Lunch with the FT: David Miliband

The former British foreign secretary is now head of a charity supported by this year’s FT seasonal appeal. Over steak, he talks about the perils of intervention, the EU, and his brother Ed

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00
© James Ferguson

David Miliband, the British politician who not so long ago appeared to be on an automated glide path towards No 10 Downing Street, now lives in New York, where, according to some snippy articles in the London press, he is unknown.

But when I arrive at Newark airport, the taxi driver who picks me up tells me he has met the former British foreign secretary and thinks he’s “kind of a decent guy”. Then again, says Ajay, their journey together was unusually memorable. They had a car crash. “Say ‘Hi’ to Dave for me,” he says, as I step unscathed from his cab.

The next day, however, no heads turn as Miliband bounces into the downtown Manhattan restaurant he has chosen for our lunch. He is unfazed when I pass on Ajay’s best wishes as he slips off his grey suit jacket and hangs it on an adjacent chair. He has the easy charm and the informal manner of the New Labour tribe — as well as its tendency to swallow random consonants. His closely cropped hair is flecked with a little more grey than before but the 49-year-old still radiates a youthful energy and cheerfulness.

When I ask why he’s picked David Burke Kitchen — a sleek, well-lit basement restaurant offering a mixture of European and American classics — he gives a politician’s answer. Declaring that he’s no “culinary wizard”, he explains that David Burke is a big supporter of International Rescue Committee, the charity that Miliband runs and is the FT’s seasonal appeal partner this year. “We resettle 10,000 new Americans a year. And David Burke supports some of these people who have an agricultural background. Essentially, an allotment movement has been started. He is big into local supplies,” he says.

That helps explain the large photographs hanging on the walls of the cheery fishermen and farmers who provide the restaurant’s produce. According to its website, the Kitchen blends “the cool industrial simplicity of SoHo’s airy lofts with the rustic warmth of a country abode”. That feels about right.

As we examine the menu, Miliband instructs me: “You have to have the burger, obviously, because you’re in New York.” Meanwhile, he chooses the steak frites, “a bit of Europe that’s come to America”, as he puts it. He opts for a simple salad to start while I go for the kale salad. “It’s much more edible than you think. It’s not like chewing cardboard,” he reassures me.

 . . . 

We discuss life in New York. Miliband moved to the city in September last year to take up the position of president and chief executive of IRC, and lives with his American-born wife, Louise, and their two children in an apartment on the Upper West Side (aspiring assistant professor territory, he was told). Moving to a new city with young children is a wrench for any family and so it has been with the Milibands. “Someone said to me the first year is about survival. The second is about enjoyment. I see what they mean.” You have to get with the pace, the systems, the craziness of New York, he explains.

Now firmly into his second year abroad, Miliband says he and his family are relishing their time in New York. “It’s an extraordinary, unique city. The people, money and ideas per square foot are extraordinary,” he says.

Does he miss London? “I miss my friends, my neighbourhood, my colleagues, obviously. But I am absolutely sure this is the right place for me and my family to be at this moment. I’m doing something that really speaks to my values and my passions,” he replies.

It somehow seems appropriate that the head of IRC, which was founded by Albert Einstein in 1933 to help refugees from Nazi Germany, is himself a kind of refugee. After his younger brother, Ed, unexpectedly beat him to the leadership of the opposition Labour party in 2010 in a stunning act of political fratricide, David found it impossible to continue as an MP in Britain. Every utterance he made was parsed by the British press for hints of familial revenge. As Madeleine Albright, the former US secretary of state, joked at the IRC’s gala dinner in New York last year, David Miliband had become a “refugee from the British tabloids”.

When I mention Albright’s comment, Miliband replies deadpan: “That was very touching of her. But I wouldn’t want to put myself into that kind of category. My persecution is nothing like the persecution that her family suffered. Her family were genuine refugees. I’m just a legal alien, an Englishman in New York, as Sting said in his famous song.”

Both Miliband’s parents were also genuine refugees, who experienced “huge trauma” during their early lives as they escaped continental Europe ahead of the Holocaust. His father Ralph was 16 when he fled Belgium in 1940; his mother Marion fled Poland aged 10. When Miliband took the job at IRC, he talked of “closing the circle” with the past by helping modern-day refugees.

Miliband says he was shielded from any comparable trauma during his own middle-class childhood in London and Leeds, where his father taught as an academic. As a result of his highly intellectual upbringing, Miliband sailed through the University of Oxford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, becoming an MP in his mid-thirties and one of Britain’s youngest foreign secretaries. But he says he feels compelled to “repay the debt” to society for the privileges he enjoyed. “My generation is a transitional generation because we met people who survived the Holocaust and have a responsibility to pass on what happened to a new generation.”

While IRC’s work has expanded over the past 80 years into fields such as combating Ebola in west Africa and helping refugees from Syria, and has spread to more than 30 countries from Myanmar to Zimbabwe, Einstein’s philanthropic goals remain at the heart of IRC’s mission. “We honour that tradition with our work today. About one-eighth of our budget — so about $75m — is dedicated to settling new Americans. We meet them at the airport, send them to 22 cities around the US, help them with their housing, help them with their kids’ schooling. That’s what Einstein started.”

 . . . 

Our salads arrive with a hearty “Bon appétit!” from the waiter. Miliband declares that his salad, bursting with refreshing chicory, hits the spot. As I sample my mound of kale, sprinkled with a few roasted nuts, I conclude he was wrong about the cardboard.

One of the paradoxes I am keen to explore is why today, when interstate conflict is so low, there are so many refugees in the world. In the 20th century more than 200m people died in wars. Yet, so far, in this far more peaceful century there are, according to the IRC, a staggering 52m refugees and internally displaced people. A person is displaced from his/her home every four seconds.

Miliband, dubbed “Brains” for his policy wonkery by Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s director of communications, has a ready answer. “The epidemiology of it is relatively clear: there are more civil wars going on for longer. Historically wars between states had a beginning, a middle and an end. These civil wars in Syria, the DRC, and Afghanistan are not really ending. Why is that?”

Answering his own question, he suggests that fragile states are finding it hard to contain the “recrudescence of deep identity politics” that has been triggered by globalisation. People are more conscious of their political, religious and ethnic identity, and are increasingly assertive of their rights versus their neighbours’. The international system is either too distracted by promoting economic growth or too divided to stop these conflicts. “Those two factors explain a lot,” he says. In this messy world, non-governmental organisations, such as IRC, can play a vital role, he argues.

If violence frequently comes from non-state actors, so do the antidotes to that violence. At their best, NGOs can take bigger risks than governments, which are susceptible to short-term media and voter pressure they can also operate in places where the need is greatest and stick around for the long term. The IRC, he says, can also remain in the front line because most of their 12,000 staff live and work in those conflict zones. “People have an image of our staff as white people driving around in Land Cruisers but the vast majority of them are local people,” he says.

They work in many of the world’s most dangerous regions, most notably Syria, where almost half the population have fled their homes. “These are apocalyptic figures,” he says.

When Miliband took the job at IRC, there was some criticism that his appointment would compromise the charity’s impartiality. Michiel Hofman, a senior humanitarian specialist at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), described Miliband’s appointment as “another nail in the coffin to claims of humanitarian independence”. After MSF’s co-founder Bernard Kouchner became foreign minister of France, Hofman continued, the NGO had found it difficult to convince some of the people it dealt with in troubled regions that it was truly independent.

Miliband is eager to respond to such criticism. “It is obviously not true,” he says. “You can see over the past 15 months that, far from politicising the humanitarian sector, I have been reminding the political sector of its humanitarian responsibilities. We are independent, impartial, and working alongside MSF all over the world.”

But Miliband accepts that the west’s moral standing in the world has been weakened by George W Bush’s self-proclaimed war on terror. “The Iraq experience and Afghanistan experience have undoubtedly been searing experiences for western politics. They have induced a huge amount of soul-searching and humility for obvious reasons. The difficulty is that not intervening can cost as much as intervening.”

 . . . 

Tucking into his steak with some enthusiasm, he picks out the chips from a small wire basket and dips them in tomato ketchup. “You must not let my children know that I’m eating my chips with my fingers. We’re encouraging them to use their knife and fork,” he says conspiratorially.

My giant cheese-laden burger is made of superior ingredients and, predictably, falls apart when I try to eat it, making it something of a challenge. “The mayor of New York got into trouble for eating a pizza with a knife and fork. I will not report you for eating a cheeseburger with a knife and fork,” my lunch guest observes helpfully.

Now that we are on to the red meat, I ask him about the bloody issue of British politics. Miliband is a rare enthusiast for Britain’s membership of the European Union and says he is worried about the debate back home. “I don’t want the prime minister to paint himself into a corner and, still worse, paint the country into a corner. But there’s a real danger of that,” he says.

“Those on the pro-British — as I call it — pro-European side of the argument have got to make the case that we get far more from being at the table than shouting with a loud hailer outside the room. I have this residual faith in the common sense of the British people that generally they don’t do stupid things. And it would be unbelievably stupid to walk out of the European Union.”

I ask him who he thinks is going to win next year’s election. “I passionately want Labour to win — and Ed to win,” he says. And would his brother make a good prime minister? Without hesitation, he shoots back: “Of course. I would know that better than most.” What are his qualities? “What I would say is that the clarity, the vision, the determination, those are all important qualities. But, equally, I have made it a rule not to insert myself into the political dynamic for two reasons. One, I have got a job that requires me to work with the current government. And, two, I am trying to run a charity, not a political party. My experience is that anything I say gets taken out of context. While it might not be twisted in your hands, it will be twisted in the re-spinology that goes on. So we should probably leave it at that.”

Miliband drinks a double espresso while I sip on a green tea and ask him whether he could ever envisage a return to UK politics. He says he has made a big commitment to join IRC and is fully dedicated to his job. But, he adds, he does not intend to become an American citizen and spend the rest of his life in the US. Life is unpredictable, he suggests. Two years ago, he had no idea he would now be in New York running the IRC. “You just don’t know, do you?”

It seems unlikely that someone who has devoted most of his adult life to Westminster would be content to see his political career finished before the age of 50. Perhaps, I venture, it would be a good thing if British politicians had multiple careers — as is so often the case in the US. “Tony Blair and John Major have said that they wish they’d done their post-premiership jobs before they became prime minister,” he says.

Maybe, I suggest, he is learning from their experience and doing a pre-premiership job outside politics? He guffaws with laughter. “That’s not the way I conceived it.”

John Thornhill is deputy editor of the FT

Illustration by James Ferguson

To find out how to donate to this year’s seasonal appeal, visit ft.com/seasonalappeal

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.