Neglect of the weak was not invented with the National Health Service | Jonathan Freedland

The Stafford hospital scandal is far from unprecedented. Dickens and Gladstone would have recognised this human weakness

We all know the routine. The inquiry into a grim episode in our national life reports, offering a list of recommendations. The government responds, vowing to learn the lessons and to ensure nothing like it ever happens again.

This week it was Jeremy Hunt's turn, the health secretary giving the government's initial reaction to the second of two Francis reports relating to the scandal at Stafford hospital – and the fifth such investigation into the appalling neglect and abuse of patients that occurred there. Both Hunt and the report's author, Robert Francis QC, spoke of the need to change "the culture of the NHS", the politician promising a culture of "zero harm".

But what if the horror of Staffordshire revealed a malaise not only in that hospital and the health service, but something altogether deeper? What if it is not just NHS culture – important though that is – that has been exposed, but a larger, more enduring human weakness?

The thought came as I stood listening, the day after Hunt's Commons statement, to Julie Bailey, whose mother, Bella, died in Stafford hospital in 2007. Between 2005 and 2008 as many as 1,200 more deaths occurred in the hospital than would ordinarily have been expected – and Bella Bailey's was one of them. Then 86, she had gone into Stafford after a routine operation left her struggling to take fluids; she needed to be hydrated. She spent two months on a ward and never came out.

In a quiet voice – even now, six years on, the voice of a bereaved daughter – Julie, who went on to found the Cure the NHS campaign group, described what she saw. "The conditions themselves were very unclean – there was dressings on the floor, blood-spattered dressings. The main toilet didn't have a door on it, so the confused patients would use the toilet with everybody [able] to see, coming down the corridor. The nurses sitting next to the toilet door could see them exposed.

"Patients were just basically neglected. The food would be left at the bottom of the bed and you would see patients just crying out for their food. They'd try to scramble down to the bottom of the bed, they'd try kicking it with their feet, just trying to get at the food, whatever way they could. When they did get at the food, they'd just be eating it with their fingers, just ramming it into their mouths, their hands were just covered in faeces.

"It was just dreadful. They would fall on to the floor and just be left there. The last two weeks of mum's life she just clung to me like a baby – whereas we were able to help the other patients before, for the last two weeks we just couldn't get to them, so you'd just hear the cries of 'Help! Help!'. You'd hear a thud as they fell on to the floor, and the doors would be shut so you'd just presume they'd fallen on to the floor, and you'd just have to leave them crying out 'Help! Help!'. Then they'd go quiet."

Bailey spoke in a room overlooking a forlorn London building that, 150 years ago, served as the Strand Union workhouse, many of the windows now boarded up. We were there to record an edition of the Radio 4 programme The Long View, comparing the Stafford scandal with a strikingly similar episode in the 1860s, when Victorian society was rocked by harrowing revelations of neglect and abuse in the workhouse's infirmary. In that very building, and in places like it all over the country, those unlucky enough to be both sick and poor were left to suffer in conditions that shock even now.

So Julie Bailey stood and listened as she heard an 1865 newspaper account of a victim at the St Giles workhouse infirmary, one Richard Gibson. The Times report quoted a police constable: "I never saw a human being in so dreadful a condition; he was delirious; he had a large wound in his back; his brown skin was marked with red spots like marks from itch or vermin; his person was in a filthy condition; his shirt was soiled with excrement, and his sheets were slightly soiled in the same way; there was a most nauseous smell about him; his hair was very much matted."

Bailey grimaced as she heard that, the memories it evoked not of 1865 but of 2007. It was a rare moment of empathy across the decades, Bailey identifying with a stranger who lived and died in the 19th century. In his story, she heard her mother's.

But I doubt the experience offered much consolation. In me it prompted several reactions, none of them cheery. First, it provided confirmation that the falsest word in the journalistic vocabulary is "unprecedented". Rare indeed is the situation that genuinely has never arisen before. Instead, problems recur again and again. The details may change, but the fundamentals are often uncannily the same. In this case, the key elements were common to both Stafford and the workhouse: financial pressures, complaints of managerial overlords pinching the pennies, whistleblowers on the inside. When we say "unprecedented", what we usually mean is "for the first time any of us can remember". The troubles are not new; it's just that each generation forgets.

Second, and more basic, was a renewed shock at the Mid Staffs scandal. How stunned would Dickens or Gladstone be to discover that a spectre that had appalled them in the 1860s had not been banished for ever, but still haunts the 21st century? Those confident Victorians believed they were creating a new world. They would be dismayed at the power of the old world to linger on.

But last is the nagging worry that perhaps such vile conduct persists because it is not simply an NHS problem, as it was never purely a workhouse problem. That it is, instead, a human problem, not wholly eradicable by a restructuring here or a systems tweak there. Awful to contemplate, but perhaps this is what human beings will always do to those who are weak and vulnerable and in their power, unless actively constrained not to.

Maybe it stems from a kind of fear, and therefore loathing, of the sick, for the intimation of mortality they represent. Whatever its origins, it was not invented with the National Health Service and it will not die with it. The danger is within ourselves, and is older than any of us can remember.

The Long View is broadcast on Radio 4 at 9am on 3 April

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Noam Chomsky in conversation with Jonathan Freedland

David Miliband has made the right move – for David Miliband | Jonathan Freedland

Miliband has ended the psychodrama with his brother Ed and taken on a plum job. But it might not be good news for Labour

David Miliband's decision to quit British politics – resigning his seat in the Commons to head the International Rescue Committee in New York – is surely the right move for him, but much more uncertain news for Labour.

It's the right move for him because he had found himself caught in a soap opera – some called it a psychodrama – ever since that moment in September 2010 when a stunned Labour party conference, and a no-less-stunned Ed Miliband, discovered the younger brother had triumphed over the elder, by the narrowest of margins.

From that day on, David's every utterance was viewed not on its own terms, but through the prism of his brother's prospects. Each speech was parsed for signs of disloyalty or leadership manoeuvres. Even when he stayed ruthlessly on message, being careful to do no more than criticise the Tories, the Westminster Kremlinologists would read it as an implied critique of the leader: this is what Ed should really be saying.

David understood that he was trapped. So long as he was an MP, he was constrained. Even when he took on wholly unrelated issues – most recently, the future of the oceans and overfishing – newspaper reporters would ask him about his brother.

Some said the solution was to return to the frontline, to take a shadow cabinet post under his brother. "That would have been even worse, soap opera plus," one confidant of the former foreign secretary told me last night. Others suggested the only job big enough would have been shadow chancellor – and there was no vacancy.

Above all, such a move would have been to demand of David a forbearance verging on the superhuman, to serve the brother who had denied him his life's ambition. Another friend suggested last night that David just couldn't do it. Understanding that he could not be in limbo forever, he knew he either had to step up – to the front bench – or step aside. Since he could not do the former, he had to do the latter.

So this is the right move for him, ending the psychodrama and taking on what is by all accounts a plum job. He will be heading a respected organisation, originally founded by Albert Einstein to help refugees from nazism, which has a serious budget with global reach and which works in the areas that interest Miliband most: not just emergency humanitarian assistance but climate change and conflict. To the sceptics who say they have never heard of it – that it sounds as if the man Alastair Campbell used to call Brains has gone off to head the outfit from Thunderbirds – comes the reply: "That's why they've hired David." The IRC wants a profile to match their heft.

But if it makes sense for him, it's a rather more mixed picture for Labour. Ed will surely be relieved that a particularly wounding source of distraction is now removed. He will also be heartened by what is a backhanded compliment from his brother: if Ed were looking vulnerable, if there were any chance he was about to fall, David would be sticking around. By leaving, the older Miliband has given the younger a coded vote of confidence.

Still, there are grounds for disquiet. The Tories will joke that Ed couldn't even keep his own brother on side. They will also say Ed's Labour party is clearly too far to the left if there's no room in it for David. Those complaints can be pretty easily swatted aside.

More serious is the loss of a heavyweight figure from a party that does not have many to spare. Today's shadow cabinet is not over-endowed with figures seasoned by experience of the very highest offices of state: in fact it has none.

Above all, this was a loss that should have been avoidable. Three years ago two brothers somehow failed to work out an arrangement that would have allowed them to serve alongside each other. Neither their party nor their family managed to prevent a head-to-head confrontation that meant only one could survive. That remains one of the strangest and saddest stories in recent British political history. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

After a night at the theatre with the Queen, I worry about our democracy | Jonathan Freedland

As our politicians keep on failing, affection grows for those who are unelected. Democracy itself is looking fragile

Who do you love more, those you choose or those whom fate or genes have chosen for you? Usually that's a personal question: who sits closest to your heart, the friends or partner you choose, or the family your DNA picked out for you? Put like that, it's an impossible choice. But framed another way – a more public, more political way – it seems we have an answer. And it's not the one you'd expect.

For a clue, book a ticket to The Audience, the play that sees Helen Mirren and writer Peter Morgan return to the character who brought them such success with the Oscar-winning film The Queen. Mirren's back as Her Maj, this time playing opposite not Tony Blair but eight others drawn from what she calls "the Dirty Dozen" who have served as prime minister during her 61-year reign. The play shows snatches of those weekly tete-a-tete encounters, Morgan depicting them as part constitutionally mandated briefing, part confessional, part therapy session. John Major chokes as he remembers the disappointment of his parents at his academic failure; both Gordon Brown and Anthony Eden admit to taking pills to deal with depression and stress. Harold Wilson reveals his early Alzheimer's to the Queen before his own wife.

The play is elegantly told and beautifully acted, Mirren somehow equally convincing as both eager twentysomething and octogenarian prone to nodding off (during a meeting with David Cameron, as it happens). But make no mistake. This is a two-hour exercise in propaganda for Elizabeth Windsor. She is shown as shrewd and uncommonly sage, and not only with the wisdom of experience. Aged 30, she is able to see through Eden's Suez scheme just as, it's implied, she identified the folly of Blair's Iraq adventure nearly half a century later. "The similarities, the parallels, were striking ..." she muses.

She is on the right side of every issue, tactical and moral. The play suggests she advised Brown to go for the early election that never was in 2007 and lobbied Margaret Thatcher to impose sanctions on apartheid South Africa. "You understand ordinary people. Working people," the on-stage Harold Wilson tells her, praising the frugality of her Balmoral study with its three-bar electric heater. A stage play depicting the head of state as constant, modest and preternaturally wise, dedicated selflessly to serving the people – why, you could translate it into Korean, stage it in Pyongyang and no one would turn a hair.

Three centuries ago, Morgan and his players would have staged their work of lavish tribute in the palace itself, rather than the Gielgud. Though of course there is a modern dimension. These days, in which our favoured celebrities are those who have triumphed over adversity, it's not enough that we admire the monarch, we must feel sympathy too. In The King's Speech, that was elicited by showing George VI's overcoming both a stammer and a chilly, violent childhood. Here – and it's this which supplies The Audience's emotional heart – the Queen catches glimpses of her younger self, a free spirit who longs to break out of the gilded cage destiny has in store for her. "It's like being trapped in a museum," the young princess complains. Later her adult self jokes that she's been persuaded to have a mobile phone because security reckon it's "a useful tracking device in case I try to escape".Partly thanks to Mirren's ability to convey a sense of inner longings repressed, we believe this Queen when she sighs at "the unlived lives within us all".

Later young Elizabeth reports on a morning tutorial whose subject was British prime ministers. She reads from a notebook: "'Often lonely and unhappy at school, having suffered a trauma in childhood – leaving them haunted by a compulsive and obsessive need for love and power.'" She pauses. "Basically, they're all mad."

The older Elizabeth's response is crucial, ending the play. "Those 'mad people' will prove to be your greatest allies," she says. "If you want to know how it is that the monarchy in this country has survived as long as it has – don't look to its monarchs. Look to its prime ministers."

Now, Morgan might simply be referring to politicians' habit of riding to the rescue whenever the royals get in trouble, as Blair did in that Diana week of 1997. But after two hours of watching a parade of PMs, each needy and dysfunctional in their own way, the moment carries another implication: that the best possible advertisement for the monarchy is one look at the alternative: the grubby, inadequate world of the elected politician.

The warmth of the applause for that notion, and for an entire evening of homage to the idea of a perfect Queen keeping a restraining hand on her all-too-imperfect prime ministers, suggests Morgan is not speaking for himself alone. Given a choice, it's clear who both he and his audience prefer: the affection in the room is not for the flawed people we have chosen to send to No 10, but for the woman who reigns in Buckingham Palace by virtue of the blood in her veins (and who need never take an unpopular decision).

Part of this is a very specific attachment to the Queen herself. Her sheer length of service, the continuity over six decades and the direct link it represents with the episode that now forms the creation myth of modern Britain – our wartime defiance of the Nazis – means she exerts a powerful, almost mystical hold on this country's imagination. When she passes, Britain will feel it has ruptured the last bond with its earlier self.

Yet this preference for the non-democratic is not confined to us. Look at the warmth for Pope Francis, building already into something like love with every new revelation of his modesty: the latest tells of his personally calling his newsagent in Buenos Aires to let him know he was moving to the Vatican and so would have to cancel his paper order. How many of the world's Catholics would prefer leaders they voted for over this man they didn't?

When applied to benign, elderly figures such as the Queen or Francis, this hardly seems threatening. But people are getting frustrated with those they elect, whether here, in Cyprus or beyond. The Telegraph's Peter Oborne ended a post-budget column with these words: "So we are entering a momentous period in our national life: if the politicians cannot address the problem – and they can't – who will?" That impulse, like my night in the theatre, troubles me. We like to boast how committed we are to democracy. But there are days when that commitment looks terribly fragile.

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George Osborne’s budget speech attempts to pull off a trick of the eye

Chancellor tries not so much to defend record as change subject with some politically transparent headline-grabbers

If George Osborne had been inclined to quote Marx – not Karl, but a line usually attributed to Groucho – in his fourth budget speech, he could have captured the essence of his address with a classic gag from the Depression-era movie Duck Soup: "Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?"

For this was the question the chancellor was indirectly putting to the electorate. What's going to determine your view of how I'm doing: all this boring stuff confirming an obstinately bleak economic outlook – or the shinier novelties of a penny off a pint of beer, cheaper petrol and a promised bung of cash to push you up the property ladder?

In that spirit, he sought to dispense with the gloomy evidence that sits stubbornly before the public's own eyes as rapidly as possible. He admitted that, once again, the growth forecasts had been wrong and that growth for 2013 is now half of what had been expected: a measly 0.6%.

He admitted, too, that the government is going to keep on borrowing far more than it had planned and that the day the national debt falls as a share of GDP is receding ever further into the distance, now postponed to 2017/18. The damning numbers were delivered flat and fast, as if the story they told was wearingly familiar. Osborne might as well have concluded the passage with a "yadda, yadda, yadda, you get the idea".

His gamble is that journalists are growing bored with the economic disaster narrative, that there are only so many ways you can keep saying that the economy is stagnating, flatlining and stalling.

Perhaps the chancellor was calculating that voters too are sick of that tale and were ready to hear something cheerier. Labour is determined to allow no such thing, of course; to keep restating how bad things are. Ed Miliband did that in a confident, energetic response, declaring: "Under this government, the bad news just doesn't stop."

But Osborne clearly thinks that is an attack he can absorb. He doubtless draws comfort from opinion polls which continue to show that a third or more of voters still blame Labour for the country's economic woes – a figure that is proving hard to shift – and from the perception that Labour lacks a clear, fleshed-out, pro-growth strategy of its own.

So the chancellor attempted not so much to defend his record as change the subject. Contradicting the earlier spin that said no rabbits would be harmed in the making of this budget, he yanked several from his hat and held them aloft. The cut in beer duty, the freezing of the fuel levy and the announcement of a help-to-buy successor to the right-to-buy schemes of the Thatcher era were the key headline-grabbers, their political purpose utterly transparent.

They were not about boosting the economy – indeed, the Office of Budget Responsibility declared that the budget would have "no impact on the level of GDP at the end of the forecast horizon". Instead, these were populist measures designed to locate the Tories on the side of the strivers, the Astra and Focus drivers who are feeling the squeeze and fear the homeowning dreams available to their parents are slipping out of reach. To ram home the point, Osborne did a state of the union-style shout-out to individual MPs, backbench campaigners who had taken up specific striver concerns. It was this camp which had felt battered by last year's disastrous omnishambles budget and the chancellor was clearly keen to make amends. For his own survival, if nothing else, he needed to show the Conservative benches that he had listened to them and learned from his mistakes.

And so where once there had been taxes on pasties, caravans and grannies, now there was a promise that fines paid by Libor-rigging bankers would fund Christmas boxes for "all our troops". It was all about what the political operatives call the optics.

And, as is the way with tricks of the eye, it didn't pay to look too closely. How were many of these giveaways to be funded? Why, by that old favourite, a crackdown on tax avoidance.

Osborne made that same promise yet again, apparently unaware that by giving such a pledge he was tacitly admitting that his promises to crack down in 2010, 2011 and 2012 had clearly come to nothing.

Nor was it a good idea to look too closely at the heroic assumptions – of a sudden 6% surge in business investment, for example – that underpinned the growth forecast. Or to ask how money was now available for tax cuts when the coalition's organising principle was meant to be the taming of the deficit. Or to wonder whether the help-to-buy scheme might not carry a whiff of subprime, luring those without the means to buy homes they could not afford, thereby fuelling a housing bubble.

Above all, Osborne's budget relied on closing one's eyes to the wider picture of an anaemic, ailing economy. Cheaper beer is nice, but makes little dent when wages are falling in real terms, by 9% since 2009 on one estimate. Nor does cheaper petrol much help public sector workers now facing a below-inflation pay freeze for a further year.

The voters know all this. They see it every day. Come 2015, will they believe George Osborne – or what they can see with their own eyes? © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

You’re not a tourist, Obama. Go to Israel with a message | Jonathan Freedland

As Netanyahu unveils his new government, the US president should echo Israel's former security chiefs: the occupation must end

This should be a rare moment of hope. On Friday Israel got a new government and in a few days it will be treated to a US presidential visit, the first of Barack Obama's second term. You'd think that, like jump leads applied to a car whose battery died years ago, this double jolt of electricity would inject some life into the long-stalled quest for Israeli-Palestinian peace. A new coalition in Israel, a new US secretary of state – one who, by all accounts, has got "the peace bug" – and a renewed American president: it should surely add up to what this enduring problem desperately needs, a fresh start.And yet, to recall Obama's one-time slogan, you'll find almost no one who expresses hope for any change. Expectations for this week's visit are rock bottom. Even those well-disposed towards Obama say he'll be coming to Israel as a tourist, seeing the key sights and shaking a few hands, with no initiative to launch, no plan to unveil. As one Palestinian salesman in Ramallah told the Global Post: "I know he's coming, but he's coming for nothing."

Expectations for the new government are scarcely brighter. It's not only that the prime minister remains the same Binyamin Netanyahu, a man whose belief in, and commitment to, what used to be called the peace process is slim to nonexistent. The makeup of his coalition, which took nearly two months to assemble, suggests paralysis is the best we can hope for. Some will have been heartened by the appointment of the relatively dovish Tzipi Livni to oversee negotiations with the Palestinians. But realists say she'll be no more than a public face, charged with making nice in foreign capitals, holding endless rounds of talks, enabling Netanyahu to say Israel is doing its bit, while achieving precisely nothing.

That Livni and her tiny six-seat party are destined to be a figleaf is confirmed by the merest glance at the coalition arithmetic. Even if she were somehow to make a breakthrough, that would necessarily require Israeli concessions which would be instantly vetoed by the more powerful Jewish Home party headed by Naftali Bennett. Elected on a promise to annex 60% of the West Bank and having ruled out a Palestinian state for the next 200 years at least, Bennett will block any deal that the two sides could plausibly make.

So yes, there are more amenable faces – chief among them the surprise star of the January election, the TV host and columnist Yair Lapid – but in practice there will be little change affecting the core conflict. The hawks still have the best seats at the top table, Bennett reinforcing both a Likud party whose newest intake has shifted sharply to the right, and the faction loyal to the scandal-plagued ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman, who is himself a West Bank settler. Put simply, there is no meaningful move this coalition could make towards the Palestinians without falling apart.

Bibi would prefer to concentrate, as he has for 20 years, on the threat of a nuclear Iran Doubtless he'll keep bringing Obama back to that topic next week. But otherwise he newly weakened PM, now answerable to Bennett and Lapid, will instead be compelled to focus inward. Lapid was elected on a domestic platform, promising action on the economy and "sharing the burden", code for ensuring that ultra-orthodox Jews – their parties absent from the ruling coalition for thte first time in years – lose their current exemption from military conscription.

After the social protests on the streets of Tel Aviv in the summer of 2011, Israeli politicians have received clear instructions from the electorate: take care of the home front. Meanwhile, the Palestinians are beset by their own, more familiar troubles: the weakness of Mahmoud Abbas and the enduring division of Hamas and Fatah, which makes Gaza ever more distant from the West Bank.

The result is that this conflict is as stuck as ever. That notion can sound comforting: if the status quo holds, then at least things aren't getting worse. But it's a delusion. There is nothing static about this status quo. As Hagai El-Ad of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel puts it, when things seem to be standing still they are always changing, most obviously through the creation of "facts on the ground", the expanding Israeli settlements on the West Bank. The more of those there are, the harder it will be to turn that land into a future Palestinian state.

It's too late to change Obama's itinerary, but perhaps not too late to influence the in-flight entertainment on Air Force One. It's a long journey, so the president should have time to see two films, both Oscar nominees. The first is not Les Miz or Argo, but 5 Broken Cameras. Shot by an amateur Palestinian film-maker in the West Bank village of Bil'in, it is a powerful eyewitness account of the everyday reality of the occupation, from unarmed villagers clashing with Israeli soldiers to Bil'in's cherished olive trees set aflame by nearby settlers.

That will show the president what this stuck situation is doing to the occupied. But then he should watch The Gatekeepers, released in the UK next month, to see what it is doing to the occupier. This remarkable film consists chiefly of interviews with six former heads of Israel's security agency, the Shin Bet. The men speak with astonishing candour of past operations, explaining in brutal detail how they took on the terrorist enemy, whether in an interrogation cell or by a bomb dropped from the sky. They are hard men, one smiling with pride as he recalls the ingenious elimination of Hamas's top bomb-maker via a cellphone packed with explosives. "It was clean," he says, "elegant." These are not men to hold hands and sing Kumbaya.

Yet asked to assess the bigger picture, each one is crystal clear. "You cannot make peace using military means," says Avi Dichter. "For Israel, it's too much of a luxury not to speak with our enemies," says Carmi Gillon. "There is no alternative to talking," says Avraham Shalom. Each one of these warriors concedes that their work is ultimately futile, that Israeli security will only be achieved by a negotiated accommodation with the Palestinians.

These men, who guarded the very gates of Israel, have come to understand that force only buys you time – and that time is running out. Weary, they declare that 46 years of occupation has corroded the soul of the nation they have devoted their lives to protect. "We've become cruel," says Shalom, perhaps the hardest of these hard men. "To ourselves, but mainly to the occupied population."

As his plane heads towards Ben-Gurion airport, Obama should reflect on that. If he actually means the words he'll spend several days repeating – about the great friendship between the US and Israel – if he truly cares about Israel, he cannot come as a mere tourist. He must come with a message. He should listen to those who understand this occupation best, because they understand that it has to end.

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Miliband’s natural constituents?

Most of the debate about last week's appearance by Ed Miliband at a meeting of the Board of Deputies has dwelled on the Labour leader's remarks about Zionism. Which is a pity. Because much else happened that day that says a good deal about him - and something rather unexpected about us.

But let's deal with the Zionism business first. Miliband was reported to have described himself as a Zionist, which prompted a ripple of condemnation on the anti-Zionist left. The Labour leader's office soon backtracked, telling a Telegraph blogger Miliband had been "misinterpreted" and had not used the Z-word to describe himself. Cue much condemnation in the Telegraph and Spectator, faulting Miliband for lacking courage. A single unscripted remark had succeeded in annoying both left and right.

I was there and have since been provided with a complete transcript. Here's what actually happened. A member of the audience asked a very simple, direct question: "Would you describe yourself as a Zionist?"

Miliband replied: "The answer to that is yes, because I consider myself a supporter of Israel and I think it's very, very important…that as somebody who supports not only Israel's right to exist but has huge respect for what Israel does, that I count myself in that category. But it doesn't mean that I'm not critical of the government of Israel and I think there's a distinction..."

One hesitates to submit those words to excessively Talmudic analysis, but it's worth having them in full and on the record. They make it plain that Miliband was referring to himself and placing himself in "that category" marked Zionist, defined by him as referring to support for Israel's right to exist.

Everything else he said that night reinforced the point. He spoke of the "huge respect, admiration and indeed a debt" he felt towards Israel for the sanctuary it gave his grandmother, after his grandfather had been killed in the Holocaust. It was clear that many of those who once harboured doubts about Ed Miliband's attitudes to Jews and Israel left that meeting reassured, by both his words and his warmth.

But I left thinking less about what we thought of him - and more about what he thought of us. For something surprising happened that night. Question after question came not about the Middle East, but about British domestic policy - each one with a clear, left-of-centre tilt. Miliband was asked about the NHS, housing, bankers' pay and about immigration, criticised on the last topic for being insufficiently compassionate towards refugees. Eventually the Board's president had to issue a plea for questions with "Jewish content".

Meanwhile, still rumbling on is the row over the Zionist Federation's exclusion of the admirable Yachad group, which calls itself "pro-Israel and pro-peace." I suspect the ZF has been surprised by the reaction: near-universal condemnation of its decision, including from both the editorial and letters page of the JC. They doubtless assumed what many assumed: that mainstream British Jewry is dogmatically hawkish.

Exactly a year has passed since Ken Livingstone told a group of Jewish Labour activists that Jews had inevitably shifted rightward because they had became more affluent. I thought he was wrong then and I think it even more now. Last week's encounter with Ed Miliband, like the Yachad affair, suggests a Jewish community that may not yet belong on the card-carrying left - but is not nearly as right-wing as many have long assumed. Consider it one more prejudice about Jews that turns out to be wrong.

Start the week

Jonathan Freedland talks to Ken Loach, James Graham, David Boyle and Harriet Sergeant.

Posted in BBC

The monarchy will be abolished in my lifetime, says Danny Boyle

Despite praising Queen star turn in London 2012 opening ceremony, Oscar-winning director is all republican

The Queen should be replaced by an elected head of state, with JK Rowling a natural contender for the post, says Danny Boyle, architect of the Olympics opening ceremony which gave the monarch one of her most memorable starring roles.

Boyle makes the suggestion in a Guardian interview where he reveals the debt he owes to both the controversial former Downing Street adviser Steve Hilton and the ill-fated Millennium Dome, tells how he was rejected by Elvis Costello as well as David Bowie and discloses how he came to cast the Queen alongside James Bond.

The Oscar-winning director, who won near-universal plaudits for the London 2012 opening ceremony, comes out as a republican, one who believes Britain will abolish the monarchy in his lifetime. Of the royal family, he says: "I think the pressure on them is utterly impossible, as recent events show. It's a ludicrous spotlight they're under. You can still have a royal family if you like … but actually have an elected head of state."

When asked if he would offer himself for such a role, he laughs off the idea - "I'm not looking for a job" - suggesting instead the Harry Potter creator, Rowling.

Boyle also sheds new light on his refusal of a knighthood at the end of last year. "Not my cup of tea, never has been. I believe in being an equal citizen rather than a preferred subject."

He does, however, praise the Queen for her acting performance in the short, filmed sketch where she appeared alongside Daniel Craig. "She's very sharp," he says, adding that as a public figure "she has a natural sense of rhythm". He reveals that the monarch kept her cameo role with 007 a secret from her own family, ensuring the Windsors were as surprised as everyone else on the night.

Boyle discloses that his link with government was Hilton, one of the few people allowed a sneak preview of the ceremony's contents. He says the former advisor "understood it", acting as an interpreter to the rest of Whitehall. Ministerial interference was minimal, says the director, because politicians feared a repeat of the Dome fiasco and did not want their "thumbprints" on a failure.

He says he knew his Oscar success with Slumdog Millionaire gave him the clout to do the show on his own terms, admitting that there were a couple of times when he had to say to organisers, "If you want it to be that way, I'll walk away."

He also pays tribute to Ken Livingstone whose role in the Games was "a bit forgotten" on the night. To make amends, Boyle has ensured a shot of the former London mayor is visible in the DVD of the ceremony.

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Danny Boyle: champion of the people

He's the republican who got the Queen to turn Bond girl, the avowed leftwinger the Tories chose to open the London Olympics, the Oscar-winning director determined to remain an 'equal citizen': meet the ultimate idealist

Last month, the BBC's head of drama, Ben Stephenson, addressed a meeting of writers, commissioners and producers. One key passage could be distilled into two words: Danny Boyle. Stephenson told his audience he wanted them to seek inspiration from the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, which, he said, had scale and brilliance and, above all, had succeeded not in spite of its Britishness but because of its Britishness, delighting viewers here and around the world by rooting itself in the authentic stories and spirit of these islands.

Stephenson hardly needed to elaborate. Boyle's Isles Of Wonder spectacular – with its rising chimneys, its fiery, forged Olympic rings, its bouncing children on NHS beds and its airborne Bond girl Queen – had barely finished before it had become a byword for a new approach, not only to British culture but to Britishness itself. Politicians would soon be referring to it, using it as shorthand for a new kind of patriotism that does not lament a vanished Britain but loves the country that has changed. Boyle's ceremony was hailed from (almost) all sides not only for getting London 2012 off to the perfect start, but for providing a nation that had grown used to mocking its myriad flaws with a new, unfamiliarly positive view of itself.

The man himself paid little attention to all that, reading few of the countless analyses that sought to divine the ceremony's true meaning. He did not watch it on TV, seeing it the way the world saw it only when he came to record his director's commentary for the DVD. He did not take a bow, gave no interviews where he might have soaked up the adulation. He is talking now only because he has a new film to promote, one he shot in London before the Games and edited afterwards: Trance, a stylish, high-concept thriller that sees the director returning to the devilish cleverness and sympathetic crooks of his debut, Shallow Grave.

That's partly because he saw the ceremony as work of an entirely different kind. It "felt weirdly more like a responsibility, a kind of civic or national responsibility", he says, the Lancashire accent surprisingly strong in a man who, now 56, has lived in the capital since he was 21. We're in a cafe in central London, not far from the office on Wardour Street where he and four others set up shop in 2010, steadily filling the walls with images – of favourite British places, TV stars, books and musicians – that would eventually brew into the show that played, one time only, on 27 July 2012.

"I do have an ego, to do with the success of the films or theatre, like anybody, but this one wasn't like that," he says. He wasn't looking for kudos and insisted on a similar attitude from everyone involved, no matter how stellar. "Paul McCartney, JK Rowling were told, 'This is the people's show and you're lucky to be in it.'" He smiles – an impish, playful smile that comes readily – adding that he thinks the audience noticed the difference. People came up to him in the street – "really ordinary people" – not looking to pose for a picture, as they might have in the past, but instead quietly telling him how much they had appreciated what he had done.

Some, perhaps especially on the left, were surprised by the love of country that shone through Isles Of Wonder. Had Boyle always known he was such a patriot? "No, I discovered it," he says, partly through the making of the ceremony itself. He worked with the estimated 10,000 volunteers who formed the show's cast – the director famously attending every one of hundreds of hours of rehearsals, in the car park of the abandoned Ford plant in Dagenham, among other places – including a hardcore of serial Olympic ceremony volunteers, people who had taken part in openings in Sydney or Athens. One day he got talking to them. "They see us as a beacon, this country as a beacon. As a modern, progressive country, and they aspire to it – especially London. And you think, yeah, we are actually. We're all right."

Dissenting voices on the night were rare. When the Conservative MP Aidan Burley denounced Boyle's show as leftie, "multicultural crap", it was Burley rather than Boyle who was slammed. (Boyle calls him only a "foolish man".) But that critique did not disappear. A week later, Stephen Glover declared in the Daily Mail that the show was nothing less than "Marxist propaganda".

Boyle rejects that, insisting that though he has his own politics, the ceremony did not lean to the left. "It was very important not to be trapped by that, because I knew the Tories thought it: 'He's a leftwinger and it'll be full of leftwing stuff.' But it was too important to have a narrowness defining it. I wanted this to represent as many people as possible – and the fundamentals of our society."

For him, the NHS was first in that category. "We've decided, as a country, that we're having that. You can change it a bit, you can fuck about with it a bit, but we're having that. A universal healthcare system is something we've decided is fundamental." He felt the same way about the BBC, though his show made less of it than he would have liked: "I couldn't big it up that much because they were broadcasting it." It would have looked like a conflict of interest, he says.

But surely both those institutions – the BBC and the NHS – are collective endeavours, automatically locating their founding ethos at least on the left side of the perennial argument? "The very fact that we do them collectively – there are many people involved in the collective, not just the leftwing. Otherwise it wouldn't work. Otherwise it would have gone." The whole nation, he reckons, agreed long ago that when it comes to a national health service or a national broadcaster, "We believe in that."

I ask if his faith in the NHS has been dimmed by the Mid Staffs revelations. He answers that of course things will always go wrong. He then cites a letter in a paper he had seen a couple of days earlier, from a woman whose father had been treated by the NHS. The letter had moved him and, as he speaks about it, I can see tears beginning to well, quickly chased away. Some will say the attachment is naive, but it's certainly not fake.

For all Boyle's insistence that he was presenting a settled, consensual British view, it still looked quite an achievement, given who was sitting in the front row of the politicians' enclosure. Watching Boyle's hymn to collective endeavour – with cameo roles for the Suffragettes and the first trade unionists – was the prime minister of a Tory-led government and a Tory mayor of London. Many wondered how on Earth they had let him get away with it.

He was helped in part by Steve Hilton, the now-departed Downing Street guru who served as the linkman between Boyle's team and the government. Hilton was one of the few people allowed in a couple of times to see what the director was cooking up. "I think he understood it," Boyle says, by way of a compliment. Where Cameron and his fellow ministers might have been baffled by the "pre-visualisation" storyboards and CGI modelling, Hilton "put it in a framework for them to understand". Hilton, used to prowling the corridors of No 10 shoeless and in shorts, acted as interpreter between the artistic genius and the Whitehall suits.

Further help in keeping interfering ministers and mandarins at bay came from the Millennium Dome – or rather the precedent it had set. The coalition knew how the Dome fiasco had damaged New Labour and feared a repeat – "They didn't want their thumbprints on something that didn't work," Boyle grins – so let him have his head.

Nor did it hurt that a Tory had appointed Boyle. He can't be certain, but he strongly suspects he was Sebastian Coe's personal choice. The Games' chief organiser had written "a lovely, lovely letter" to Boyle after he'd seen Slumdog Millionaire, the 2008 film that bagged best picture and best director Oscars, and sealed Boyle's reputation. Coe wrote of his sadness that his Indian mother, who had just died, would never see the film and how he hoped his children would learn of India through it. A year later he offered Boyle the job.

He was pushing at an open door. The day after London won the bid in 2005, Boyle was reading an article suggesting possible candidates to direct the opening show. "I remember thinking, aww, they should ask me. They should ask me! I live nearby!" (He lives in the East End.) He says he didn't think any more about it – and certainly didn't lobby for the job.

Once he had it, everything seemed to go his way. Or almost everything. Elvis Costello refused to have any association with the Olympics, thwarting Boyle's plan to use the song Shipbuilding in the sequence on industrialisation. David Bowie, having decided he would do no more live appearances, also said no – even after Boyle had flown to New York to lobby the singer, a longtime hero, in person. ("He sounds just like Ricky Gervais. It's bizarre. Close your eyes and it's him.")

And Boyle had plenty of gripes against the Olympic behemoth. He brings up the Rapier missiles stationed on London rooftops before and during the Games – "For fuck's sake" – and the plastic wrap made by Dow Chemical, whose presence outraged survivors of the Bhopal disaster.

Mostly, though, his memories are glowing. Take the sequence that proved the night's biggest surprise: Bond and Her Majesty. What we saw that night was not in Boyle's original plan. He wrote to Buckingham Palace setting out his idea, seeking royal assent to one of two options. Either he would use a double, an extremely close lookalike of the Queen, or he would get a world-class actor to play her, most likely Helen Mirren. He'd already sent a location scout to look for houses that could double for the palace. All he was seeking was royal permission for the joke. "And then the word came back that all that was fine – and she wanted to be in it."

Boyle assumed it was a "wind-up", but the palace confirmed that the Queen really was very keen to take part. The director reckons a crucial factor was the diamond jubilee a month or two earlier, which she knew would cast her in an overwhelmingly formal role. "Like any person in public office, who makes public appearances, she has a natural sense of rhythm." The Queen sensed, Boyle says, that "people are going to be sick of me, they're going to have had enough of that". So she was ready to do something different.

It took time to find a date. The schedule that was trickiest to navigate was not the Queen's but Daniel Craig's: he had to be released from the set of Skyfall. The Queen was patient because, the director realised, she did not feel she was doing them the favour, but rather the other way around. "She clearly wanted her staff to have a day out with Daniel Craig – it was a buzz for them."

And how was she as an actor to direct? "She said, 'I've been to the dentist this morning, so I'm not in a very good mood.'" But she was no diva. Boyle had to give her his instructions only once and she nailed it. "She's very sharp."

Discreet, too. "She didn't want anybody to know. She wanted this to be a surprise for the rest of her family." The first Charles and Camilla or William and Kate knew of the Queen's grand entrance was when they saw it on the big screens in the stadium.

The element of surprise was one of the great success stories of the ceremony, thanks to volunteers who kept their lips sealed. Luck played a part, too. The Sun spotted a Craig double entering Buckingham Palace on the day of filming. But, apparently not knowing what they had, they ran a "Bond at the Palace" story on 1 April: people assumed it was a joke and no one followed it up.

Yet Boyle's happy royal experience has not diluted a core conviction he has not spoken about until now. He's a republican, even believing Britain will become a republic in his lifetime. "I think we will evolve naturally towards that." That's his view even after the Queen did him such a wonderful favour? "She was fantastic. But I think the pressure on them is utterly impossible, as recent events show. It's a ludicrous spotlight they're under. You can still have a royal family if you like, and the historical significance of that, but actually have an elected head of state. The American model seems to be healthy – and inevitable, actually."

That might not come as much of a shock, given Boyle's widely publicised refusal of a knighthood at the end of last year. Why did he say no? "Not my cup of tea, never has been. I believe in being an equal citizen rather than a preferred subject. When people say we're all in it together, it's a lovely catchphrase for politicians to use, but I actually do believe it."

Perhaps it's his youthful manner, the way Boyle seems to fizz with energy when he speaks, dressing like a thirtysomething – and sufficiently trim to get away with it – but the word that comes to mind when meeting him is one rarely applied to a man in middle age. The impression is confirmed when I ask if he is a socialist and he pauses, avoiding giving a direct answer. That's because the right word is different. Danny Boyle is an idealist.

Which is why, despite the excesses of the IOC and the 2012 corporate sponsors, he retained his faith in the Olympic ideal, still believing that it's "a healing and good thing for our kind, our species, for all of us. It brings people together." He later dismisses pessimistic talk of white elephants, predicting that the Olympic Park will be a cherished part of east London in 20 years' time, describing a place where friends and families will "come to spend the day", shopping, going to the cinema, "cycling, picnicking, seeing a show in the stadium in the evening. It will work."

That same vein of optimism runs through his films. The subject matter might seem bleak – drug addicts on sink estates, impoverished and abused children in the slums of Mumbai, a mountain climber forced to sacrifice a limb – but Boyle's films are never hopeless. Indeed, he jokes that he is making the same film over and over again, each one the story of one character's triumph against "insurmountable odds". The twist in Trance – a psychological thriller full of twists – is that you don't know until the very end who that person is.

It was, perhaps, this lack of cynicism that people responded to in Isles Of Wonder. So used to British irony and detachment, it felt refreshing to witness an unembarrassed, positive case for this country. Boyle says this was the most important thing he took away from the Olympic experience: "How important it is to believe in something. You might make a fool of yourself and people will go, 'How can you believe in that, you stupid idiot?' But if you believe in something, you carry people with you."

We're not used to idealism and unbridled optimism in those who are not young, so where does Boyle's come from? "I've been very lucky," he says, explaining that he does a job he loves, with tremendous freedom – thanks to a finance deal under which he makes films costing less than $20m in return for near-total artistic control – and he's made some decent money into the bargain. When people read that he is now dating the star of Trance – the stunning American actor Rosario Dawson – plenty will agree that Boyle is indeed a very lucky man. (The relationship started after the film was done, he says, adding that it would have been "very awkward" if it had been otherwise – then politely declaring that he will say no more about it.)

If Boyle feels blessed, that has translated into both a sense that he ought to give something back – he feels he should do more teaching, like his twin sister in Rochdale – and that life and the world are usually all right. The day we meet is the morning after the Oscars ceremony. He'd had no interest in going, just as he has no desire to live in Los Angeles. (There can be few A-list directors who are less Hollywood than Boyle. He reveals he can't watch live football, though he loves it, because he has only a few channels on his TV. Not because he's boycotting Rupert Murdoch – whose Fox Searchlight company distributes Boyle's films – but because "I believe in our national broadcaster", the BBC, and in terrestrial TV.) He'd quite like to live in New York for a while, where his daughter is studying, but fears he might get flak from a Britain that could feel spurned.

Londoners at least should know his love for the capital is undimmed. "It's given me everything, this city, this incredible city." He looks out of the window at the passing street. "We gather together in these urban nightmares, all these people gather, and the warmth it generates, the ideas, the entertainment, the culture – I've benefited from that. And I feel hugely positive about it."

• Trance opens on 27 March. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds