Q&A

The Labour MP turned char­ity chief on his new book, the on­go­ing hor­rors of the refugee cri­sis and his brother’s pod­cast

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David Miliband

David Miliband is pres­i­dent and CEO of the In­ter­na­tional Res­cue Com­mit­tee, the US-based global re­lief or­gan­i­sa­tion he joined in 2013, fol­low­ing his res­ig­na­tion as the Labour MP for South Shields. Miliband, a for­mer en­vi­ron­ment sec­re­tary and for­eign sec­re­tary, had hoped to lead the Labour party but in 2010, his brother, Ed, beat him in the lead­er­ship elec­tion. He lives in New York with his wife and two sons, and has just pub­lished a book

Res­cue: Refugees and the Po­lit­i­cal Cri­sis of Our Time

. It be­gins with a brief ac­count of the sto­ries of his par­ents, who came to Bri­tain as refugees from Nazi Europe.

You’re in Jor­dan, visit­ing Syr­ian refugees. What’s your view of the on­go­ing sit­u­a­tion there?

The best tes­ti­mony is not from me, but from the peo­ple I’ve talked to. A lot of them come from Daraa, where civil war started. Their rel­a­tives tell them it’s still dan­ger­ous, and that they can’t go back. What struck me as I went over the maps with our an­a­lysts is that the ar­eas of the coun­try where the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment is not in con­trol are sub­stan­tial. Our mes­sage is that the war is still go­ing on. I know it’s be­ing writ­ten up in the western me­dia that it’s over and that As­sad has won. But a va­ri­ety of fac­tions con­tinue to gov­ern Syria and to with­stand the gov­ern­ment. The prospects for civil­ians are bleak.

Your book bulges with statis­tics about the refugee cri­sis. If you could pick just one, what would it be and why?

It would be that the av­er­age du­ra­tion of dis­place­ment for a refugee is 10 years, and that once some­one has been out­side their own coun­try for five years, that fig­ure rises to 21 years. This de­mands a com­plete change in the hu­man­i­tar­ian sys­tem. We have to re­cal­i­brate our vi­sion: aid in the 21st cen­tury is about help­ing peo­ple to thrive as well as sur­vive. This means pro­vid­ing ed­u­ca­tion and em­ploy­ment, as well as food aid.

In your book, you’re straight­for­ward about the Iraq war and your re­gret at hav­ing sup­ported it.

Yes. I’ve said many times that I re­gret Iraq, but it’s good to put it there for peo­ple who have an im­age of me as this un­bend­ing per­son. It’s im­por­tant to front up where you think you made mis­takes and in an un­var­nished way. But I try to make the point that one should do so with­out get­ting into this re­vi­sion­ist his­tory that says every­thing Labour did was bad. The fail­ure of Labour peo­ple to de­fend their own gov­ern­ments hands power to the Tories.

You say that liv­ing in New York lends per­spec­tive to events in the UK. How do you see the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion?

My analysis is that this is a na­tional cri­sis. There is an as­pect of na­tional hu­mil­i­a­tion associated with what is go­ing on. The trig­ger­ing of ar­ti­cle 50 was so mon­strously pre­ma­ture. We’re sit­ting on a grenade with the pin pulled out. I don’t see any rain­bow at the end of this. The truth is that the EU is a civil­is­ing force in in­ter­na­tional life. Jac­ques Delors’s great achieve­ment was to make sure that the only kind of Europe was a so­cial Europe. That’s why I’m in­creas­ingly clear that the only kind of Brexit is a hard Brexit. What Brexit means is cre­at­ing di­ver­gence from Euro­pean stan­dards. That process can only be hard, and it will be most painful for many of the peo­ple I used to rep­re­sent.

What do you make, then, of the fact that so many sup­pos­edly pro-Re­main Labour MPs are de­ter­mined now to re­spect the “will of the peo­ple”?

It’s a very Bri­tish thing to think that if you or­der a meal and then don’t like the look of it, you’ve got to eat it. I’ve lived in New York for four years and, frankly, if you or­der a meal here and it looks a bit ran­cid, you send it back. You don’t grit your teeth and poke at it with your knife and fork. New in­for­ma­tion is com­ing to light about Brexit ev­ery week, from lorry queues in Dover to peace in North­ern Ire­land. We can­not close our eyes to that.

You re­cently ac­com­pa­nied your mother, Mar­ion, to Hail­fin­gen in Ger­many, to the site of a con­cen­tra­tion camp where her fa­ther, David Kozak, died in 1945. What are your feel­ings about that ex­pe­ri­ence?

It made me feel lucky. I wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t been for the ex­tra­or­di­nary hero­ism on the part of the peo­ple who saved my mother [dur­ing the war, a War­saw fam­ily took her in]. The kind­ness of strangers is one of the themes of the book, and it couldn’t be more graph­i­cally il­lus­trated by my mother’s story. I felt hum­bled, ob­vi­ously. I felt the pas­sage of time. I felt real ad­mi­ra­tion for the Ger­mans who are de­ter­mined to find out the truth [David Kozak’s fate only came to light this year, thanks

to re­search by a Ger­man his­tor­i­cal so­ci­ety]. The truth doesn’t re­pair the past, but it can lib­er­ate it. It doesn’t pro­vide atone­ment, but a foun­da­tion on which to move for­wards.

Is an­ti­semitism on the rise?

The truth is, I don’t know [about the UK]. But one should pro­ceed on the ba­sis that there’s no room for com­pla­cency. It’s a ter­ri­fy­ing thought that 70 years af­ter the sec­ond world war it should be present at all, never mind in­creas­ing.

Is your plan one day to re­turn to Bri­tish pol­i­tics?

I don’t know what I’m go­ing to do next! Maybe I need ca­reer coun­selling. I do know that pro­fes­sional ful­fil­ment for me means do­ing things that make a dif­fer­ence.

How are things with Ed? Do you lis­ten to his new pod­cast? It’s quite good.

I’m glad his pod­cast is good. He told me he was do­ing one. Look, we’ve al­ways been brothers, and we made a res­o­lu­tion never to say any­thing in

pub­lic that would un­der­mine that. I last chat­ted to him in Ger­many two or three weeks ago.

This con­ver­sa­tion has been rather se­ri­ous. What was the last un­bri­dled thing you did?

[Thinks for ages] In the sum­mer, we de­cided to go off grid in Yosemite. Not just off the in­ter­net, but elec­tric­ity, too. We had an RV [an Amer­i­can mo­torhome]. Ha! Now I can hear sur­prise in your voice.

Did you see any bears?

We saw a fam­ily of bears, ac­tu­ally, though they were quite small ones. But we didn’t talk to them. I mean, I didn’t try to get them to join the IRC or make a do­na­tion, or any­thing.

In­ter­view by Rachel Cooke

Res­cue by David Miliband is pub­lished by Si­mon & Schus­ter (£8.99). To or­der a copy for £7.64 go to guardian­book­shop. com or call 0330 333 6846. Guardian Live event: David Miliband in con­ver­sa­tion, 19 Novem­ber, 5-6.30pm, Em­manuel Cen­tre, Lon­don SW1 (£20)

‘It’s a very Bri­tish thing to think, if you or­der a meal then don’t like the look of it, you’ve got to eat it’

David Mitchell

Pho­to­graph by Christo­pher Lane for the Ob­server

David Miliband in the In­ter­na­tional Res­cue Com­mit­tee’s New York HQ.

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