David Miliband

By | Oct 12, 2011

The son was David Miliband’s father, who soon changed his name to Ralph. He briefly attended the London School of Economics (LSE), then served for the rest of World War II in the Royal Navy, patrolling the Mediterranean and translating intercepted German communications.

Meanwhile, Miliband’s mother, Marion Kozak, and her family were trapped in Nazi-occupied Czestochowa in southern Poland. Marion and her mother found shelter in the home of a local Polish family who took great risks to ensure their survival. At war’s end, Marion also made her way to Britain, where she met Ralph Miliband, who by then had resumed his studies in politics at the LSE and had become a committed Marxist. It was the 1960s and Marion shared his passion for left-wing politics. They married and, rather late in life, started a family. David was their first-born, followed by his brother Ed.

Ralph became one of the most prominent left-wing intellectuals in Britain and a leading figure of the “New Left,” a movement sparked by the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary and given impetus by the Vietnam War. Britain was the epicenter of global cultural changes that marked the ’60s and Labour was in power. Although it was in theory a socialist party, Ralph viewed Labour as completely cut off from the working masses who founded it and argued that it had become a servant of the existing power structure.

Ralph Miliband’s world view was shaped by big ideas but also by his painful family history. Israel’s swift victory in the Six-Day War of 1967 created fissures within the New Left that still have not healed. Harsh critics, including many of the movement’s Jewish intellectuals, accused Israel of waging a war of colonial aggression against the Palestinians. In contrast, Ralph Miliband supported Israel’s actions.

As the son of a professor, David’s growing years were peripatetic. At first, the family lived in Primrose Hill, a leafy area just north of London’s Regent’s Park, famous today as home to movie stars and models, but then a colony of left-leaning professors and writers. They moved when Ralph left LSE to teach in the northern English city of Leeds and later at Boston’s Brandeis University, returning to Britain for David’s high school years. As a result, the future foreign secretary became a fan of both the British soccer team Arsenal and of a certain American baseball team. As Miliband once put it, “If you lived in Boston, you, of course, support the Boston Red Sox.”

David’s  childhood was steeped in values of equality and justice and his father’s frustration with Britain’s political system. As a young man, his commitment to those values led to a break with his father’s world view and toward an embrace of Labour Party politics. After a first class degree from Oxford in politics, philosophy and economics followed by a master’s at MIT in Boston, Miliband gained notice as a policy analyst at the Institute for Public Policy Research, a think-tank with close ties to Labour. It was the early 1990s and the party had just lost its fourth election in a row to the Conservatives. Every speck of policy and ideology was up for re-examination.

In 1994, Miliband co-edited a volume of essays called Paying for Inequality: The Economic Cost of Social Injustice. With enough charts and statistics to beat the most ardent free-marketer into submission, the book took on the economic orthodoxy of the Thatcher-Reagan era. “Our purpose,” wrote Miliband, “is to show that the economic justification for current levels of inequality is spurious.” The book was notable for what it was not: It was not a shrieking, rhetorical screed against the widening gap between rich and poor in Conservative Britain but rather a measured and sober analysis of the economic cost of that gap to British society. Miliband called for the redistribution of wealth not because he wanted a revolution, but because it would tap the economic potential of those who had been excluded and reduce costs in the long run.

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