David Miliband: Red to green in a generation

By Bernard Josephs, December 22, 2006
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From his Marxist-Jewish background, David Miliband has emerged as a passionate advocate for action against climate change. We meet the Environment Secretary, one of Labour's rising stars.


Relaxed and confident, New Labour icon David Miliband's appearance is in sharp contrast to the scary message he delivers about the state of the world. Shirt-sleeved and displaying what one commentator has called an American-sized smile, the Environment Secretary - nine months into the job - resides on the front line of a battle for the future of the globe, and he pulls no punches.

The struggle to bring to a halt to the impending global disaster is not just something we must do for future generations, he warns. It is in the here and now. "For the past 150 years we have pumped carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as if it had no environmental or economic cost. Now it is coming back to haunt us."

His overriding concern, he says, is that the scientific evidence for global warming is mounting so quickly that it is outpacing the notaltogether- convincing efforts of governments to deal with it. "It is far more urgent than most people realise. It is something that I will face in my lifetime, and not just something my grandchildren will have to cope with. When I came into this job, I didn't fully realise the urgency. But this is today's problem, not tomorrow's. It is a threat that is man-made and it is up to man to stop it. The science is more and more unambiguous that we face an unprecedented challenge to our way of life. If we carry on as we are, we are going to see not just dangerous but catastrophic changes."

Mr Miliband, 41, the eldest son of the late prominent Marxist theoretician Ralph Miliband, a Belgian-Jewish refugee from the Nazis, and Polish-born Marion Kozak, also a socialist and supporter of a number of leftist Jewish groups, believes that his family's experience of dramatic change has strongly influenced his personality. As a key supporter of Tony Blair and head of the Downing Street policy unit prior to his election to Parliament in 2001, he is far from being a Marxist, but he respects his parents' values. The same goes for his brother Ed, MP for Doncaster North and parliamentary secretary to the Cabinet Office, a former senior adviser to Gordon Brown and also part of Labour's rising generation.

"I grew up in a household that had a certain set of beliefs," Mr Miliband recalls. "My father was 21 in 1945 and my mother was 21 in the 1950s. I was 21 in 1986. My parents saw the rise of fascism and  communism. I saw London and Oxford and that is the huge privilege of being brought up when I did. One applies one's values but in a different context." His Jewish background he tells the JC, is important if not Orthodox.

"Being Jewish must have an influence on the way I think. I am the child of Jewish immigrants and that is a very important part of my identity. It would be wrong to pretend that I was brought up as part of the heart of Anglo-Jewry, but if you ask, do the community's values speak to me? Yes they do. My commitment to equality, social justice, freedom of expression and solidarity must in so many ways reflect my origins. If you try to analyse where I stand politically, it would be very hard to explain that without reference to my roots."

Mr Miliband nailed his political colours to the mast when earlier this month he delivered a speech to the Fabian Society describing the future of the Labour Party as both "red" and "green". It was seen as a riposte to David Cameron's "Blue and Green" agenda. But Mr Miliband clearly sees global warming as an issue more important than political point-scoring. To describe global warming as a purely environmental issue "is wrong," he explains.

"It is also an economic issue, a social issue and a security issue.  Just think of the conflicts over water supplies." Combating global warming is essentially an international rather than a one-nation undertaking, he reflects, pointing to the crises in Darfur and the Middle East. "Just think of the problems over migration and the political issues that could arise out of such situations. To bracket climate change into the environmental box does not do us any favours. The Middle East, for instance, would be a very different place if oil wasn't so important to western economies."

The political will to find answers is present in Britain, he believes, with the Prime Minister, the Treasury and the Foreign Office (not to mention the Opposition) all pushing global warming towards the top of the agenda. But internationally, there are big problems.

"We have had two responses from industry. One is that it understands that what we say is right. The other is sceptical because some industrialists don't believe that other countries will engage in the fight, or they don't believe that we will regulate change effectively. "Around the world there is also a huge level of distrust between industrialised and industrialising countries. You will never get the Indians and Chinese to be part of the solution if it is at the price of their continuing poverty. And the fact that America has not signed up to the Kyoto treaty on global warming is very important."

However, Mr Miliband points out that, in an important step, eight states and 300 American cities had independently signed up to the treaty. The Secretary of State insists that individuals as well as nations have a part to play. At his Primrose Hill, North-West London home, he has installed low-energy lightbulbs and signed up to an electricity company that sells energy only from renewable sources. His ministerial car is a hybrid model which can run on both petrol and electricity, and he travels to his constituency by train. Individual decisions on household energy, travel and food account for 44 per cent of all emissions, he says, "so if a million people change their light bulbs to low-energy bulbs, or walk rather than drive their children to school, it may not seem as if we are going to save the planet that way but it is like 100,000 people taking their cars off the road for a year."

Returning to his Jewish immigrant roots, Mr Miliband, MP for South Shields, points to the strange turn of events that indirectly led to him being appointed to one of the weightiest jobs in government. After the war, his  grandfather, Samuel, and his father, Ralph, who had spent the war in the UK, travelled to Belgium to find (successfully) his grandmother and her daughter.

However, J Chuter Ede, then also MP for South Shields and Home Secretary, ruled against their application to return to Britain. This decision was finally overturned, but, says Mr Miliband, like many sons of Jewish immigrants, "if it had not been for that, I certainly would not be doing what I am doing now. And the fact that we both represented South Shields is, to say the least, amazing."

His rapid rise to prominence since his election to Parliament in 2001 has resulted in speculation that he is a potential future Prime Minister. It is a notion he dismisses. "I haven't got my career plans written on the back of an envelope like Michael Heseltine did. I don't wake up in the morning and think, how can I do another job better? I think how can I do my present job better. It is of course flattering, but I don't take the speculation seriously."

    Last updated: 10:38am, September 26 2010