Something shifting in political climate

By Martin Bright, October 4, 2012

Could Ed Miliband be the first Jewish prime minister since Benjamin Disraeli? He certainly improved his chances with this year’s party conference speech in which he invoked the spirit of the father of One Nation Toryism.

In doing so, the Labour leader also reminded people of how much has changed since the Victorian era, when the Disraeli family felt it necessary to convert to Anglicanism in order to find acceptance in the upper reaches of the British establishment.

Mr Miliband’s speech raised a second important question: has there ever been a better time to be a Jewish politician? In his Manchester speech, Ed Miliband chose, once again, to talk about his background as the son of Jewish immigrants, something he has not always been comfortable to do.

He and his brother, who must surely be ready to return to the Shadow Cabinet some time soon, now dominate thinking about the future of the Labour Party. It is not too much of a stretch to trace their political curiosity back to the East European intellectual tradition of their parents.

On the other side of the house, as he explains in his JC interview today, Grant Shapps owes much to his background in the Jewish youth movement BBYO.

At the same time, he claims to be so at ease with his identity that he describes himself as a “Brit who happens to be Jewish.”

The Jewish community has played a prominent role in British politics since Lionel de Rothschild became the first practising Jew to enter parliament in 1858.

Since the time of Margaret Thatcher, who said she simply didn’t understand antisemitism, Jews have been welcome at the highest levels in the Conservative Party. But the relationship has not always been a comfortable one. An elderly Harold Macmillan joked that there were more “Old Estonians than Old Etonians” in Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet.

As Jonathan Freedland has pointed out, Michael Howard was never entirely accepted as a pukka English gentleman in some right-wing circles. There is no doubt some of the language used about Mr Howard were borderline antisemitic and the same is true of Labour’s “Prince of Darkness” Peter Mandelson.

Last year’s furore in Westminster over the supposed “dual loyalty” of Matthew Gould, the UK’s first Jewish ambassador to Israel, shows that the battle is far from over.

But something is shifting.

Whether it is the likes of the Milibands or Grant Shapps at the top of the political ladder, respected committee chairs such as Louise Ellman or rising stars Luciana Berger and Robert Halfon, it is certainly now possible to be a politician who happens to be Jewish.

Last updated: 3:03pm, October 4 2012