Howard Jacobson: The Milibands have gone against nature

I admire Ed. He might be just what the country needs. But the country isn’t everything

Related Topics

There are four years between Ed and David Miliband. Funny that. Funny in the coincidental sense.

There are four years between my brother and me. I'm the older. As is poor David. Poor in the tragic sense. You aren't meant to lose to your younger brother. It's against nature.

You do, of course, from the moment your younger brother is born. Call that nature if you like, but in that case nature is against nature. If there were any decency in the natural order of things, younger brothers wouldn't be born after older brothers, wouldn't supplant them in their mothers' affections, wouldn't steal their love, their food, the attention of their aunties, their prime ministerial ambitions. If nature had anything natural about it, it would dry up the wombs of mothers the minute son Number 1 is safely delivered.

Don't get me wrong. I am not at war with my younger brother. Had he wanted to be prime minister I wouldn't have stood in his way. "Go get it, you little shmuck," I'd have said. I might even have offered my services as his campaign manager, and not because that way he'd have been sure to lose. Truly, I would have worked my heart out for him. But that's because I have never wanted to be prime minister myself. Though neither, come to that, has he. So that particular contest is hypothetical. For which I thank my parents. We weren't raised to want to run the country. We were brought up more respectably than that.

People have wondered what the mother of the Miliband brothers has been going through. The assumption is that she will have wanted success for both and so the spectacle of them at each other's throats will have pained her deeply. But shouldn't she have worked that out earlier? "OK, Dovidler, you're the older and you for some reason want to go into politics. I don't know where your father and I went wrong, but if that's what you want, that's what you want. Which means you, Eddie, will have to go into something else. The BBC, information technology, public relations – the world's your oyster, so long as you don't eat any. And between ourselves you'll have a lot more fun than he will."

To bring up one son to be prime minister may be regarded as a misfortune, to bring up two looks like carelessness.

My mother would never have made that mistake. She had more modest ambitions for her sons. Not to subdue us but to protect us from disappointment. Aim a little less high and you'll fall a little less far. There are disadvantages to this philosophy. I've often wondered if I went through Cambridge like a mouse because my mother greeted the arrival of the telegram telling me I'd got in with the words, "Are you sure that's not addressed to someone else?" But I understood her reaction. She didn't want me to get my hopes up only to have them dashed. Isn't that a mother's most sacred task – to spare her children sorrow?

So why, then, did she have a second child when I was perfectly happy enjoying sole possession as the first? All right, I wouldn't be prime minister. But couldn't I go on being lord chamberlain in my own house? I have already, in this column, described the details of my brother's invasion of my territory. Suffice it to say that one minute he wasn't and then he was, that I had been banished from my mother's sight for a week because I had the measles and when I returned she was holding him up in the front window for me to see – triumphantly, as though he were the FA Cup – and had forgotten my name. What happened over the next 10 years was what always happens. I pretended to love him and when no one was looking tried to kill him. It would have been the same with the Milibands, though they had a Marxist philosopher for a father whereas ours was a children's magician; so that while David was trying to brain Ed with wage-labour and capital, I was sawing my brother in half.

Neither of us, of course, succeeded, though David must be wishing right now that he had. I ascribe no particular malice to him. And have no inside information. But he cannot be exempt from the law that has governed brotherly relations since Cain with good reason murdered Abel – the law which says the younger will always strive, or will always be suspected of striving, to usurp the older. This law can be circumvented if the brothers go their separate ways. Cain's and Abel's problem was that career choices were limited back then. It was give sacrifice to God or give sacrifice to God. My brother and I were guided well in this: he painted, I wrote. Close enough to be a clash, you might think, but there wasn't one, the only time warfare nearly erupted (not counting the time I immersed him in bathwater in a padlocked sack and told him he was Houdini) being when he briefly became a pop idol and had girls in thigh-high white boots queuing in our garden for his autograph.

"He's not in but I'm his older and more interesting brother," I would lean out of the bathroom window and tell them. "I'm reading English literature under F R Leavis at Downing Cambridge. Can I be of any assistance?"

The luck of it was that I could. By touching my cheek, they felt they were touching his. And they liked hearing about the Great Tradition. Thus were hostilities avoided. A short time later he was out of the band and painting seriously, and I was out of England teaching Australians about F R Leavis. What the Miliband brothers were doing at the same age I dread to think. Going to Fabian Society meetings together, I suppose. Writing competing speeches for Neil Kinnock. Boning up on Walter Benjamin. The poor bastards.

I bleed for them both. What's happened should not have happened. It is against nature, whatever nature has to say about it. I admire Ed Miliband, a man genuinely charming, but with, to quote T S Eliot on Andrew Marvell, a "tough reasonableness beneath the slight lyric grace". He might be just what the country needs. But the country isn't everything. Brother to brother, he should have re-channelled his ambitions. His victory has the primal eldest curse on it. As for that pint David told us they'd be sharing whatever the result, it always rang untrue. In this, at least, I am confident our mothers were alike: they didn't bring us up to drink beer.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Shia LaBeouf is one of Brad Pitt's favourite actors in the world ever, apparently  

Shia LaBeouf to Luis Suárez: Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Ellen E Jones
Gwyneth Paltrow and Coldplay's Chris Martin “consciously uncoupled” in March  

My best and worst stories of 2014

Simmy Richman
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015