Similar fathers, different views

Years ago, when Roy Hattersley published a book arguing in favour of equality of result rather than of opportunity, I remember remarking that, in which case, we would all have, like him, to aspire to be leader of the Labour Party. In fact, seeking that office would become compulsory.

At Labour's party conference, I found I was well on the way. Ed Miliband told the story of his background and I realised that, give or take a few minor details, what he was describing was, essentially, me. Labour is led by a Hampstead-educated North-West London Jewish son of a refugee professor. And so is the Finkelstein household in Pinner (actually, I am more the deputy leader of that).

I have been fortunate that my mother has been willing to talk more freely about her own experience in Belsen and the death of her mother, while Mr Miliband's parents found it, as very many do, more difficult to talk. But I associate strongly with some of the lessons he feels he has learned from his parents' experience, and very much respect his decision to speak publicly about it.

I share his view that being the son of refugees increases the value one places on the freedom and tolerance of the British. It also makes it harder to regard politics as something other people do, with no impact on one's own life. But in two respects I do depart from Mr Miliband. The first is an obvious one and comes down to our fathers. Ed's father, Ralph, was a distinguished academic and an influential thinker and sounds as if he was an engaging and humane man. But he was also a Marxist, I am sure largely influenced by having to flee from the Nazis.

My father, Ludwik, was a refugee from the Marxists, having been deported to the Siberian wastelands when his father was imprisoned in a Soviet labour camp. Naturally, this led us to talk more often of the similarities between Marxism and Nazism, rather than of the differences. It also led me, I think, to have more respect for "small c" English conservatism than Mr Miliband does. I am more cautious than he about sweeping projects and new theories.

Occasionally, when speaking to him over the years (which is generally a pleasure as he is very personable), his brow furrows as he struggles with the very idea that someone can actually vote Conservative. This, too, he gets from his background and I do not.

I am sure that one of the main political differences I have with him - on the value and nature of capitalism - comes from my view that there is a link between British market liberalism and political liberalism, a link which, perhaps, his background leads him less readily to appreciate. I think shopping is a mundane pleasure, while he thinks it is "consumerism".

The other divergence concerns Israel. In a New Statesman article, Mr Miliband claimed that his background does not complicate his view of the Jewish state. I can't see how that can really be. It certainly does in my case.

When, in his early 20s, as he writes in that article, the future Labour leader visited his old family home in Czestochowa, a Pole shouted "it's the Jews, come to claim their property". This precise attitude was the one that stimulated world opinion to agree to the formation of Israel. It was obvious that the Jews could not peaceably go home after the war. They had to go somewhere else.

One might, I suppose, take a universalist view and suggest that a nation state for the Jews was not the right answer. Or take my own view - that the direct experience of my own family dictates that the creation of Israel was essential. Whichever way, one can't talk about one's background and say that it doesn't complicate things. It just does.

Daniel Finkelstein is executive editor of 'The Times'

Last updated: 11:45am, October 22 2012