. As a Labour man said in a fury, “It’s a superiority thing.” To expose Milne as a Stalinist strikes me as absurd. It is clear from his journalism where his sympathies lie. As Michael Mosbacher has said, in a learned account of Milne’s early communism, “Soviet nostalgia” is a clear theme. And to this day, Milne is inclined to condemn the United States, while giving the benefit of the doubt to Putin’s Russia.
It is impossible to go for a pint with him, in order to laugh off one’s differences. This sensitive and even anguished-looking man is a liability to the cause which he and Corbyn purport to be serving. The sooner Milne goes back to writing attacks on American foreign policy for the Guardian, the better.