It is useful to be reminded regularly that the Left was mistaken about the great controversy of post-war Britain – the planned economy and the Soviet system. Part of it really believed that the Soviet economy would out-perform western ones, and most it regularly urged a planned system with all its bells and whistles: price controls, import restrictions, tripartite economic planning. Margaret Thatcher helped to discredit this failed model and Tony Blair made no attempt whatsoever to revive it.
Ralph Miliband was a Marxist – not a Communist, nor a Stalinist – and since Marxists are wrong, he was wrong. So far, so good for the Daily Mail for pointing this out. But to assert that he hated Britain presents formidable obstacles to sober thought. I suppose that if all Marxist academics can truthfully be said to hate Britain as a whole (as opposed to particular parts of it), then Ralph Miliband indeed hated Britain. But if one doesn’t accept this view, then the Mail is in difficulty.
The evidence base for the Mail’s claim seems to be a single letter that Ralph Miliband wrote as a teenager. As Charles Moore points out in this week’s Spectator, the paper usually has more bullets to hand when firing shots at a reputation. A lack of them has allowed Ed Miliband to counter-attack. Most people will feel for a son defending his father. And the Labour leader’s riposte has been shrewd as well, doubtless, as heartfelt: it gave an opportunity for the BBC to go to town.
Meanwhile, the Mail has come under attack from the right as well as the left. The latest Conservative to criticise the paper is Lord Moore (no relation) – once a Thatcher protegee and potential Party leader. The Mail, despite its shortage of ammunition, has pressed on. This has allowed Miliband, who dominated last week’s political coverage, to overshadow this week’s too – competing with David Cameron’s Conservative conference speech yesterday for headlines.
The Mail – with its acute feel for the hopes and fears of aspirational Britain, dramatic sense of projection, and burgeoning online presence – is a confident voice in the public square and a key target for the Leftist elites. Yes, it can behave badly, but so can its critics: consider the way in which the Guardian misled its readers about the Miranda story when it broke it. And, like most successful products, the Mail can surprise: consider its bold naming of the killers of Stephen Lawrence.
The decision to do so was made by its Editor, Paul Dacre – whose response to the Miliband row proves, were proof required, that he believes attack to be the best form of defence. He also thinks that the place of an Editor is at his desk editing, not in the TV studio opining (a view for which I have some sympathy since becoming one myself, albeit in a far less major key). This approach has served him well in the past. It has done so less well this week.
Very simply, the Mail has made a mistake. Were it a politician, it would do best, as the saying goes, to “concede and move on”. Since it isn’t one, it will doubtless simply move on (if it’s wise). To say so isn’t to waste this column on a minor matter. The consequences of Miliband’s open commitment to socialism last week are only just beginning to be felt. One will be a more adversarial relationship between left and right – in print and out of it. The Mail’s treatment of dead, decent, plumb wrong, Marxist but non Britain-hating Ralph Miliband is a sign of this.