One sometimes feels an instinctive objection to a piece of writing without being able, at first, to work out what is wrong with it. I am not sure I have even now managed to determine the exact nature of my objections to the attack last week by Jason Cowley, editor of the New Statesman, on Ed Miliband. Cowley, as far as I am concerned, is a very good editor. Not only has he printed a number of articles by me. He is also the only editor who has ever urged me, while taking me out to lunch, to drink a better class of red wine than the admittedly rather ordinary one I had chosen.
But in his attack on Miliband, Cowley writes: “Miliband is very much an old-style Hampstead socialist. He doesn’t really understand the lower middle class or material aspiration. He doesn’t understand Essex Man or Woman.”
Why do I bridle at this? I suppose because it seems like a treason of the clerks. For the Labour leader to run after, or pretend to understand, Essex Man or Woman would be as futile as it would be demeaning. Miliband is an intellectual. To be true to himself, he must show he can think intelligently about our predicament, and can propose better ways of ameliorating it than the present Government has offered.
For Labour as for the Conservatives, how to compete with UKIP is an unavoidable question. But the answer does not lie in entering into an auction with UKIP to see who can make the most unashamed appeal for the support of those members of the white working class who feel most threatened by immigration, and by other changes to the England of the 1950s.
UKIP will win any such auction. The task for Miliband is to expound an idea of the nation which is more attractive, generous and public-spirited than his competitors are offering. Miliband is quite intelligent enough to realise this. It is why, with pleasing audacity, he espoused the Disraelian cry of One Nation. His problem is that he has as yet been unable to make One Nation mean very much to people, whether in Essex or elsewhere: a failure analogous to David Cameron’s failure to enthuse people with the idea of the Big Society. Neither leader has yet worked out how to expound an enlightened patriotism which is convincing enough to win the hearts and minds of anxious patriots who feel that only Nigel Farage really understands them.
The New Statesman is a magazine for thinking socialists, so its editor should defend the thinking socialist who leads the Labour Party: or else attack him for defective thought, not for failing to empathise with Essex.
But why should I defend Miliband? As it happens, I live only a few hundred yards from his house. He lives in Dartmouth Park, I in Gospel Oak: two districts which although not in Hampstead, adjoin Hampstead Heath and are full of Hampstead socialists. My wife is a Labour councillor: Miliband’s councillor. And the truth is that I much enjoy being surrounded by intelligent people with whom I disagree about politics.
One evening I found myself talking to a delightful, very elderly lady, of staunchly left-wing views. For some reason, I remarked on the superior intellectual abilities of 19th-century Prime Ministers compared to their 20th-century successors. “Ah well,” she replied with a smile, “that’s democracy for you.”
The great Michael Wharton, writing as Peter Simple in the Daily Telegraph, had a memorably horrible character called Mrs Dutt-Pauker, a Hampstead thinker of immense wealth who was actually an apologist for tyranny. But most of the Hampstead socialists I know are not like that. They may be wrong – in my opinion they are wrong – but they are wrong in a manner which befits our democracy’s intellectual elite.