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From the file

The Backstory | A series of in-depth conversations with people who have the power to shape events

Episode 9: David Miliband

Episode 9: David Miliband

Andrew Neil talks to the former foreign secretary and president of the International Rescue Committee about the Labour Party and Keir Starmer, the war in Ukraine and the UK government’s Rwanda policy.


Andrew Neil, narrating: Hello I’m Andrew Neil and this is The Backstory. A series of in-depth interviews with people who have the power to shape events, and to influence our understanding of them. 

In this episode I’m joined by a former foreign secretary who stood against his brother for the Labour leadership and lost.

Since leaving politics in 2013, David Miliband has been president and chief executive of the International Rescue Committee – a global aid charity that provides assistance to refugees and displaced people.

I spoke to him in New York, where he now lives, and as you’ll hear he does still have one eye on politics back home. 

We also talk about the war in Ukraine, the ensuing refugee crisis and the British government’s policy of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda.

This is The Backstory from Tortoise.

Andrew Neil: David Miliband, the invasion of Ukraine has produced a massive refugee crisis, the UN estimates almost seven million have fled, mainly to European Union countries. How do you rate the EU’s response?

David Miliband: I rate the EU’s response pretty highly and the best explanation for that is that I should quibble with the use of the word crisis because it’s undoubtedly the case than when five million people were chased out of Syria, it produced a crisis in Jordan and Lebanon; when a million people where chased out of Myanmar it created a crisis in Bangladesh but the remarkable thing about this extraordinary exodus of, as you say, seven million people from Ukraine, just to give your listeners a bit of context – it took about a year I think for the first million people to leave Syria and it took a few weeks for the first million people to leave Ukraine. Now, the interesting thing is that seven million people have left, they’ve gone to … six or seven million people have left, they’ve gone to Europe and it hasn’t produced a crisis in Europe and the reason I think is two or three-fold.  

First, on the first weekend the European Union didn’t stick its head in the sand. It decided alongside the military measures and the economic measures, it said right, three years residency, three years’ work permits, three years education for kids, three years welfare benefits for adults for all Ukrainians, boom, temporary protected status. Secondly, Europe’s the world’s largest, richest single market, it had the resources to absorb them and then thirdly, and interestingly, in an organic way, not controlled from Brussels, you found local government, the private sector and individual Poles, Hungarians, Romanians, coming together to try to absorb this extraordinary influx of people so it’s not a crisis and by that standard, you’ve got to say the European Union so far, the European Union countries aided and abetted by money and organisation and joint commitment across the EU, have handled it pretty well. 

Andrew Neil: But it has hit different countries disproportionately, above all Poland, where four million of the seven million have gone there, for geographic reasons obviously must be to the forefront, but it has propelled Poland, in terms of the number of refugees it had, wasn’t even in the top hundred countries in the world and it has now got the second most refugees of any country in the world by some calculations. Is the EU doing enough, because it wasn’t that long ago that Brussels was talking about penalising Poland? 

David Miliband: Well, Poland was extremely leery, to put it mildly, of receiving any Syrian refugees, Afghan refugees and we may come back to that because we may want to discuss the fact that these are white Christian refugees, they are not non-white Muslim refugees. 

Andrew Neil: Often thought to be temporary as well, they’ll go back.  

David Miliband: Well, a lot of family links, although that would be true between Syria and Lebanon as well but let’s just go to your point about Poland. First of all, quite a lot of people have gone back already and maybe even one and a half or two million have gone back.

Andrew Neil: Because the West is relatively safe.

David Miliband: The West and centre, we – the International Rescue Committee – are in this interesting place, we work across the arc of crisis, from the war zone to the refugee resettlement and so we’re in Ukraine, we’re quite far east actually, I won’t go into where into where but we are quite far east and we’re in Poland and we’re in Hungary etc, and we are counting people going backwards and forwards, some people going backwards, in other words going back into Ukraine. Now, the Polish population as you know is about 40 million so it’s pretty sizeable, 10%, up to 10% and I think that they have done really well although people in Poland are saying there is a great fear that when months become years, the strains of having someone living in your front room really become real and certainly, you can listen to the Mayor of Warsaw complaining vociferously that EU money might be going to Poland but it’s not going to him, but I think it has been a pretty robust response and there is one other important point about this. In 2015/16, the fact that Germany, and to a lesser extent, Sweden took such a disproportionate share of the Syrians mainly who arrived, caused resentment in Germany and Sweden. The fact that in this crisis, all 27 countries have signed up to the same rights for Ukrainian refugees, has taken away that sort of sense of victimhood that somehow … unfairness, the disproportional unfairness has been taken away. Now actually Germany has taken a lot, France less so but, as you say, it is the Eastern group, I am most worried about countries like Moldova, who are not in the EU obviously, the annual average income in Moldova is less than $4000 a year I think, it hasn’t got the infrastructure to hold that many people and it probably has 100,000 Ukrainians, but net-net is not a crisis and that’s remarkable given that we are speaking on the day that the UN has announced 89 million refugees and displaced people outside Ukraine, another 14 million if you include the internally displaced, taking the total number of refugees and internally displaced to over 100 million. It is fair to describe most of the other refugee situations as crises but it’s …

Andrew Neil: But not this one? 

David Miliband: Correct. 

Andrew Neil: Unlike the EU, the UK requires Ukrainian refugees to obtain a visa, is that really justified?

David Miliband: No, I’m really sad actually that the EU has said arrive and then we’ll sort out your paperwork; the UK has said we’ve got to sort out your paperwork and then we’ll decide whether or not you’re allowed to arrive and I think that’s been wrong and it’s made the UK a laggard. The UK has reasonable claim not to be a laggard, to be actually at the forefront of defence help, military help, etc, for the Ukrainian effort but it’s a laggard on the refugee front. There’s just one point, just in the spirit of conversation that this podcast is, we are talking a lot about rich countries and their responsibilities: its worth people knowing that 85% of the world’s refugees are in poor or low- and middle-income countries not in rich countries. 

Andrew Neil: There is no doubt that it’s been a deterrent, the British requirement. The Home Office, by the end of last month, the Home Office issued 115,00 visas of which only 61,000 had been taken, had actually been used to arrive in the country. 61,000 versus four million in Poland, it looks like we’re the second lowest on a per capita basis in Europe. So, if it was designed to be a deterrent, it has been a deterrent.

David Miliband: Well, I think the government deny that it was designed to be a deterrent and presumably the difference between the 61,000 and the 115,000 are people who are still in the system. You would expect that given the family links that you referred to, most people would want to stay close and they are also keeping their options open about going back. I mean the tragic thing is, you have got Ukrainians with British links, they have got British relatives or connections to the UK who are not being allowed in. As I say, the government deny that they are trying to deter and they have actually set a target of 100,000 which would still put us low per capita and we are very low per capital for other refugee and asylum arrivals. Only 1500 refugees were allowed in on the refugee resettlement route to the UK last year, that’s less than three per parliamentary constituencies, and so I think that the Ukrainian numbers I’m afraid are of a piece with our overall stance. 

Andrew Neil: Let me turn to another aspect of how Britain has been dealing with refugees and asylum seekers – the attempts to send them to Rwanda, everybody knows what that means. What’s your view of that policy?

David Miliband: Well, I’m afraid Britain is leading in the wrong way, it is leading a global race to the bottom on this because Britain isn’t outsourcing the processing of asylum claims, it is outsourcing the housing, in perpetuity for those who are successful, of refugees and that is something that I think is against Britain’s national interests but it is also against Britain’s legal obligations and I believe it sets a very bad example globally. I think Theresa May – and I don’t cite her as someone I agree with on many things but I think on this she described the Rwanda proposal as illegal, unethical, impractical and ineffective and I’m afraid that’s rather an appropriate litany for this … 

Andrew Neil: Two major courts in Britain says not.

David Miliband: So, I’m not going to argue … 

Andrew Neil: It may end up illegal but at the moment we have not had a British court saying it is.

David Miliband: No, that’s right. 

Andrew Neil: And the European court has only issued an injunction to allow it to be tested.

David Miliband: The European Court of Human Rights has done that. The argument, the lowest point of this I think is the following, Andrew, that unaccompanied children are not going to be put on flights so this policy is actually an incentive for every people smuggler to target the smuggling of unaccompanied children because it can say to them, if we get you into the UK, you’re not going to get sent to Rwanda, so I’m afraid that …

Andrew Neil: It is much harder to get paid for unaccompanied children of course and these smugglers want big money.

David Miliband: They do but there are a lot of parents who are absolutely desperate and if you look at where they’re coming from, they’re coming from places where they do have a well-founded fear of persecution, which is the test of refugee status – 70,80, 90% of the test cases are being granted the right to stay in Britain under the international asylum rules. 

Andrew Neil: Well, the government would say they are coming from France.   

David Miliband: Well, they are coming originally … their country of origin is not France. I don’t know if I am allowed to mention the omerta on the B word. Until we left the European Union, if they had previously registered for asylum in France, they could have been sent back to France under the so-called Dublin Convention and that has not been replaced, despite the fact that we’re six years on from the Brexit referendum.

Andrew Neil: The policy is popular, if we are to believe the polls, and is one of these issues that causes Labour some difficulty. How would you advise Labour to handle it? 

David Miliband: I think Labour should oppose it. I think it is opposing it actually, to be fair, and they should say that this refugee challenge is manageable, not unmanageable and the choice that countries like Britain face, and other European countries face, is either the flow of asylum seekers will be unmanaged, unregulated, illegal and dangerous or it will be managed, coordinated, legal. You either manage this or you fail to manage it, it’s not whether or not people seek to come.

Andrew Neil: When you look at the scale of the problem and the likelihood it will get worse long before it gets better, isn’t there a danger the whole system is going to be overwhelmed and that in the Western world or in other rich countries around the world, there will be a reaction which will just be, we’ve had enough of this? The numbers are too great for us to deal with. 

David Miliband: You are absolutely right. The great danger is that the scale of the problem produces two reactions. One, it dehumanises the people who we’re serving.

Andrew Neil: Because it’s just numbers. 

David Miliband: Just numbers and so we lose the sense of tragedy but secondly, people decide it’s unmanageable not manageable. My argument has to be, first of all most of these people are in poor countries, not in rich countries so let’s not kid ourselves in the richer parts of the world that we’re being overwhelmed. Secondly, if we don’t treat this problem, address this humanitarian need at source, then it will become our problem, either directly or indirectly and so I think it is very short sighted for the West to be in retreat from big global problems, which it has been for the last decade really and I think that’s misjudged. Now, we can argue about whether it is popular or unpopular, certainly this country, America, which we’re sitting in, is finding it very difficult to exercise global leadership at the moment because it is so preoccupied with its own internal problems but when the West is absent, when there’s a vacuum, really bad things happen. 

Andrew Neil: Let me move on. As a former Foreign Secretary, let me return to Ukraine. This war could well drag on for many more months, if not years; will the West stand by Ukraine if it does?  

David Miliband: Well, the fact that we both hesitate to answer that shows you it is a very real danger that it doesn’t. My own instinct is it will, the West will stay and I say that first of all because this tragedy has been humanised. That visceral sense of seeing people who yesterday were a teacher, a physical trainer, an accountant and the fact that the next day, February 23rd they were a physical trainer, an accountant, a teacher and February 24th they are a refugee. You could look at them and say, well it could be me, so it’s a humanised crisis. Secondly, I think the Biden administration deserves credit; there has been genuine transatlantic cooperation and unity on this which I think is important, where there wasn’t… 

Andrew Neil: It’s helped to bring the Atlantic alliance …. 

David Miliband: There wasn’t on Afghanistan. Thirdly, Europe can feel the threat that if this campaign, if the invasion succeeds then if you are in the Baltics you’re scared and I don’t know if you saw this but President Biden has been arguing a lot that this is a conflict between democracy and autocracy which … 

Andrew Neil: You don’t like that, do you?

David Miliband: Well, I obviously prefer democracy to autocracy but I don’t think that’s the right framing. I think the framing is this is about rule of law versus impunity and remember, in the UN General Assembly, 50 or so countries refused to condemn the Russian invasion even though it was a flagrant abuse of international law, representing 60% of the world’s population and that should give us pause that the framing of this as democracy versus autocracy doesn’t win the … 

Andrew Neil: But isn’t it the same thing? Rule of law is the bedrock of democracy, rule as law as far as autocrats, they just brush over and make their own laws.  

David Miliband: I would say democracy is a very advanced form of accountability and we face a world at the moment that is riven by impunity and the pushback against impunity needs to come from democracy but from other sources as well, but I don’t want to lose my thread that President Biden has made this a democracy versus autocracy argument but he wrote an important and I thought good piece where he framed this much more as who’s next if this succeeds? And he said that we have a responsibility to stand up against this aggression because if you don’t stand up against the invasion of one state by another then it’s anarchy and so your question was ‘Will the West stick with it?’ and I think for those four reasons, it will stick with it. Now it may be a very long haul with strains and stresses for people who’ve got Ukrainians living in their front rooms in Warsaw but I think the cost of not sticking with it are going to be so high that I think we will stick with it.

Andrew Neil: But already there are powerful voices – President Macron of France, Chancellor Scholtz of Germany – indicating, in President Macron’s case, more than indicating that President Zelenskyy will have to negotiate with President Putin. 

David Miliband:  Well, I think that’s unfair on President Macron actually, not least since he was in Kyiv today. He said he wants Ukraine to be victorious and President Zelenskyy has said of course I’m going to have to negotiate with Putin in the end, of course I am – Zelenskyy has said that – but I am not going to negotiate away my rights as a sovereign state with territorial integrity and I don’t really like this, and I think you are alluding to this, President Macron has got himself fixed on this thing about not, quote unquote, ‘humiliating’ Russia and people says that means you want to give stuff away and I think he’s got a bit booked on it and the reason I’m not, I don’t like that formulation is that President Putin is going to decide what truth he tells his own population or what untruth he tells his own population and from my point of view, the issue is, is impunity allowed to hold sway in Ukraine? And I don’t think it can be because I think the lessons of that will be disastrous.

Andrew Neil: Germany thought the long-term way to, and I’ll put this in quotes, ‘control’ Russian aggression was through trade and being quite close to the Kremlin was part of Angela Merkel’s policy. That policy is now pretty much in ruins, what does that mean for how we handle China? 

David Miliband: I think that the scales have fallen from German eyes. I was in Berlin last month and it was interesting to hear that the business community as well as the political community has really moved significantly. Now, the argument in respect of Germany and Russia was always, well, the Russians need us to pay for their gas so they are on the hook to us as much as we’re on the hook to them and that was short-sighted. The failure to diversity, the failure to decarbonise costs us dear. The argument in respect of China is actually a rather different one because the Chinese are dependent on the global system much more than … the global economic system, much more than the Russians. If you want my view about, if you like, handling China, engaging with China, I don’t know if you have read Kevin Rudd’s, he’s got this new book about …

Andrew Neil: I’ve read your review of it in Prospect Magazine.

David Miliband: Ah, even better than … yes. His argument is that you need clear red lines between the US and China about what is, what can’t be transgressed. You need intense competition across a wide spectrum of activity and you need to try and isolate global public goods like climate, like global health, like nuclear security for cooperation and a third is not being done at the moment. I still support the pursuit of that third leg of the engagement with the Chinese because I don’t think … I think they have a strategic interest in furthering the development of those global public goods and I think we have a massive interest in that as the Covid crisis shows, as the climate crisis shows. Now, whether that can be achieved, I don’t know because China is now pursuing this dual circulation model where they are creating almost a model part of their economy which is going to run on an autarchic basis but the reason the 2020s are different from the 1820s is the world is so much more interdependent and China is absolutely at the heart of that interdependence.

Andrew Neil: We thought that interdependence would make the autocracies a bit more like us or make them easier to deal things and wouldn’t do things like invade Ukraine. Now, Germany was at the centre of this, it wasn’t the only country that followed it but it was Germany buying the biggest chunk of Russian gas and China is Germany’s biggest export market by far, it’s made Germany the biggest exporter in the world, €140 billion a year and in neither case can it be said to have worked. China has become more authoritarian I would say under President Xi, now totalitarian, which is the more extreme form of it and I don’t need to go through what’s happened with Russia and Ukraine or Crimea.

David Miliband: Let’s agree that the authoritarians are becoming more authoritarian. Wherever you started on the democracy/autocracy spectrum, you have become less liberal over the last 15 years, really since 2005/6. Let’s accept that and let’s also accept that you’re right, that you can find in judicious quotes from the 90s, from President Clinton and others, that said, as we bring China into the World Trade Organisation, they are going to become more liberal.  

Andrew Neil: True, it wasn’t wrong to think that. 

David Miliband: Well, it turned out to be wrong. 

Andrew Neil: It turned out to be wrong but at the time … 

David Miliband: But the question is, what is the right thing to do, whether or not that … you don’t need to believe that supposition to believe that if we’re going to solve global problems, we are going to have to do it with the Chinese and not separate from them and I don’t want to get tripped up on the sort of terminology but the whole thing of … the Cold War meant two competing systems in every aspect of life. If we end up in that situation with the Chinese, I’m very, very worried about what’s going to happen in the 21st century because there are global problems where we are bound in with the Chinese and that’s why I like this point that Kevin Rudd makes about the red lines where we need to be clear to avoid a nuclear war, the areas of competition that are going to intense and no rose tinted spectacles, but we must, must, must carve out areas of global cooperation otherwise we are going to find ourselves or our children in a desperate situation by the 2050s or the 2060s.

Andrew Neil: How do you think Keir Starmer is doing as Labour leader?  

David Miliband: Well, I think he is digging us out of the most enormous hole and that’s good.  

Andrew Neil: That hole being Corbynism? 

David Miliband: Yes, someone said Long Corbyn!  Look, we won three elections in ’97, 2001 and 2005 and I always think it is important to remind people, winning was not Labour’s habit.  In the hundred years before Tony Blair became leader, we had actually only had real majority Labour governments for nine years. 

Andrew Neil: Mainly under Harold Wilson.  

David Miliband: Well, ’45 to ’51 to be fair and then ’66 to ’70 but really ’64 to ’66 was hardly a majority, ’74 to ’79 was hardly a majority, ’74 to ’76 under Wilson. So, we broke the duck. Since 2007 when Tony left, we’ve gone back to the way of losing elections rather than winning elections and that found its nadir under Jeremy Corbyn when we were back to 1935 effectively so I think Keir is digging us out of a deep hole. He’s been focused internally, and I think he’s said this actually, he’s been focused internally over the last two years rather than externally.  

Andrew Neil: Now time to move external?

David Miliband: Definitely, definitely. He’s got to articulate a project and a set of policies that symbolise that project, over the next period, that allows him to be an attractive alternative to the Tories. I don’t know what you think but the old adage was governments don’t … oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them. I’ve never bought that.

Andrew Neil: No, I don’t think that is … it can sometimes be but at the moment though you would argue that the government is losing and Labour is not winning. 

David Miliband: Well, you can’t rely on the government to lose the election. Tory governments, you have got to respect the Tory party, they end up, they are better at wining than losing and so I think that Labour has to go out with a project and a set of policies in circumstances that are very, very challenging for the country, I don’t mean for the party, for the country.  

Andrew Neil: It is not yet clear what Mr Starmer’s Labour party stands for or what the priorities would be if it won power. Now I perfectly understand that we are at least a year or two years away from an election but by now, has happened under Mr Blair in ‘94/’95, we had an idea of the direction of travel in a broad sense of where it was going. We don’t have that with Mr Starmer.

David Miliband: Well, I think that’s why he has got to now focus on what his offer is to the British people. He’s been cleaning  house for two years, he’s got better people around him in the Shadow Cabinet, he’s cleaned up the party but the project for the country, you can’t win without a project for the country and policies to show what would be different and that is exactly his task now and to be fair to him, he’s got a tougher job than Tony had because Tony was going with the grain of where Neil and John had taken the party. 

Andrew Neil: Yes, he had come all the way from the ’83 landslide … 

David Miliband: Yes, although I did point out, I gave a lecture about – God help me, it’s 25 years since the ’97 election and 28 years since I went to work for Tony in ’94 so it makes me feel old – but I was surprised to be remined of this.  ’92 wasn’t a great result for Labour.

Andrew Neil: Well, you lost.

David Miliband: Not just did we lose; we were two and a half million votes behind. People often say, well you went from ’87 to ’92 and then one step, two step but ’92 was a crushing defeat for a traditional social democratic message. 

Andrew Neil: But it was also crushing because you expected to win up until the very last minute, up until the results came in. 

David Miliband: Yes, but it wasn’t just a defeat, it was a very bad defeat. We were a long way behind the Tories, John Major got more votes than any Tory …

Andrew Neil: Yes, but it narrowed the majority. Even Margaret Thatcher’s landslide in ’87 was not as big as the landslide in ’83 and then in ’92 it brought the Tory majority down to when you were at least had expected to win and I know how big a blow it was that you didn’t but it did put you in hitting distance the next time round. 

David Miliband: And that’s why I say that Keir has got a tougher job in that way. 

Andrew Neil: So, he’s not in hitting distance really.  He has to win 127 seats for a majority of one.  You might be expecting too much of him.  

David Miliband: Well, I think he’s set his ambitions high so I’m the last person to say that I should … also politics is probably more volatile than it was but look, I always come back to this point – Britain has got really fundamental problems that need to be addressed.  Whatever you say about it, the ten  years until 2007/8, till the financial crisis, we were second in the G7 productivity league, now we’re bottom. In the ten years to 2007/8, we had 2.7% a year average growth, over the last ten years we’ve had 1.7% so we’ve got the decade of austerity, we’ve got Brexit which is a fundamental change to our situation, we’ve got Covid, now we’ve got the global hiatus of Ukraine. The country has got fundamental questions about what kind of society it is going to make itself and that’s where I think Labour has to move in because I don’t see any answers coming from the government at the moment but Labour has got a responsibility, I think, not just to itself but to the country, to show that it’s got the answers and that’s where I think politics is going to need to go. 

Andrew Neil: If we are back in the politics of decline … 

David Miliband: Hopefully we are in the politics of challenging decline.  

Andrew Neil: Right, but it was the politics of decline that very much brought Margaret Thatcher to power in ’79, if we’re back in that situation then the job of the opposition party is to show how we’re going to reverse that decline. Labour’s not there yet, is it?

David Miliband: Well, that’s why it is has got to turn outwards. As I say, Keir Starmer said this himself, that the situation now is different from the situation two years ago for the country, not just for the opposition. He became leader before Covid started, just to take one part of that, and the results of the local elections were good but not good enough to meet the standard that you’re setting of sweeping …

Andrew Neil: To get an overall majority.

David Miliband: … of sweeping back in to power. 

Andrew Neil: You cannot count on Scotland and will not be able to count on Scotland.  

David Miliband: Well, no one should count on anything in politics today.

Andrew Neil: No, but Labour used to rack up big majorities with the help of 40, 45 seats from Scotland.

David Miliband: Yes, that’s a good point so for all these reasons, you’ve got to set out a big stall because the country needs it and by your calculation, logic, argument, the party needs it as well and I think that that is his task, I agree.  

Andrew Neil: If we are looking at a country in decline then the job of the opposition is to come up with … 

David Miliband: Well, a country which, if it’s not careful, is going to be declining.

Andrew Neil: So, it is the job of the opposition to say we’re going to stop this and we know how to do it, that it needs a suite of policies. Should part of that be Labour committing to renegotiate our relationship with the EU?  

David Miliband: More or less, yes. I don’t think we should go back into the Brexit argument of re-joining the EU, I don’t think that’s real world at the moment but I think that in the economic sphere, in the refugee sphere, in the political and foreign policy sphere, the idea that we can’t have functional relations with the European Union seems to me to be contrary to the British national interest and so in the economics sphere we should be saying, in my view – and this is totally, this is only my view – we’ll meet high standards of European single market regulation, it’ll be the cheapest confidence boost for British investors, British business that you could imagine. In the refugee sphere, we should talk about it; in the political sphere, we have an Integrated Defence Review that doesn’t mention the European Union, in fact it mentions the Arctic more often than it mentions the European. That’s not the real world and so … now I just want to say one thing before we, and this is not a gotcha podcast but there may be people listening who would renegotiate. We are not reopening the trade and the comprehensive agreement …

Andrew Neil: We shouldn’t re-join the single market?

David Miliband: No, I don’t think that’s the … that’s why is say, say that you’ll match the single markets standards because once you get into re-joining the single market, you are pre-empting all the debates about migration and the rest of it, but if you said for five or ten years, we are going to match European high standards of regulation, you’d give the confidence for business without getting into all of that. 

Andrew Neil: There are two ways in which you can match these standards. One is that you  replicate them which is still our situation at the moment ….

David Miliband: Yes. 

Andrew Neil: … because we …

David Miliband: But we pretend it’s not going to be.  

Andrew Neil: But the other way is to have the same high standards but to do it differently, which is equivalence …

David Miliband: Well, let me just say this …

Andrew Neil: … but the Europeans will not take equivalence, they want us to do exactly as they do. 

David Miliband: Well, either you match the standards or you don’t.  Here’s the thing … 

Andrew Neil: But there are different ways of doing it …

David Miliband: Hang on a sec, here’s the thing. The government have made an absolute fetish of the right to diverge from European standards, in fact they haven’t found a single European standard that they want to diverge from. Actually, let me correct myself, they think they may have found one in the insurance industry with this Insolve thing but actually the European Union is going to update its regulations there so the people who have made a fetish of divergence from European standards, in other words, regulatory arbitrage, they are going to find competitive advantage by divergence – they have not been able to find a single example of how to do it and the truth about the modern world, Andrew, Europe is a regulatory superpower, America is a regulatory superpower, China is a regulatory superpower. Britain is not going to become a regulatory superpower in the modern world and so I’m just giving you the example, we have dysfunctional economic relations with the European Union at the moment with costs in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. Should a Labour government be promising that it will have functional economic relations with the European Union, functional political relations, functional social relations in areas like refugees? My argument is yes.  

Andrew Neil: And if the European Union says, as it does say, that you need to match our standard of regulation and the only way we’ll really recognise that is if your regulation is the same, should a Labour government agree to that?  

David Miliband: Well, you’ve just told me that they are the same today, six years after…

Andrew Neil: Well, yes, but they had to be same all through the transition phase. 

David Miliband: But look at it, even this whole great … why do David Frost and now Boris Johnson, they keep on extending the grace periods, why, because … which allow … they can’t think of anything else.  

Andrew Neil; So, why not just accept the single market regulations. 

David Miliband: That doesn’t mean re-joining the single market, you can accept the single market regulations for five years or ten years, that’s what I’m saying to you, and … 

Andrew Neil: That’s the same as joining. 

David Miliband: No, it’s not, because the single market carries a whole range of other requirements.  There are four freedoms built into the single market, not just matching of product standards and the rest of it.  

Andrew Neil: But if they change a regulation in a certain area, we should change the same way?

David Miliband: Yes, because the idea of regulatory arbitrage has been shown to be absolute nonsense.  There isn’t a single area that these committed divergence mongers, they haven’t been able to find a single area. Our economy is 5% smaller than it would have been six years ago if we had carried on.  Business investment is 14% lower than for the matching other economies that have not left the single market regulations, so we are costing ourselves and every British business is saying it’s costing me more, every British investment decision has this risk associated with it of divergence and my argument would be, we have to find a way as a country of having functional relations with the European Union. Then is Labour going to have to have a policy on migration? Yes. Is it going to have to have a policy on refugees? Yes. Is it going to have to have a policy on political cooperation? Yes. Does that mean re-joining the European Union? No. 

Andrew Neil: But these are all the consequences, as you say, I mean you do sound in a way that you are relitigating. 

David Miliband: I’m not relitigating, no, that’s completely untrue. 

Andrew Neil: Then it would surely follow, if what you say is right, that the best thing to do would be to get back in some shape or form and be a lot closer.

David Miliband: No, we can’t get back in. The irony of course is we wrote a lot of these regulations when we were members of the European Union so they are actually as much British standards as anyone else’s. The alignment would actually be a big economic boost for us but it’s not re-joining, it’s not relitigating, because we’ve done Brexit and we’ve left. 

Andrew Neil: Speaking of Europe, you have been enthusiastic about the German coalition, Social Democrats, Greens, Liberals – is that a route you would like to see Britain take?

David Miliband: Politicians fall into two categories in my view: you are either a security politician or an opportunity politician. So, do ex-politicians actually who try and relitigate these things. I’m basically an ex-politician on the opportunity side and the modernisation side and that’s where the German coalition agreement goes, so what aspect are you asking me?  Should we have coalitions or should we have …?

Andrew Neil: No, the way forward to have an anti-Tory majority may not be, is unlikely I would even suggest, to be Labour on its own, that you may need to bring other forces together, the Greens, the Liberals, to get that and that’s why I asked is Germany there for the template?

David Miliband: Well, it’s not a template, first of all there was no pre-electoral coalition in Germany …

Andrew Neil: No, I understand that.

David Miliband: So, if you are saying to me should there be pacts and things …

Andrew Neil: No, that wasn’t the question. 

David Miliband: What is the question?

Andrew Neil: They came together after the election, I know that.

David Miliband: So, what is the question?

Andrew Neil: That it may be more realistic to campaign to get elected but to be ready to do deals once you are elected if you don’t have an overall majority.

David Miliband: No, you campaign to win as many seats as possible, that’s what you do. 

Andrew Neil: And is it not more difficult in Britain because the German Greens are very grown up and sensible.  

David Miliband: They were in government 20 years ago.  

Andrew Neil: Our Greens often still seem … 

David Miliband: Well, I’m not going to cast aspersions on them. 

Andrew Neil: And the German Liberals, just to finish it, are actually free marketeers, our Liberals are not free marketeers.  So, it is a very interesting coalition in Germany that couldn’t be replicated in Britain.

David Miliband: I agree, it is very different. I mean it is a consensus system, they have got different experience, different history obviously but look, from my view, Labour should try and lead a coalition of ideas, not a coalition of parties in pacts and labourism, which is not the same as Labour, but labourism which is a kind of culture of superiority of labour, slightly small c conservative … 

Andrew Neil: Slightly tribal too. 

David Miliband: Slightly tribal, that’s dangerous. What Labour did in ’97, 2001 and 2005, was break out of the tribe but actually ended up doing more for members of the tribe by breaking out of the tribe and I learned a lot in that time, watching politicians, in ’97 I wasn’t a politician, I was a backroom guy, but we broke out of the limits of tribe and that’s why I think Labour has to try and be a coalition of ideas that blazes a trail for modernising the country, extending opportunity, that’s why I still think of myself as an opportunity ex-politician rather than a security ex-politician. 

Andrew Neil: Well, you have just done it for the second time, describe yourself as an ex-politician. You don’t sound like one.  

David Miliband: Well, I’m leading an NGO, I’ve just told you I’ve running a $1.4 billion NGO.

Andrew Neil: But you still talk like a politician on these matters. 

David Miliband: Well, I remember the, in the first, when I made my maiden speech in Parliament, one person speaking on the same day was Chris Bryant who is still the Labour MP for the Rhonda and I said about him, because he’d been a preacher before and he made a brilliant speech and I was reading my speech in a slightly terrified way and he was just … I said he may have given up the cloth but he hasn’t lost the gift of the preacher and so I am an ex-politician and you say I sound like a politician – I don’t know whether that’s meant as a compliment or not – but I’m running an NGO and we are sitting out looking at 1st Avenue, it’s a long way from South Shields, although I was in South Shields last month and I’ll be on holiday there in August, which was my constituency – so we make our own history but not as we choose and that’s why I’ve had to put that behind me.  

Andrew Neil: So, you could return to British politics?     

David Miliband: Oh, I don’t know, Andrew, what I’m going to do. I mean it’s hard, isn’t it? You just don’t know and I’ve been very fortunate to be an ex-politician who has found a way of doing something that isn’t party political but is about values and ideals and commitments and action and I remember saying when I went for the interview at the International Rescue Committee eight years ago, I said look, if you are in government, the great thing is you can see the big picture and the danger is that you lose sight of the individuals. If you are running an NGO, the great thing is, you see the individuals but the danger is you lose sight of the big picture and what I try and do – and maybe this speaks to your, it’s not an allegation, your comment about what I sound like – is that I try and make sure that I focus on the individuals that we’re helping but don’t lose sight of the big picture and the big picture is what politics taught me and it’s that combination that I think is important.  

Andrew Neil: David Miliband, thank you.  

David Miliband: Thank you very much.  


Andrew Neil, narrating: Tortoise members and subscribers to Tortoise Plus on Apple Podcasts can hear my reflections on that conversation in a bonus episode called Inside the Interview, which comes out every Friday during this series.

This episode was mixed by Studio Klong with original music by Tom Kinsella.

The executive producer of The Backstory is Lewis Vickers.

Thanks for listening.

Next in this file

Inside the Interview: David Miliband

Inside the Interview: David Miliband

In a bonus episode for Tortoise members, Andrew Neil reflects on his interview with former UK foreign secretary and president of the International Rescue Committee, David Miliband.

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