On the Politics Show, Sunday 11 May 2008, Jon Sopel interviewed David Miliband MP, Foreign Secretary
David Miliband MP, Foreign Secretary
JON SOPEL: I'm joined from his constituency by the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. Mr Miliband, thank you very much for being with us.
First of all, can you give us your assessment of the latest figures that you're getting on the number of people who may have died, the number of people who need help.
DAVID MILIBAND: Well, good afternoon. The message that's come back from Rangoon, from our Ambassador there, to Douglas Alexander and to the Development Secretary and myself overnight, paints a very grim picture which is that I would be amazed if there haven't been about a hundred thousand people who'd died already, although, I don't think that that is a confirmed figure.
As I say, I'd be amazed if it doesn't reach that number. But what's more, hundreds of thousands more are at risk and a natural disaster is turning in to a humanitarian catastrophe of genuinely epic proportions, in significant part because of what I would describe as the malign neglect of the regime.
Now there is, it's also important to report to your viewers, that there is one other aspect of the report from the Ambassador overnight that's important, and you'll have seen that in the clips of aid arriving at the airport today.
There is clearly, some international aid now being accepted, some visas have been issued which is obviously important for aid workers and also, the Ambassador reports that trucks are now heading south, from Rangoon, to try to get to the most devastated areas. The UN reports that about 25% of people are getting the help that they need.
If it's up to that number then it has clearly risen over the last thirty six to forty eight hours, but the basic point is that the scale of the response inside the country, is so far inadequate to the scale of the disaster.
JON SOPEL: You talk about malign neglect of the government. Until now, there seems to have been a reticence on this government's part to criticize the Burmese authority - maybe making the calculation that frankly, that will help the aid flow more quickly if we don't get in to a political fight with them.
DAVID MILIBAND: No, I think that Douglas Alexander and myself and the Prime Minister have spoken very plainly about this.
We've been clear that we're not interested in a political game; what we're interested in is saving lives. It's the humanitarian issue that is at hand and ironically, it's been the government in Rangoon, that's pursued the constitutional referendum that was held yesterday, bizarrely, I think to many of us and no doubt to many of your viewers, that a constitutional referendum could go ahead in those circumstances that we've seen on the television.
I think that we've spoken frankly and clearly. We've been one of the first to pledge aid, up to ten million dollars in the first tranche and then more as necessary. We obviously have huge expertise in this country through organizations like Save the Children, who are on the ground there, with whom we work very closely. And obviously, we're very active at the UN as well. So I think that there's a very clear message, but it's only being dimly heard it seems, within the country.
JON SOPEL: If someone is at home listening to this interview with you and you're describing the desperate situation there, but also the reluctance of the regime to help, why on earth would you part with your money to help the situation if you're not sure that the money you give is going to be turned in to mosquito nets that will get to the people who need it.
DAVID MILIBAND: Well I want to address that very directly. Anyone who's given money in Britain, can be sure that it will be properly used, because it won't go - and it won't go in to the regime's military coffers. Our aid is channeled through organizations like Save the Children, who rightly have a very high reputation and I think that that's why there is this very important next thirty six hours.
I mean, the last six or seven days have been really inexplicable I think, to most people, that it should have taken so long. You rightly drew the comparison with the tsunami and the response that happened then. But of course the government in that case, actually welcomed the international community, rather than rejecting it. But I think that we are clear that our aid will go when it's able to do go, and that's the right basis on which to appeal to people.
JON SOPEL: And just very briefly, what about the argument that says, why are you letting a handful of generals stop an aid effort to a population that may be starving and in risk of disease. Why not just in there and drop the aid yourselves.
DAVID MILIBAND: Well, I think that the simple answer to that is that all the development experts say that that's not a very effective way of delivering aid. It might be the absolute last resort, but all of the people who are real experts in this area, humanitarian fighters who, fighters is the wrong word, humanitarian experts and aid workers who make all the difference on the ground, are clear that that is very much the third, fourth, fifth or even sixth best solution.
It's a last resort and what counts is to try to get the sort of movement that you've seen on the clips before this interview of trucks and of aero planes, actually delivering not just mosquito nets but food, critically rice, also tents to provide some shelter and also obviously basic medical equipment, but that all needs people as well as material.
JON SOPEL: Okay, Mr Miliband, for the moment. Thank you very much. We'd like you to stay with us because in a moment we'd like to discuss the problems of politics closer to home and the travails of the government. Because this week, Gordon Brown will give us a sneak preview of what the government is going to bring forward in the Queen's Speech. There will no use of the word re-launch, but most people at Westminster agree, that's essentially what it is. So how does Gordon Brown achieve blast off, when the British public seem so brassed off. Max Cotton reports.
INTO VT PACKAGE
JON SOPEL: And the Foreign Secretary is still with us. David Miliband, I don't really know where to start. Whether to start with political memoirs, the 10p tax band, the Crewe by-election, Gordon Brown's general performance. I mean, Shelia Gun is right, you're in that position now where you can't get anything positive across.
DAVID MILIBAND: I don't accept that. I mean, congratulations to the BBC Graphics Department, they threw in a bit of Star Trek while they were at it to boldly go where no man has gone before. I think what's important is what Chris Leslie said, we've got to get on with the job.
And the job is putting in place genuine changes in our society and I think what's important, over the last four or five weeks, there's obviously been a lot of political chatter but what's actually happened on the ground. Crime figures, which show you're less likely to be a victim of crime than at any time since 1981. Employment figures, which show that employment in this country is higher than ever before and NHS figures, National Health Service figures, which show marked improvement in the quality of care and new plans from Alan Johnson, to open up the GP services.
Now, I think what's interesting about the current period in politics is no one is actually saying, that the next steps that the government is posing, are wrong. In respect of crime, we're rolling out neighbourhood policing in every ward in the country, and I saw that in Crewe for myself on Wednesday. No one is saying that's the wrong thing to do. In respect of the economy, which is obviously the major source of uncertainty at the moment, no one is saying that Alistair Darlings moves in respect of making sure there's enough money in the banking system, to provide mortgages in the way that people expect, no one is saying that's the wrong thing to ... (interjection)
JON SOPEL: Okay... (overlaps)
DAVID MILIBAND: And that's why I think this is quite different, it's quite different from the 1990s, which you and I remember.
The Conservative government, not only had run out of, had no ideological project, it had no intellectual project. But it also faced a clear and determined, ideological alternative. In this case, we have a government that is pursuing policies and no one is saying, at least to my knowledge, that they're wrong.
JON SOPEL: David Miliband, let me interrupt there because one of Gordon Brown's key messages when he did a range of interviews last week, was that you had to communicate more effectively with the electorate, to get your message across.
Wendy Alexander, the Leader of the Labour Party in the Scottish Parliament, stands up and says, we want a referendum. Gordon Brown then stands up in the House of Commons and says, no, that's not what she said. Now, are people stupid.
DAVID MILIBAND: No, people are not stupid at all. I think what Wendy Alexander was exposing was the hypocrisy of the Scottish National Party, who are saying they want to have a referendum, to achieve independence for Scotland, but are trying to put it off and keep the people of Scotland waiting. Gordon Brown, rightly said that there's a review, and he was speaking obviously as UK Prime Minister. There's a review going on led by Sir Kenneth Calman in to the ... (interjection) ...
JON SOPEL: Sorry, don't you need to treat people more intelligently. Why can't you just accept that there was a difference of view, rather than trying to say, it wasn't what she said, because people think, that's not being honest with us.
DAVID MILIBAND: Well, I'm just trying to explain that they're doing different jobs. Wendy Alexander is the Leader of the Labour opposition in Scotland. She's responding to the Scottish National Party, which is trying to dangle the prospect of a referendum on Scottish independence in two or three years time and she's saying that she thinks that that is keeping the Scottish people waiting, when in fact there are more important things.
Gordon Brown, as Labour Prime Minister and as British Prime Minister, is setting out very clearly that the Labour Party is a Unionist Party, we believe in the Union. We think Scotland and England and Wales and Northern Ireland are stronger for being together, rather than apart and I think that's the right explanation.
JON SOPEL: Okay, let people draw their own conclusions about that. But another piece of honest communications now. John Prescott says that Gordon Brown is "frustrating, annoying, bewildering and prickly and could go off like a bloody volcano". Is that the Gordon you know.
DAVID MILIBAND: No. I mean I don't do book reviews I'm afraid Jon, and so I haven't read John Prescott's book. I work with Gordon Brown most days of the week. He's someone who's absolutely passionate about the values that he believes in. He's clear about the goals that we're pursuing and yes, as he said last week, he does get in to the detail but that's important.
You need a Prime Minister who is able to have command of the detail, as well as the bigger picture and so I don't recognize the portrait that John Prescott has set out and that's why I think the government has to get on with the job, because what's fatal in politics, is if you forget what you're actually meant to be doing, which is working on behalf of the people who've elected you.
JON SOPEL: Okay, David Miliband, unfortunately we have to leave it there. Thank you very much indeed for being with us.
DAVID MILIBAND: Thanks very much.
END OF INTERVIEW WITH DAVID MILIBAND
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The Politics Show Sunday 18 May 2008 at 1200BST on BBC One.
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