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Shakespeare in Government

Shakespeare in Government

By Nate Barksdale

Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (L) greets his brother David onstage during the Labour Party conference in Manchester, northern England September 27, 2010. Strong trade union support helped Ed Miliband, a 40-year-old former cabinet minister, beat his older brother David by a whisker in a dramatic Labour Party leadership election on Saturday.
SourceDavid Moir/Reuters


One brother is the leader of Britain’s shadow government; the other, resigned to shadowing his brother from political exile on the other side of the Atlantic. But which brother will lead the Labour Party out of the wilderness?

By Nate Barksdale

When brothers vie for the same prize, the metaphors just about write themselves: Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Romulus and Remus, Prospero and Antonio, Peyton and Eli. Such was, is and ever shall be the case for Ed and David Miliband, who were — until 2010 — the twin leading lights of the Labour Party, heirs apparent to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. They served together on Brown’s last cabinet, but David, the older brother, outshone the younger until 2010, when Ed challenged and beat his brother in Labour’s leadership election. 

End of story? Don’t bet on it. Because while it’s tempting to read more bloodlust and betrayal into the sibling rivalry than likely exists, the natural order of things has been disrupted by the younger Miliband’s ascent to power, and it’s quite possible that we are watching the curtain rise on a Shakespearean drama that’s still to be played out on Britain’s political stage.

If Labour manages a resurgence in the next general election, Ed would become the leader of America’s closest global ally — and the first British prime minister of Jewish origin since Benjamin Disraeli left office in 1880. David, meanwhile, decided that the shadow government could not accommodate two Milibands. Citing a need to end the “soap opera” and “psychodrama” generated by the media’s coverage of the rivalry, the elder Miliband stepped aside and — as of March — left the sceptered isle to decamp for New York and a plum position leading the International Rescue Committee, a prominent refugee aid group.

It’s quite possible that we are watching the curtain rise on a Shakespearean drama that’s still to be played out on Britain’s political stage.

Paging back, the Miliband family story begins with a pair of international rescues: Their parents, Jews of Polish origin, barely escaped the Holocaust and found refuge and a new life in postwar England. Their father, Ralph, who caught the last ship to Dover from Belgium in 1940, changed his name from Adolphe and became a leading Marxist scholar in his adopted home. Both brothers graduated from Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and found their way into the Labour Party. And whereas in America, it would be a challenge to get elected dogcatcher as an atheist and the son of a prominent Marxist, both Miliband boys rose quickly through the party ranks.

David looking towards left as spotlight is on him.

Manchester, Greater Manchester, England, UK — Ed Miliband waits to take to the stage after being announced as Britain’s Labour Party leader during their conference in Manchester, England September 25, 2010.

Source David Moir/Reuters

In 1994, the 29-year-old David became Tony Blair’s head of policy and helped write the manifesto that brought Labour, and Blair, to power in 1997. Nicknamed “Brains” by Blairite spin doctor Alastair Campbell for his mastery of policy detail, David was for years the golden boy of the party. Tall, lanky and with closely cropped hair, David was first elected to Parliament in 2001 and entered the Blair cabinet in 2005 before he turned 40.

Ed, who concedes he resembles Wallace from Wallace and Gromit, joined the Labour fold in 1993 as a speechwriter for the shadow treasury secretary, and was elected to Parliament in 2005 after stints as a journalist, special adviser to Gordon Brown and visiting scholar at Harvard.

The dog may have taken himself out of the fight, but many doubt that the political fight has been taken out of this particularly ambitious dog.

When Gordon Brown took the reins from a departing Tony Blair in 2007, he made David his foreign secretary and, in 2008, tapped Ed for the new office of secretary of state for energy and climate change — creating the first brothers-in-cabinet duo since 1938.

The Blair-Brown era ended with the 2010 general election, when Labour lost in a three-way race that put a coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, led by current PM David Cameron, into power. With the defeat, Gordon Brown announced he was stepping down as Labour’s leader. The following day, David Miliband stood outside Parliament and announced his intention to run for Labour’s leadership slot. Within days, Ed had announced that he, too, would vie for the top spot, challenging his brother’s centrist instincts with a more left-wing vision for Labour.

Tony Blair in in red tie and jacket and David in shirt and red tie looking at each other talking.

London, England, UK — Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair and Environment Minister David Miliband speak during a meeting to outline the government’s blueprint for tackling climate change in London March 13, 2007.

Source Alessia Pierdomenico/Reuters/Corbis

In the September 2010 Labour vote, David had conventional wisdom and the endorsements of a greater number of his colleagues on his side, but in the end, via a complex voting process, it was Ed who took the prize. Twelve days after his brother’s victory, David stepped down as shadow foreign secretary, remaining a modest if overscrutinized MP until the International Rescue Committee came knocking this year.

Even though his wife, a violinist named Louise Shackelton, is American and he earned a master’s degree from MIT in 1989, David’s move to America has attracted a new round of scrutiny regarding his intentions. Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland noted that rather than abandoning his brother and Labour, “By leaving, the older Miliband has given the younger a coded vote of confidence.” True to form, the conservative Telegraph played it as the latest example of fraternal sniping and betrayal. The Economist, meanwhile, suggested that the elder Miliband was not so much going into exile as removing himself from the scrum of British politics while maintaining his ties to the party and his role as a close adviser to his brother and joining the ranks of the “helicopter grandees” — former Labour leaders like Blair who graduate to prominent positions outside of politics.

But unlike other “grandees,” David’s exile is entirely voluntary and comes at a relatively early juncture in his political career. And though the dog may have taken himself out of the fight for the moment, many doubt that the political fight has been taken out of this particularly ambitious dog.

In 1994 at age 29, David became Tony Blair’s head of policy. Nicknamed “Brains” for his mastery of policy detail, David was for years the golden boy of the party.

Moreover, by choosing a perch outside of the House of Commons and on the other side of the Atlantic, David may be positioning his helicopter for a future parachuting back into power. If Ed and Labour eventually fall, David will likely be untainted by the failure and emerge as a credible leadership alternative, particularly given the fact that many in the party still consider him the rightful heir apparent.

Left profile, up close of David Miliband

IRC President and CEO David Miliband in New York, Nov. 6, 2013

Source Andrew Kelly/Reuters/Corbis

It remains to be seen, of course, whether Labour will win a national election under Ed Miliband’s leadership. In Ed’s first speech as Labour leader, he struck an Obama-esque tone, responding to the party’s electoral setbacks by proclaiming a new generation of optimism. In parliamentary debates, he’s often a stoic and straitlaced presence, in contrast to many of his colleagues, not least the finger-jabbing David Cameron.

In the end, no one can write the fable of the brothers Miliband — their story can’t be molded to fit anyone’s plotline but their own. And given the way so many tales of feuding families work out, that’s probably good news for all parties, not least Labour. But for the time being, if you happen to be on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, bear in mind that that nice British chap on his way to Central Park with his two boys or waiting next to you in line at the corner store might very well be Britain’s next Labour prime minister.

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