Ring, ring goes the telephone every minute God sends. Sometimes I pick it up and say hello, sometimes I don’t. I know who is calling, anyway. It is one or another media representative from the bien-pensant absolutist liberal left, and they are all in a dither about a man called Ralph Miliband, of whom they had probably never heard until a few hours ago, and whom they have most certainly not read. Their sense of excitement, these youngish callers from a multiplicity of BBC news stations and, of course, Channel 4 News, is palpable; it fizzes and crackles down the line, their outrage and their delight at possibly finding someone who might add to their outrage, perhaps cube their outrage. Unless it’s just the jackdaws hacking away at the telephone lines again. It could be that.
The phone only ever rings like that when I’ve made a transgression against the sensibilities of these relentlessly busy people by saying something with which they disagree. Then all hell is let loose and my wife wanders into my room with a terribly weary expression on her face and says, ‘Why can’t you just keep your bloody mouth shut for once, you imbecile?’ and slams the door. Quite often the provisional wing of the bien-pensants gets involved, the Press Complaints Commission. But only when it’s the liberals who have been transgressed.
The odd thing is, it never, ever happens when I have a go at the right, no matter how recklessly, personally or unpleasantly. Sometimes when I’ve been spiteful about the crop of smug and inept public-school boys who currently run this country, I sort of hope that the phone will start its incessant ringing, because it would make a nice change. But it never does. I could write an article insisting that David Cameron was created from the frozen semen of Adolf Hitler by Soviet scientists and that he enjoyed nightly intercourse with feral goats — and the Beeb and Channel 4 wouldn’t give a monkey’s. ‘He’s probably right,’ they’d all be saying to themselves, ‘for once.’ There would be no calls for sackings, or prosecutions. The Guardian Comment is Free website would be utterly uninterested.
The problem on this occasion was a blog I had written for The Spectator agreeing, in a small part, with an article written by the Daily Mail’s Geoffrey Levy about the sociologist and, uh, activist, Ralph Miliband — father of the Labour leader Ed, of course. As it happens, I don’t think it was a particular brilliant article — as I said in the blog, I thought Levy’s hatchet was constructed from thinnish gruel, to coin a somewhat confusing metaphor. I don’t think the comments of a very young Ralph Miliband about Britain being full of horrible gung-ho nationalists should define the man forever as a hater of the country which took him in, as an émigré from Belgium, all those years ago. Nor do I think that Ed’s politics owe very much to his father’s view of the world, which, like that of most mid-20th century Marxist academics, was Manichean and corrupt. Further, if the Levy article was a smear, an attempt to sway voters away from Labour, I don’t think for a second that it will have worked; if anything, Ed’s stoic defence of his father might have swung a few votes his way.
But Ralphy? Not good, really not good. A competent writer (for a sociologist, at least — certainly a lot better than his mate C. Wright Mills), but possessed of views which wished to see the overthrow of the British state. A view steeped in a sort of intellectual, distanced, hatred; effete and pointless and hugely damaging to the Labour party, of which Ralph Miliband was a member for most of his later life. (To his credit, he never quite signed up to the Communist party.)
My real objection is the way in which these British-based Marxist academics are still revered, still taken seriously, despite having been proved wrong about almost everything. It is true that Ralph Miliband was markedly less of a poisonous influence than the ghastly Eric Hobsbawm, or the gentle and deluded E.P. Thompson, or Raymond Williams, or Stuart Hall or John Berger. Universities are just about the only place in the western world where you will find people who sign up to the dull, Victorian, mechanistic plodding of Karl Marx; somehow both Marx and his disciples have a sort of tenure in the soft social sciences, the faux disciplines of sociology and lit crit and meeja studies, and of course any module with the word ‘ethnic’ or ‘cultural’ in its heading. It is a form of radical chic dilettantism, laughable today (ever since Malcolm Bradbury created Howard Kirk in The History Man), but dangerous in the scary postwar years when the Communist party controlled several major unions and still posed threats both existential and via the ballot box.
And I repeat the charge. If George Osborne’s dad was as far to the right as Ralph Miliband was to the left, and this fact was reported (having read interviews with Osborne’s father, this might not be far from the truth), nobody would howl in anger that this was a smear, would they? The BBC and Channel 4 News would, instead, leap in and kick the living daylights out of Osborne Sr and think themselves entirely justified in so doing. Ralph Miliband may have been a lovely dad, but he was a damaging and unjustly revered influence. It should not be a crime to say as much.