Hay Book Festival 2018: David Miliband

David Miliband was there, in Hay,  in two guises, as president and CEO of the International Refugee Committee, and …  no surprise, as a politician, otherwise engaged, and yet, we all want to know what he thinks. A king over the water?

The title of his conversation with Jim Naughtie was ‘Refugees and the Political Crisis of Our Time’. The IRC does extraordinary work, and Miliband focused on the long-term problems posed by displacement, and specifically, health, welfare, safety and re-settlement. The IRC has an annual operating budget of over $700 million. The main focus of the IRC’s work is inevitably women and children. A core issue is the long-term nature of displacement: as one example, 100,000 of the 330,000 in camps in Kenya have actually been born in Kenya – not Somalia, their parents’ home country. But the great majority of refugees live not in camps but in cities (more than 80%), which puts aid and support in a very different context.

Miliband had praise for the Department of International Development, which is in his words a ‘smart aid’ donor. The UK’s continued commitment to foreign aid of 0.7% of GDP is a source of pride as he travels around the world.

For more on the IRC see Miliband’s book, published last autumn, entitled (similar to the title of the Hay event) Rescue: Refugees and the Political Crisis of our Time.

He reminded us that his own parents came to the UK as refugees.

The IRCs work is impacted in directly by the populism and that’s come so much to the fore in recent years. Miliband recognises the failure of liberal democracy to protect its ideas. Complacency on the one hand, a failure to recognise how inequitable globalisation can be on the other.  ‘The forces driving inequality are stronger than we realised.’ He quoted John Kennedy from back in 1962, on 4th July, making a ‘declaration of interdependence’. There’s no problem putting yourself first, but Trump puts the dangers first, and fails crucially to recognise that international agreement- interdependence – makes countries stronger.

Brexit and other attacks on EU were ‘ripping out the underpinnings of the social market economy’. Brexit ‘is squeezing the life out of politics and its ability to address precisely the concerns that drove people to vote for Brexit in the first place… There is no legislation on social care, there is no legislation on housing and homelessness, there’s not even legislation on immigration.’

Referenda, Brexit and parliamentary votes were the main concerns for the rest of the conversation. Jim Naughtie has had too much experience presenting the Today programme not to assay the occasional provocative question. So too the audience. I won’t give Miliband’s responses here. Save to say that Brexit crops up in so many guises these days, and Hay was no exception. Sadly. It would be wonderful to escape. If only we could. My final talk of the day was the Oxford professor, Timothy Garton Ash, talking on… Brexit. I’d hoped for much more on the subject of free speech, on which he wrote brilliantly in a recent book.

Would that Miliband had been able to talk only about the refugee crisis. That is the subject on which we ought to be focusing.

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