Books blog: What Ed Miliband could have learned from Napoleon

Ed Miliband during his resignation speech (PA)

There has been a ferocious amount of commentary about the political scene since Labour’s defeat in the general election last week. Two things about Ed Miliband’s doomed campaign have struck me: that his self-belief insulated him from reality and made him follow his own internal script rather than the evidence before his eyes; and thus, that he disregarded large swathes of the Labour constituency around the country – those aspiring to join the middle classes, people who wanted a firm hand up rather than being patronised by yet another handout.

As part of the London and metropolitan socialist elite, Miliband’s education and social circle was fatally narrow. I suspect that he reflected the views of one of my children’s friends, genuinely astonished by the election results and commenting, “How has this happened? I don’t know any Tories. Where do they all live?”

It so happens my bedtime reading for several weeks has been Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon: A Life. In the light of Ed Miliband’s personal disaster I have been asking myself, fancifully of course, what could Napoleon have taught the ex-Labour Party leader, assuming he had had the time to read all 800 pages of Roberts’ weighty book.

Napoleon, it hardly needs to be said, also had quite a lot of self-belief; steeped in history, his boyhood heroes were Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, and he dreamed of being their equal. But a sense of destiny (“To Destiny” was the romantic message he had inscribed on a medallion he gave Josephine on their wedding-day) needs to be allied to other formidable gifts, most especially an understanding of men. Roberts comments that “nobody better understood the psychology of the ordinary soldier”. Miliband appears not to have understood the hopes and fears of his foot-soldiers.

Napoleon also recognised the need for “esprit de corps”: a unified sense of loyalty and confidence among the troops. You have to march along – and no army marched faster than Napoleon’s in its heyday – singing the same stirring tune from the same hymn-sheet. From the day Ed Miliband wrested the leadership of the Labour Party from his brother, David, it was obvious to observers that secret discontents and unrest would inevitably undermine his campaign.

Despite the ancient English antagonism for Napoleon, with mothers warning their children that if they misbehaved “Boney” would come and get them, it must also be pointed out that Napoleon was loved by his men. There was “no aspect of his soldiers’ lives that didn’t concern him”, writes Roberts. I am sure Miliband is a loving husband and father – but he never captured the public imagination as a “loveable” personality, personally concerned for the lives of ordinary men and women who did not inhabit a bastion of privilege. Nigel Farage beats him hands down in this respect.

Politicians, like generals, also need luck. Along with his military genius, powerful intellect, extraordinary capacity for hard work and great administrative ability, Napoleon had luck. The French Revolution had depleted the officer caste in the army so a young man of exceptional ability in France in the 1790s could rise quickly through the ranks; thus he became a general aged only 24. Ed Miliband was unlucky: articulating an outdated political creed and on the wrong side of history.

One thing he can now learn from Napoleon though, is graciousness in defeat. Roberts relates that the ex-emperor was “charming” to the officers and crew during the 10-week voyage to St Helena. During his five-and-a-half years of exile he also wrote his memoirs: “The greatest international bestseller of the nineteenth century.” Somehow I don’t think Miliband’s memoirs, if he ever writes them, will be quite such fun.