At last night’s election debates, Ed Miliband did well, very well. He outperformed expectations, offering a powerful vision for what a socially democratic Britain could look like. He made a joke about bacon sandwiches. He even dealt with the brother stuff. By most accounts, a good night.
There was one odd moment that might not make the headlines. Towards the end of the interview, as Jeremy Paxman descended into a series of personal attacks, he said: “People see you as a North London *pause* Geek.” Read that again, carefully. Can you hear it, the pregnant pause? Most people around the country probably missed it, but in my house in North London, we all gasped. Did Paxman really just say that? We all heard the same thing within the silence, a subconscious that every single one of us in the room felt we heard; Jew.
You might be thinking at this point that my family were crazy, or that we were the sort of hysterically paranoid Jews who call everything anti-semitism, like they do in the Jewish Chronicle (which, incidentally, once suggested Paxo might himself be Jewish). For the rest of this article, I don’t want to mislead you by alleging some kind of global anti-semitic, anti-Ed conspiracy, because there isn’t one. I certainly don’t want to call Jeremy Paxman an anti-semite. No, for once I’m writing more about the emotional reaction my family and I had to something we saw on TV. And it was an emotional reaction; it was something we all felt. But why?
Well, look at it this way; what even is a ‘North London Geek’? Paxman said it as if it was some sort of well-known stereotype, but surely geeks come from all over the country? ‘North London Geek’ isn’t a cultural go-to, so it seems odd that Paxman would attempt to use it. This is not to say that a discussion about Ed appearing to be from the North London intelligentsia isn’t a relevant, if slightly below the belt, point. It is okay to talk about the ‘chattering classes’, or ‘champagne socialists’ as they’ve been called. But this didn’t feel like that, it felt different.
The argument is made all the more important by the fact that this is Ed Miliband we’re talking about. This is a man whose father was demonised as the ‘Man who hated Britain’ by the Daily Mail two years ago, even though Ralph fought for this country at war. Alongside this, there has been a consistent campaign against Miliband that he somehow seems ‘weird’, ‘odd’ and ‘different.’ Now of course, some of this is down to the fact that he is a reasonably wacky fellow, but there also seems to be a context. Take the bacon sandwich incident. Once you see the ‘Jewish’ part of the story, you cannot unsee it, as argued by Boyd Tonkin, it seemed that a double standard was being applied and there was more scrutiny on Ed than any other politician in recent memory. There is a suspicion that a lot of the vitriol to Ed comes down to a weird sense of ‘otherness’. Edward Saïd would have a field day.
The implications of this debate run even deeper, uncomfortably so. The rise of Nigel Farage’s blokey guv’nor act comes on the back of political context in which a narrow vision of ‘Englishness’ is reasserting itself, slowly but surely. In our current cultural climate, we seem to be venerating a bloke-down-the-pub, Jeremy Clarkson, Nigel Farage, pint-of-bitter, packet-of-fags kind of Englishness. Voters tend to distrust Ed Miliband and the Labour Party on immigration and argue that they lack a sense of ‘English identity’. Now again, some of this is justifiable; as the ‘White Van’ incident proved, a chasm between metropolitan elites and traditional values has opened up in this country, Jewish or not. But yet again, we cannot escape the Ed factor. Ukip’s whole schtik (yes, I used some yiddish) is rooted in the argument that Labour is somehow now ‘un-British’, hijacked by a metropolitan elite – a codeword for foreigners: Europeans, immigrants, and, of course, the Jews.
On the whole, Britain is remarkably tolerant of its Jewish community. Jews succeed in British politics with stunning consistency, and Michael Howard experienced very little ani-semitism when leader of the Tory Party. And, of course, Ed Miliband is kind of weird, and his troubles aren’t some sort of global anti-semitic conspiracy.
But, despite all of this, when Jeremy Paxman called Ed Miliband a ‘North London *pause* Geek’ tonight, I winced, because the implication was there; “You, Eddy Miliband, are from Hampstead and the Jewish socialist bubble, and that’s why people find you different and weird.” This is worrying because lurking within that statement is the idea that being Jewish will always make you an ‘other’; separated and excluded from a true, Anglo-Saxon vision of Englishness. You might read this and conclude that we Jews are a paranoid bunch, and that I’ve seen a ghost where there wasn’t one. But every single one of us in that room tonight felt some intangible reaction when Paxman said it tonight. North London Geek. North London Jew. Different. Other. Un-British. Un-welcome.