11/06/2012 12:23 BST | Updated 07/08/2012 06:12 BST

Ed Miliband, the Jewish English Patriot

Ed Miliband could become the United Kingdom's second Jewish Prime Minister, following in the footsteps of Disraeli, the Victorian statesman who led the country from 1874 to 1880.

His Jewish identity is something he has chosen to highlight. In his keynote speech to the Labour conference in September 2010, days after being elected party leader, he described how his parents "fled the darkness that had engulfed the Jews across Europe, and in Britain they found the light of liberty".

Recently, he spoke again about being Jewish in a moving article about his family in the New Statesman, and in a speech entitled "Defending the Union in England", delivered at the Royal Festival Hall on 7 June.

Of course, Jewish identity can be complicated, as Mr Miliband pointed out in his New Statesman article.

Judaism is a religion but he is an atheist. He plans to teach his children (his wife is not Jewish) about their heritage, but rather than dragging them to a synagogue, he said: "I will sit down and watch Woody Allen with them".

Perhaps this all makes Mr Miliband just the man to tackle a question which makes "what does it mean to be Jewish?" look easy - namely, "what does it mean to be English?".

It's sometimes said that the Scots consider themselves to be Scottish and the Welsh consider themselves to be Welsh but the English consider themselves to be British.

That's an exaggeration but it contains a kernel of truth.

One example - highlighted by Labour's new policy chief, London MP Jon Cruddas - is that there is a Scottish national anthem, Flower of Scotland, and a Welsh national anthem, Land of Our Fathers, but no English equivalent. The English simply use the UK anthem, God Save the Queen.

Somewhat bizarrely, English identity remains associated with the idea of race. "English", for many people from across the political spectrum , still means "Anglo-Saxon" or "white".

The Scottish Nationalist Party has been careful to make it clear that the Scottish nation includes people of all colours and creeds. A black man from Edinburgh is Scottish, as SNP leader Alex Salmond would be the first to tell you.

But a black man from Manchester or Birmingham may or may not be thought of as English, even if they are a born and bred, flag-waving Brit. Instead of trying to make English identity inclusive, anti-racists have tended to shy away from the whole idea of England and focused instead on the concept of Britain as a multi-cultural country.

There are exceptions. Mr Cruddas is one. Left-wing singer Billy Bragg, author of The Progressive Patriot is another. But it's telling that while The Progressive Patriot is a book specifically about Englishness, whoever designed the cover chose to include a map of Great Britain and the Union Flag (rather than the English flag of St George), as if they couldn't quite believe a progressive English patriotism might exist.

This brings us to Mr Miliband. In his speech at the Royal Festival Hall, he warned that Labour must start talking about England and English identity because "[other] people are talking about it and we cannot be silent". Those others, he argued, might promote a vision of Englishness which is "hostile to outsiders . . . cut off from the outside world, fearful what is beyond our borders".

He even stole Billy Bragg's phrase, calling for "a progressive patriotism". But most telling was the sentence before that, as he called for "more patriotism, not less".

Much of the British liberal establishment - the moderate right as well as the left - winces at talk of patriotism and national pride, and English national pride most of all. This can only leave the way clear for the far right to define Englishness on their own terms.

It's partly because of his background that Mr Miliband can call for an inclusive English patriotism without a hint of apology or irony. Not for him the idea that patriotism amounts to xenophobia, racism or nostalgia for Empire. Instead, it means celebrating the generosity and openness of a country which gave two young refugees, his parents, "not only refuge but a new home".