Gordon Brown has one last gift to give the Labour party he loves | Jonathan Freedland

Ed Miliband is hobbled by the myth of the mess Labour left behind. His predecessor can explode it, but he must say where he went wrong

This week the underpants snapped back. Sir John Major, forever etched in the collective memory (thanks to the Guardian's Steve Bell) as a pair of grey Y-fronts in human form, proved the old elastic has not lost its spring. He made a rare intervention to remind the Conservatives that they lose when they look heartless, that there is a silent phenomenon of "lace curtain poverty" in Britain and that exorbitant energy prices have left many choosing between eating and heating their homes.

His call for a windfall tax on the energy giants, utterly at odds with government policy, hurt the Tories badly – leaving David Cameron so exposed at prime minister's questions the next day that Ed Miliband was able to give him a thorough shredding. But it did prompt an unlikely thought.

What about the other defeated prime minister, whose public interventions are even rarer than Major's? What useful move might Gordon Brown make?

The unkind will say nothing, adding that Brown is still so radioactive a figure that, if he truly wants to help Labour, he will remain unseen and unheard. My guess is those harshest critics include Brown himself, which would explain why he is an absence in Westminster (despite the fact that he retains his Commons seat). He can, and surely will, get stuck into the independence debate in Scotland, where he still commands respect; but elsewhere the consensus suggests he stay hidden.

But there is a powerful case against that hermit strategy. For Brown's three-year premiership does not belong only to the past. It is central to current politics. It could even prove decisive to the outcome of the 2015 election.

That's because the coalition is founded on a simple premise: that the two ruling parties had to join together "to clear up the mess inherited from Labour". Those words have been spoken with numbing regularity every day since May 2010. They represent the defining principle of this government, that it exists to repair the damage left by its predecessor, specifically the ballooning of the deficit and wrecking of the public finances. In this conception, the Tories and Lib Dems were like the allies taking charge of a ruined Berlin in 1945: their task was to rebuild from the rubble.

That story, told and told again, has sunk deep into the public consciousness. On it is predicated what will surely be the central theme of the coming Tory election campaign: that Britain is finally on the road to recovery – witness today's strong growth figures – so why hand the keys back to the people who drove us into the ditch in the first place?

But if voters blame Labour for the economic calamity of 2008, that won't just be a problem in 2015. The 1978-9 winter of discontent hung over Labour for two decades: for four general elections in a row, the Tories successfully saddled their opponents with archive images of uncleared rubbish and tales of unburied dead. If that pattern is repeated, Labour will be taunted over 2008 in the elections of 2020, 2025 and 2030.

That this view has been allowed to harden in the public mind is partly Brown's fault. The coalition was allowed to repeat the "mess we inherited" line unchallenged in its first six months in office because Labour was engaged in a leadership contest that forced it to turn inward. Had Brown emulated Jim Callaghan, and stayed on as leader for a year after defeat, David Cameron would not have had the megaphone all to himself. As it was, he was able to spin a myth of Labour in office that has settled into received wisdom.

Staying on could have been Brown's last act of duty for a Labour party he had served his entire adult life. But there is another deed he could perform. He could speak out now.

He could start the work, long overdue, of dismantling the myth. He might mention that the economy was, in fact, recovering when Labour left office, that growth stood at 1.1% in the second quarter of 2010 – rather better than the 0.8% increase announced today. He could add that that incipient recovery was choked by a coalition government that arrived telling the world Britain was the next Greece, announcing severe austerity and so shattering economic confidence.

More importantly, he could try to nail once and for all the notion that the increased deficit was due to incontinent Labour spending. Patiently, he should explain that the deficit mushroomed because of the great crash, which triggered an instant collapse in output and tax revenues: Labour had to borrow more because suddenly and unavoidably less money was coming in. That was the result of a global economic crisis that was not caused by the decision-making of Gordon Brown. To repeat the under-used Labour line of the time, the recession was made on Wall Street, not Downing Street.

All this will come to Brown easily. But if he truly wants to help his party, he will have to do something much harder. It will be painful for a man as proud as he is, but he will need to say where he went wrong. He will need to identify Labour's mistakes – the blind eye to a City running wild; the over-reliance on both high finance and a house-price bubble, fed by the naive belief that the money from both would flow forever – and make them his own. He should say that if the voters want someone to blame for those missteps they should blame him, not the Labour leaders of today.

The two Eds would probably be appalled by the very idea of a Brown re-emergence. Why dredge up the past, they would say; why remind the electorate of a Labour government it spurned? Cameron would only seize on a Brown apology to reinforce the existing narrative: "See, even Gordon Brown admits Labour messed up."

Those risks are real but they do not outweigh the rewards. Brown could start to remove the albatross that hangs around Labour's neck now and that threatens to remain there for years to come. He would, at last, be able to defend the record of Labour's 13 years in government, still obscured by its final 18 months. He would be able to note the long years of growth, the desperately needed investment in schools, hospitals and national infrastructure, the help for the poorest. Under his much-derided system of tax credits and benefits, those at the bottom were insulated from poverty wages: now we can see how vulnerable they are without them. Brown was once a towering figure in British politics. He still has one last gift to give the Labour party he loves. He should do it. He will help Labour – and, even if he won't ever fully restore his reputation, he might edge closer to the one he deserves.

Twitter: @Freedland

theguardian.com © 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

Facebook has got it spectacularly wrong on beheading videos | Jonathan Freedland

Facebook is making an editorial judgment in allowing head- chopping yet banning breastfeeding. And it is a very bad one

So now we know. In Facebook's world, a beheading is OK but an exposed nipple is not. The social media behemoth has decided that a 13-year-old – for that is the permitted minimum age of a Facebook user – can watch a video of a decapitation, but must be protected from the potentially scarring effects of seeing a breastfeeding mother and child briefly pause for breath.

How else to read its latest decision to lift restrictions in place since May and allow users once again to post head-chopping videos, even as it maintains its ban on images of the most mild form of naturally occurring nudity? ("Photos that show a fully exposed breast where the child is not actively engaged in nursing do violate the Facebook terms" is how the site puts it.)

The absurdity of that position shows just how confused even the masters of the online universe become when confronted with the perennial dilemmas of free expression. The simplest, most logically consistent position would be one of absolute free speech, in which Facebook would allow everything within the law. Beheading videos would take their place alongside porn in a great, unfettered free-for-all.

But that's not what Facebook does. It knows that if it did, it would lose vast chunks of its huge, global customer base: parents especially wouldn't let their kids go anywhere near it. So it imposes rules and "community standards," meaning it allows some things and forbids others.

Once it's made that move, deciding that there are lines that should not be crossed, then Facebook is in the business of deciding where to draw those lines. In this case, it has got the decision spectacularly wrong.

The lunacy of allowing beheadings while banning nursing mothers would be bad enough. But Facebook has tied itself up in further knots of illogic by explaining that such snuff videos are OK if they are posted to "condemn" the killing rather than glorify it. But that distinction is not always so obvious. A bit of lip-service condemnation would not be hard to construct for someone whose motive was altogether less benign. Besides, isn't it possible to condemn a decapitation without actually showing it? When the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was brutally murdered that way in 2002, news media around the world managed to denounce it without airing the video.

Which brings us to the nub of the matter. Facebook and the other social media giants are reluctant to be thought of as akin to news organisations or even publishers. They want to be seen as something looser and vaguer, a mere arena for others. There are good reasons for that: social media are indeed different.

But there is a less noble motive behind that reluctance too. Publishers are responsible for the content they publish and Facebook and the others don't want that level of responsibility: for one thing, maintaining standards requires people, which costs money.

But it's getting harder and harder to maintain the pretence that Facebook doesn't make editorial judgments, including ones that have serious consequences. It does – and it's just made a very bad one.

theguardian.com © 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

The GCHQ scandal is not about the Guardian. It is an insult to parliament | Jonathan Freedland

Instead of shooting the messenger, MPs should be affronted that they have been kept in the dark over activity they are meant to oversee

Not a good week, I grant you, to be holding up the US as a model of political conduct. It requires an effort of will to see past this month's shutdown fiasco and find something worthy of admiration.

And yet there it is. It's found in, of all things, the scandal of global mass surveillance undertaken by the US National Security Agency, in tandem with its British allies at GCHQ, and first revealed by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in the Guardian in June. War-on-terror hawks, and Homeland viewers, will doubtless admire the technical prowess of the NSA operations themselves. The latest revelations, published in the Washington Post, illustrate how the agency can locate the most wanted terrorists via their laptops: "The NSA is able to start downloading data in less time than it takes the targeted machine to boot up."

But that's not what I have in mind. No, what is worthy of praise is how the US political class has reacted to these disclosures. It puts to shame the response of Britain's own governing circles, in parliament and outside it.

In the US, no fewer than three separate bills are now before Congress, aimed at fixing the key problem that Snowden exposed – the ability of the NSA to operate beyond the reach of those lawmakers who were meant to scrutinise it. The notion of a government agency acting as a law unto itself has appalled members of the House and Senate, right and left alike. Leading the charge is no less a hawk than the author of the notorious Patriot Act, Republican Jim Sensenbrenner.

From the president downward, those at the very top of the US security establishment have conceded – while taking care not to give any credit to Snowden for starting it – that a debate about the NSA's activity, even one that throws a shaft or two of daylight on its work, was long needed.

The contrast with the reaction in the UK could not be sharper. The first response was one of denial. Not denial as in "that's untrue"; denial as in sticking fingers in your ears and going "la la la". In this the politicians were aided by the British press, much of which chose all but to ignore the story, even though the GCHQ element directly involves the UK. Some tried to suggest that Snowden had made no news, that he had simply disclosed that spies spy – as if it had been common knowledge that agencies in Maryland and Cheltenham were routinely keeping tabs on the calls, emails and online lives of every last one of us.

Indeed, for many British newspapers the first engagement in this affair came when the head of MI5, Andrew Parker, condemned the leaking of the NSA files. Previously mute on this intrusion into the private lives of ordinary British citizens – having been laudably vigilant on, for example, the "snooper's charter", in the past – the Daily Mail suddenly found its voice, attacking the Guardian for publishing Snowden's revelations and acting with a "lethal irresponsibility" that could only aid the terrorists.

That led to the second response, echoed this week in Westminster: shoot, or at least jail, the messenger. Liam Fox, who as a Tory rightwinger might be expected to be a staunch defender of personal freedom, called instead for "an assessment" of whether the Guardian had damaged national security. Others mutter darkly about prosecutions under the Official Secrets Act. Quick to react, Keith Vaz's home affairs select committee will now do as Fox demanded – and investigate the behaviour of the Guardian (rather than, say, GCHQ).

This should embarrass all those who like to bang on about Westminster as the mother of parliaments, citing the Magna Carta and praising the Commons as the custodian of our liberties. What guff. In our system, parliament is meant to be sovereign. Yet here, in GCHQ, is a state agency operating apparently beyond the reach of parliament, extending its remit without the permission or even the knowledge of MPs. Of all the revelations of the last few months, among the most shocking was Chris Huhne's admission that he had had no idea what GCHQ was up to – even though he was a cabinet minister with a seat on the national security council. MPs need to put aside the issue of the Guardian, which merely switched on a light in a darkened room, and realise that all this is an affront to parliament.

Perhaps they don't care much about privacy. Maybe they don't mind who collects and reads their, or your, emails. Many might accept the old cliche that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. Despite all that, they should still be outraged. For they are the legislature, charged with scrutinising the executive – and yet here is an arm of the executive that is deemed off limits to them, that can do what it likes regardless of the law.

Some MPs will answer that all is in hand now Malcolm Rifkind's intelligence and security committee has announced it will investigate the matter. That's a welcome development, but MPs need to keep that committee's feet to the fire – ensuring it defies its reputation as a creature of the executive (its nine members must first be nominated by the prime minister before they can be approved by parliament); one that is easily rolled by the security services. Those nine members need to ask what the agencies have been doing and, assuming their committee did not know about it, why the hell they were kept in the dark.

And while we're at it, where is the opposition? Ed Miliband's Labour leadership was born in part by a desire to break from the Iraq-war era deference to the US security machine. Now we have concrete evidence that GCHQ acts in direct, daily collusion with the NSA, even if that means trampling on the privacy of tens of millions of British citizens. To be sure, Miliband has to pick his battles. But if he is to be consistent he cannot duck this one.

Now Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and Twitter are calling on parliament to act, aware that customers will soon lose confidence in their services if they believe that Big Brother is always looking over their shoulder. In other words, the US Congress, the tech giants, even the US intelligence apparatus itself have all understood before Westminster that the time has come for a serious debate about internet surveillance, what is permitted and who should oversee it. If Britain's parliament is to live up to its own grand rhetoric as the defender of liberty and seat of sovereign power, it needs to catch up fast.

Twitter: @Freedland

theguardian.com © 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

Politics Weekly podcast: NSA enquiry, and US global credibility post shutdown

Tom Clark is joined by Jonathan Freedland, Anne Perkins and Martin Kettle to assess the political mood post Snowden as MPs accuse the Guardian of jeopardising national security. Meanwhile the Commons intelligence and security select committee launches an investigation into the work done by GCHQ, MI5 and MI6.

Guardian data journalist James Ball updates us on the summer's revelations, while home affairs editor Alan Travis tells us about Theresa May's attempts to pass a 'snoopers' charter', also known as the draft communications bill.

We ask whether the NSA disclosures are being used to sabotage independent press regulation post Leveson and assess the prospects of success for the MPs' inquiry.

Meanwhile the US government shutdown is at an end after 16 days. We look at the political factors that could see the issue resurface in the new year, and explore what the long-term consequences of the recent impasse could be for the Republicans.

England v Poland is a home game for both sides – that’s London | Jonathan Freedland

The World Cup qualifier in Wembley will attract 18,000 Poles, reinforcing London's credentials as a diverse European city, different from the rest of the UK

There's a big football match tonight. It's the England v Poland World Cup 2014 qualifier and it's a home game – for both sides.

That's because it's at Wembley and London is home to at least 150,000 Poles, making the British capital the 24th-largest Polish city in Europe. (Glance at the full list of Polish cities ranked by size, and London would sit precisely mid-table.) An estimated 18,000 tickets out of 90,000 have been allocated to the "visitors", which means that they will have a larger, more vocal support than many teams would expect at home.

You can play this game a lot with London these days. Boris Johnson enjoyed himself at the Tory party conference earlier this month, boasting that he was now "the mayor of the sixth biggest French city on earth". There are a decent number of Americans in London too, to say nothing of the Russians, Nigerians, Spaniards, Chinese, Germans and many, many others who have made their homes here.

In a global city such as London, the usual conventions don't apply. Wembley is the national stadium but it's also become a global one, belonging to each of the different nations who live in the capital. I was in the US when it hosted the World Cup in 1994 and attended the Italy v Mexico game. I'm not sure many had travelled from either country, but both sides had huge home support, thousands of Mexican-Americans and Italian-Americans converging on the RFK stadium in Washington DC. International fixtures at Wembley are only going to become more like that.

I'll be there tonight and the talk is of a party atmosphere, however jangled England nerves might be, knowing that only a win guarantees them a place at next year's finals in Brazil. (Poland, who cannot qualify, are playing for pride, which might make them all the more dangerous.) If the most hopeful forecasts are borne out, and the occasion is festive, it will be just the latest proof that these days most – not all – Londoners enjoy the variety of their city. The more diverse it becomes, the more connected it feels with the rest of the world. Tellingly, in the 2009 European elections, Ukip's worst performance in all of England and Wales was in London: the anti-EU party came second nationally but could only manage fifth place behind the Greens in the capital.

But that tells a double-edged story. Tonight's game will show how much London is part of Europe – and how very different it is from the rest of the UK.

theguardian.com © 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

The secret state is just itching to gag the press | Jonathan Freedland

Get regulation wrong, and it won't be tales of Cheryl Cole that are censored, but revelations like those of Edward Snowden

It's the readers I feel sorry for. How, one wonders, are those who follow Britain's noisiest newspapers of the right to make sense of what they have been told? For nearly a year the Telegraph, Times, Sun and Daily Mail have warned that the hard-fought freedom of the press is in danger, that soon there could exist in this land a menace that has not existed in three centuries: state control of the written word, thanks to last year's Leveson report and the new regime of interference it mandated.

In this grim new world a newspaper editor could face the threat of jail simply for doing what journalists are meant to do, probing into those corners of public life the powerful would prefer stayed hidden. The readers' only comfort has been the knowledge that at least the right-leaning press is ready to stand firm in the defence of free expression.

What a shock, then, to open those papers this week. "Guardian treason helping terrorists," thundered Rod Liddle in the Sun. "Guardian has handed a gift to terrorists," announced the front page of Wednesday's Daily Mail, quoting the head of MI5, Andrew Parker, who had condemned this newspaper for revealing that pretty well anyone who uses the internet is monitored by a mass surveillance programme conducted by the NSA and GCHQ. Helpfully, the Mail found a professor at Buckingham University to call for the Guardian to be prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act.

Its editorial was clear. The Guardian had acted with "lethal irresponsibility". If the head of MI5 says something should not be published, then it should not be published. When it comes to reporting on such matters, an editor cannot possibly be allowed to decide for himself what to print. After all, as the Mail put it, "He's a journalist, not an expert on security." Put another way, in an ideal world a newspaper editor could face the threat of jail simply for doing what journalists are meant to do, probing into those corners of public life the powerful would prefer stayed hidden. Readers will surely be forgiven their confusion. One minute the papers are fighting to their last breath the threat of state control, the next they are cheering the secret state as it seeks to gag a newspaper. Those who study the media closely believe the motive is obvious. The Mail and others loathe the Guardian, they say, blaming it both for the entire Leveson process through its revelation of the phone-hacking scandal, and for subsequently insisting that any regulation be genuinely independent. The current attack is payback. In other words, so desperate are the rightwing papers to avoid state interference in the press, they'll demand more state interference in the press. They are bombing the village to save it.

In this thicket of confusion, there are two questions that should be answered. Was the Guardian right to publish the NSA revelations? The head of MI5 says no, but the editors of the most prestigious news organisations in the world disagree, describing such reporting – uncovering a pattern of global surveillance, rather than unmasking individual agents – as nothing less than the duty of journalism in a democracy, allowing voters to know what the state is doing with their money and in their name.

Perhaps that's what journalists would say (though not all journalists, we now discover). Perhaps it's equally predictable that Lib Dem Vince Cable would say, as he did on Friday that the Guardian had performed a "considerable public service". But more unexpected are the words of James Clapper, the director of US national intelligence, who has said of the NSA revelations: "I think it's clear that … some of the debate, actually needed to happen." That's rather hard to square with MI5's claim that the Guardian is guilty of dangerous treachery.

The second question relates to the link between the NSA story and press regulation. For if the threat of state control of the press is real, what kind of story do we think the state would want to control? Would it punish a red-top editor for rifling through, say, Cheryl Cole's dustbins; or would it hound Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian editor, for revealing that all of us are watched around the clock?

This should give everyone pause, especially those who, after seeing the slime Leveson found under various stones, became the loudest enthusiasts for regulation. There has been much focus on ensuring any new regulator is truly independent of the newspapers, on a genuine break from the Press Complaints Commission that was the wholly owned creature of Fleet Street. The Guardian has been adamant on this point.

But a new regulator must be just as independent of the state and, on this point, all the papers, including the most hawkish, may have made a fateful error. In their determination to keep politicians' hands off the press, they insisted MPs stay well away, passing no statute that would establish the new regulation system. In its place came a wonderfully Ruritanian ruse, the use of a royal charter. Politicians and press alike have embraced this medieval device, believing that a body magicked from the air by the Queen neatly dodges the threat of state control.

But they're wrong – and this week has proved why. For the body that oversees a royal charter, and can unpick its terms on a whim, is the Privy Council – an entity packed by ministers drawn from the government of the day, and which is deployed to do the state's most secret business, under the extensive, unchecked powers of the royal prerogative. It is the very last bit of government any believer in free speech would want anywhere near the press. Yet the newspapers' own proposal, rejected by ministers on Tuesday, called for just such a royal charter.

After this week, we don't have to imagine how such a system would work. The head of MI5 would no longer be confined to speechifying against the Guardian. It would need only a word in the right ear and, with the privy council and the charter as its weapons, the state could decide the Guardian had crossed the line and had to be silenced, leaving the public where it was before: in the dark.

There is not much time. Late on Friday the three main Westminster parties announced they had agreed a new regulatory set-up, centred once again on a royal charter, albeit one that cannot be altered by secret ministerial whim, but would require two-thirds majorities in both houses of parliament. That provides little reassurance: the requirement itself could be overturned by a simple Commons majority.

Ministers hope to have their new charter "sealed" by 30 October. Between now and then editors need to agree on an alternative. They might look for a new overseer, perhaps located in the judiciary rather than parliament. Or they could construct a new regulator whose members are truly independent but which is overseen by no part of the state, even if that means giving up the legal protections and reduced court costs Leveson envisaged. Such a move could be combined with a tougher law against the kind of violations of privacy that sparked the current fury, as well as reformed libel rules and new limits on media ownership, to ensure greater plurality.

Whatever the solution, it must not involve a royal charter and the privy council. Otherwise it will hand a gag to the most secretive elements of the British state. And, as we saw this week, they are itching to use it.

Twitter: @Freedland

theguardian.com © 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

Norman Baker: finally the conspiracy theorists have an inside man | Jonathan Freedland

Baker is not the first man to see secret plots in every corner – but he is the first such man to be made the Home Office's no 2

It could come as early as today, the first ministerial meeting of the newly reshuffled team at the Home Office – and what wouldn't the Westminster press corps give to be flies on that wall? The room will be airless with tension. In the chair will be the home secretary, Theresa May, said to be "spitting tacks" over the appointment – without her approval or even consultation – of Lib Dem Norman Baker as her No 2. Will she give a terse welcome to Baker, through a rictus grin? Or will she all but pretend he's not there, the first step to freezing him out altogether? Will Baker himself try to clear the air? And what about everyone else, the other ministers and their civil servants: will they simply stare at their feet?

The problem, you see, is not only that Baker was imposed on May by Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg in Monday's reshuffle. The problem is that Baker is, as Sir Humphrey might put it, a brave choice for the Home Office, the department that deals with public safety. For Baker is what you'd call a conspiracy theorist, one so dedicated he took a year out of frontline politics to write a book suggesting the former government weapons inspector Dr David Kelly did not commit suicide in 2003 but was in fact murdered by an Iraqi hit squad, a crime known to, but secretly covered up by, the UK authorities.

Most who have studied the question believe that's nonsense: indeed the one finding of Lord Hutton's public inquiry that few disputed was that Kelly had taken his own life. But Baker remains unconvinced. As the Guardian's Nicholas Watt and Rowena Mason report, Baker has also spoken publicly of his doubts over the death of Robin Cook, seeing mystery in the fact that the one-time foreign secretary – who resigned his cabinet post over Iraq – died while out walking "on Ministry of Defence land".

Baker is of course not the first man prone to seeing secret plots and shadowy schemes in every corner – but he is the first such man to be in charge of the national crime agency, drug and alcohol policy and forensic science. Officials in the latter area especially should brace themselves for some unusually detailed questioning.

One wonders if the new minister will seek to take full advantage of his position. Perhaps he might call up the classified papers on the death of Princess Diana, just to give those a quick once-over. He might put in a call to his opposite number in Washington DC, asking for a peek inside the US government files on the so-called "moon landing" of 1969 or finally get to the truth of what really happened to JFK that day in Dallas.

Forget the political interpretations of Baker's move – perhaps a gesture by Clegg to the left-leaning, woolly-hat wing of the Lib Dems or else an attempt to cut down a potential rival in Baker's predecessor Jeremy Browne. The real significance of Baker's appointment is for the global movement of conspiracy theorists. For the first time they have someone on the inside of the government machine! At last he can discover the truth! Unless, of course, this is all a trick by the authorities – and that's exactly what they want us to think.

theguardian.com © 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

Antisemitism doesn’t always come doing a Hitler salute | Jonathan Freedland

Hatred of Jews is often more coded than explicit, but the Daily Mail's attack on Ralph Miliband pressed all the same old buttons

When the Ukip politician Godfrey Bloom referred to "Bongo Bongo land", there were not many who denied the remark was racist. When the same man told women who failed to clean behind the fridge that they were "sluts", most could see the comment was sexist. Yet when the target of an insult is a Jew or Jews, there is rarely such certainty. Unless antisemitism comes dressed in an SS uniform and doing a Hitler salute, we are regularly thrown into confusion. Suddenly we are in the seminar room, calling on experts to tell us whether or not this or that sentence was anti-Jewish, the debate usually ending without clear resolution. To add to the complexity, very often Jews disagree among themselves, with just as many willing to give the disputed word or deed a free pass as to condemn it.

So it has been this week with the Daily Mail's sustained assault on the late Ralph Miliband, the Marxist scholar it branded "The Man Who Hated Britain". Some detect a whiff of anti-Jewish prejudice, some swear there is no such thing. When pressed on the point by the BBC, Ed Miliband himself declined to add antisemitism to his list of charges against the paper.

All of which, I imagine, must make it hard for the open-minded outsider, the non-Jew keen to oppose all forms of racism. They know they're against antisemitism, but how exactly to spot it? When is the line crossed? Where, in fact, is the line? In the spirit of public service, let me attempt an answer.

First, the word itself. So much as mention antisemitism and someone will pop up to tell you that Arabs are semites too so why do Jews insist on hogging, as it were, all the antisemitism for themselves. But the word was not a Jewish invention. It was popularised by a 19th-century German Jew-hater called Wilhelm Marr, keen to put his loathing on a pseudo-scientific basis: he used "semites" to mean Jews and, partly because "anti-Jewish racism" is a mouthful, the word has stuck.

Despite the name, it is not a phenomenon safely buried in the past. Just because hatred of Jews reached a murderous climax in the 1940s does not mean it ended with the war in 1945. It is alive and well even in 2013. Whether it's on Twitter or in the cartoons that routinely appear in much of today's Middle Eastern press, crude slurs and hideous caricatures of Jews – hook-nosed and money-grabbing – endure.

Move away from the gutter, however, and antisemitism is rarely so obvious. It is communicated through nods and winks, hinted at rather than spoken. In Britain especially, prejudice against Jews has long been of the latent, rather than overt, variety. Even the words Jew or Jewish are often avoided: spotting the euphemisms – "flamboyant North London businessman" – is a pastime in its own right. So those ready to acquit the Mail because there was no bald, outright statement of antisemitism were probably using the wrong measure.

Instead, there are familiar tunes, some centuries old, which are played again and again. An especially hoary trope is the notion of divided allegiances or plain disloyalty, as if, whatever their outward pretence, Jews really serve another master besides their country. Under Stalin, Jews, especially Jewish intellectuals, were condemned as "rootless cosmopolitans" (another euphemism) lacking in sufficient patriotism. The Mail's insistence that Miliband Sr was not only disloyal but actively hated his country fits comfortably in that tradition.

In the antisemitic imagination, Jews are constantly working for some other, hidden goal. In this, antisemitism stands apart from other racisms, which tend to view the hated as straightforwardly inferior. Antisemitism is instead a conspiracy theory of power, believing that the Jews – always operating as a collective – are bent on some grand plan of world domination. Which is why images of Jews as puppet masters, or of having the world in their "financial grips", as Baroness Jenny Tonge so memorably put it, always hit a nerve.

In the last century, antisemites of left and right diverged on exactly how the Jews planned to enslave the human race. Jew-haters of the left believed capitalism was the preferred method, while antisemites of the right reckoned communism was the Jews' chosen tool, with Marx and Trotsky the fathers of an imagined "Judeo-Bolshevism". The Mail's dogged exhumation of Miliband's Marxism, buttressed by references to Eric Hobsbawm and Harold Laski – funny, that of all Miliband's many colleagues and comrades, the paper highlighted two who happened to be Jewish – carries a potent echo of that unhappy history.

And always on hand for the antisemite is some reference to Jews' religious practice, real or imagined. For centuries, those who hate Jews would throw the phrase "chosen people" back in their faces, falsely interpreting it as a mandate for Jewish supremacism. Others would claim that Jews feasted on the blood of Christian children as part of their Passover ritual, the lethal "blood libel" that prompted anti-Jewish pogroms and cost Jewish lives for centuries. It might be a reminder that Jews were still chained to the Old Testament alone, unenlightened by the gentler, more forgiving teachings of Jesus. This is why I and many others – previously ready to give the Mail the benefit of the doubt on the matter of anti-Jewish prejudice in its coverage of Ralph Miliband – stopped at the reference in Tuesday's editorial to "the jealous God of Deuteronomy." That looked like another veiled pointer to both Miliband Sr's indelible alienness – and his membership of an ancient, vengeful people.

Ah, but hasn't the Mail been defended on TV by Jewish employees and hasn't the odd rabbi said they did nothing wrong? This happens every time, too. But it's not much of a defence. Every feminist knows a woman can always be found to say she sees no sexism, no matter how grave the offence to her fellow women. Why is it a surprise that some Jews will decide it doesn't suit them to make a fuss, that they'd rather keep their heads down and get on? After all, it's only antisemites who believe Jews operate not as individuals but in lockstep with each other, in pursuit of imagined Jewish goals. For that reason, it is neither here nor there that a Jewish reporter wrote the original piece. Besides, the most toxic elements were the headline and subsequent editorial – and those are the responsibility of the editor.

Antisemitism can seem a subtle, elusive business. Calling it out can feel too much like hard work, often prompting a torrent of abuse as hurtful as the original offence. But it has to be named for what it is – and not only by Jewish writers like me. History could not be clearer on this last point. Antisemitism may start with the Jews – but it rarely ends with the Jews.

Twitter: @Freedland

theguardian.com © 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

Shutting Down the World?

Around the world, the US government shutdown has produced not just bemusement but a growing sense of angst.

Was the Daily Mail piece antisemitic?

You didn’t have to be Jewish, to adapt an old phrase, to feel queasy at the Daily Mail’s attack on Ralph Miliband. Plenty of Britons, including, I suspect, many Mail readers, will have disliked the notion of condemning a dead man who cannot defend himself and of suggesting a son should be blamed for the words and beliefs of his father.

But for Jews there was an additional unease. In texts and tweets, friends and colleagues shared it: “Do you get a whiff of, you know…?” began one.

Much as I loathed the original article, I was ready to give the Mail the benefit of the doubt, ready to conclude it was motivated by anti-left, rather than anti-Jewish, prejudice.

But the paper’s unrepentant editorial on Tuesday, in which it ramped up its attack, made that charitable view harder to sustain. The line that stopped me – and others – was this one: “We do not maintain, like the jealous God of Deuteronomy, that the iniquity of the fathers should be visited on the sons”.

What was that doing there, that sudden and redundant reference to the vindictive God of the Old Testament? In the context of a piece about a foreign-born Jew, it felt like a subtle, if not subterranean hint to the reader, a reminder of the ineradicable alienness of this biblically vengeful people.

It is not obvious; the Mail ran no hook-nosed caricatures. That’s why even my most sensitive colleagues spoke of a whiff rather than a stench. But antisemitism in Britain often works that way: latent and hinted at, rather than overt.

And, when it comes to Jews, the Mail’s core accusations have a long and unhappy history. Jews have perennially been charged with disloyalty, even those Jews, like Miliband Snr, who have worn their country’s uniform and risked their lives in war. For decades the extreme right, in a variant of the centuries-old claim of a global Jewish conspiracy, blamed Jews for communism or “Judeo-Bolshevism”. And here was the Mail banging out both those old tunes on the gravestone of Ralph Miliband.

Yes, it is theoretically possible that the paper would have hurled similar abuse at an Anglican-born Marxist scholar, had his son gone on to become the Labour leader.

But would it have accused such a man of hating Britain? Or did the Mail know that, even on a subliminal level, its assault would carry extra force when applied to those eternal outsiders, the Jews?