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
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The Independent Online

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.