Politics & Policy

Miliband’s Moment

Hamas? Al Qaeda? The new British foreign secretary couldn't even cull a badger.

The day-old government of Gordon Brown woke to news this morning that thanks to the diligence of a nightclub bouncer police had neutralized a bomb-rigged Mercedes abandoned in the Haymarket (rough translation: Broadway just north of Times Square). London’s Evening Standard has this well-illustrated report. Who’s to blame? Nobody knows yet. “All options, including the Irish, are open at this stage,” somebody called an “intelligence source” told the paper. Indeed, in the photos, a propane-type canister marked “patio gas” is visible, so it may well have been the Irish.

Whoever turns out to be the culprit, the event will give the British media something to talk about other than the supposedly poisonous effect of what the Mirror calls “Blair’s war” on the “legacy” of yesterday’s prime minister. Tony Blair’s rescue of Labor from electoral oblivion occupied him for ten years. The press and the British left hated him because he ran toward the center and ruled so far from the right that he forced the Tories into the tall grass of irrelevancy. Still, for the last five of those years, every political event in Britain has been linked to Blair’s role in supporting the U.S. in Iraq.

During that time, government ministers — mostly minor ones with no possible hope of creating a public profile in any other way — would occasionally raise their hands and resign from Blair’s cabinet. They’d show up on the BBC, reap a day’s headlines, then retire into embittered obscurity while the rest of Blair’s team went about the business of running the country. With Gordon Brown, at least for the moment, all things are forgiven. Not surprisingly some of the harshest critics of the British policies in Iraq and Afghanistan are now crawling out of the woodwork and begging the Fagins of Fleet Street for a drop of ink. As the always-serious Independent put it:

The Prime Minister showed his desire to ‘move on’ from Iraq by recalling John Denham, who resigned over the war and entered the Cabinet as head of a new Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills.

Out of the shadows and into the limelight at Innovation, Universities and Skills. Sounds like a job for Napoleon Dynamite. Maybe Clair Short, the shrill, antiwar harridan who bored the nation with her relentless beating on Blair, can help Brown “move on” by taking up the Morris Dancing, Cross-Dressing and Badger-Culling portfolio.

That’s approximately where Brown found his new Foreign Secretary, a man so boyishly telegenic that he makes Boris Johnson look like Ted Heath in comparison. His somewhat metrical name is David Miliband. You’ll soon see him on talk shows a lot. Here’s the dossier: He’s young. He has an even younger brother named Ed, who, says the Independent, will have the “progress-chasing” job in the new government. Father: Marxist. Wife: American. Child: Adopted, also American. Hair: Dark, felted and worn like a cap. My wife’s crazy about him. He’s brilliant at putting reporters in their place — although Cherie Blair did pretty well herself this week when she told the Guardian the best place for the press is far, far away from her — and he’s been a “rising star” in New Labor for so long that his admirers can be identified by their stylish white and gauzy neck braces.

It’s almost forgotten however that’s he’s untried as an adult. Under Blair, his job wasn’t running the banks or the tanks or the diplomats. It was talking to Newsnight and running parks & rec — Britain’s clueless environmental bureaucracy, hobbled into limpness by green sentimentality and an elitist dismissal of men in wellies and other rural types. Miliband’s big test so far: an outbreak of bovine tuberculosis, or bTB. It’s a serious problem if you’re a cow or a man who owns one, and Britain’s an island with a lot of cows. When just one of them gets sick — with mad-cow, or hoof-and-mouth, or bTB — the tragic result can be mountains of dead cows.

For some reason known only to God and farmers, bTB is spread by badgers. But badgers are one of Britain’s most beloved creatures — Wind in the Willows and all that. In imaginary polls, people prefer badgers over cows five to one. Plus, they have a very strong lobby in Britain, the Badger Trust. When Miliband found himself obliged to “cull” — which is to say, kill — large numbers of badgers, badger partisans protested. The government tried to explain that badgers are like bunnies, but with sharp teeth and claws, and that given a year or two of privacy, the badger population would surely rebound.

That argument went nowhere, of course, as you can imagine. Taking harsh measures against any cute, furry animal is a political issue in a country where, as the BBC has reported, “animal extremists” think nothing of threatening children and burning buildings to protect the noble stoat. Yet they claim violence against animals is never the answer. It might be better, say old-left politicians like Roy Hattersley, analyzing like crazy in the Guardian, to look for the root causes of bad behavior in the badger street:

Perturbed is what badgers become when their friends and relations are gassed, poisoned and clubbed to death during a process euphemistically described as culling…No doubt I would then do what badgers do when they see their nearest and dearest slaughtered all around them. I would run away and take refuge with other survivors of my species. If I were suffering from some virulent transmittable disease, I would spread it about….The blame for the epidemic that followed would lie fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the people who did not care about me infecting others of my kind, as long as I took my disease off their land. The perturbation effect may sound a complicated concept but, in truth, it is bloody obvious.

No kidding, Roy! That’s why airport security in New York is all over you and them. (Not that all badgers are perturbed, of course.) Militant badgerites, reports Politics.co.uk, all rallied ‘round the oppressed and perturbed critters until Miliband pulled back the Royal cullers and opted instead for a policy of appeasement. That, of course, only made things worse, as the Farmers Guardian sadly reports. “The disappointing results were inevitable,” a wildlife vet told the paper. “It was no surprise the badgers that were missed migrated into surrounding areas to infect more badgers and more cattle. Ten years and £45million later, we’ve learnt nothing significant we didn’t know already.”

So far, the failure of Miliband’s passive policy of badger appeasement has escaped much attention. What has been noticed, however, by a hopeful British press is what just may be a Milliband affection for appeasement elsewhere. As the Guardian notes approvingly, the new foreign secretary “is not publicly associated with the decision to invade Iraq and is said to have been privately sceptical about it.”

Nevertheless, as the Daily Mail reports, he was given the foreign office over the wishes of a strong rival — Brown’s hard-working protégé, Ed Balls, who has been given up the impossible responsibility of injecting “respect” into Britain’s failing schools. Meanwhile, Miliband is innocently compared in that Mail report to Neville Chamberlain. If his diplomatic instincts are anything like Chamberlain’s — or even like his own craven badger strategy — Brown may find that what the Foreign Office needed was Balls after all.

We’ll see how today’s bomb investigation plays out and what Brown’s zingy new government learns from it all. Could be the Irish. Could be Hamas. Could be badgers. Could even be al Qaeda. My theory: Look for those who are most perturbed. That may sound like a complicated concept, but, as Roy says, it’s bloody obvious, innit.

Denis BoylesDennis Boyles is a writer, editor, former university lecturer, and the author/editor of several books of poetry, travel, history, criticism, and practical advice, including Superior, Nebraska (2008), Design Poetics (1975), ...

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