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If this might be a brother

2010 September 30
by Paul Vallely

The eyes had it. When the candidates for the Labour leadership emerged having been told the result the Miliband brothers wrong-footed most of the observers in the room. David, chin up and grinning, had lost. Ed, unblinking and grim-faced, had won. The commentators read the runes, and got it wrong.

They had not looked at the eyes. The elder brother’s smile did not reach his. The younger brother’s were brimmed with tears. When the result was announced and the elder brother walked across to the younger we saw the victor’s face. The commentators rowed back, saying the victory was so narrow – and won by union votes against the preference of MPs and party members – that the new leader felt triumph was tinged with trouble.

My suspicion was immediately the opposite: Ed Miliband had suddenly realised the enormity of what he had done to his brother. And indeed it was later reported that, when he privately found he had won, Ed had turned to his campaign manager and whispered: “What have I done to David?”

Too late. He did not do it then, of course, but rather when he first made the decision to stand against his big brother who was generally regarded as Labour’s leader-in-waiting. Others had the foresight to predict such difficulties, which was why Yvette Cooper when pressed to stand for leader, stood aside and let her husband Ed Balls run for the job.

In politics all things do not come to those who wait. David Miliband repeatedly demonstrated that he lacked a ruthless streak when, three times or more, he failed to challenge Gordon Brown’s leadership. The big prizes come to those prepared to seize the moment not the risk-averse, and whatever qualities he may lack Ed Miliband clearly cannot be accused of that. Perhaps he did not expect to win – another reason why he may have looked so stunned – but he had wanted to.

It all became a soap opera because fratricide is one of humankind’s most long-standing mythic stories. Because the Milibands are Jewish the media went all biblical, with copious references to Cain and Abel and Jacob and Esau, though they had difficulty working out which one was the hairy man. They are stories which resonate throughout the population where around a third of adults say their siblings are competitive or distant.

But it was more than that, for the victory of the younger over the elder runs contrary to the ancient law of primogeniture. It offends, as Tom Stoppard put it in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead , against both legal and natural practice. Or as the usurped duke Prospero put it: “Mark his condition and the event; then tell me / If this might be a brother”.

The Bible, of course, tells a different story. It was the younger brother, Abel, who was preferred by God.  Jacob, the younger, obtains the prized paternal blessing, albeit “with subtilty”. Joseph of the Dreamcoat triumphs over all his elder brothers. Samuel anoints the youngest son of Jesse, and so on.

But fraternity is a complex business. Liberty and equality may be rights but fraternity is a responsibility and a relationship. Love and hate are not points on a spectrum; they can be rocker-switches. They can be flicked by big events, like the great footballers Bobby and Jackie Charlton falling out when one accused the other of not visiting their mother before she died. Or they can be trivial, like Sigmund Freud’s grandsons, Clement and Lucian,  who maintained a feud for decades after one accused the other of cheating in a childhood sprinting race.

The events of this week have been dramatic enough, in front of the cameras and behind them. But one thing is clear. Ed’s decision to tread so unkindly upon the cloth of David’s dreams will change their relationship irrevocably. Something deep inside has been damaged for ever.

from The Church Times

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