Michael Bywater: This is what men do. They fight each other, and then they make friends

The exchange of grunts across the bar can convey as much information as two women would need an entire evening and two bottles of Jacob’s Creek to get across

Saturday 15 May 2010 00:00 BST

They're friends now. Aww! And who'd have thought it? But there they were, in the garden, smiling at each other, side by side as the sun shone, faking little huffs. As the man from the BBC almost but didn't quite say, it was almost but not quite like being at a gay wedding. Only the show tunes were missing.

But why are we so surprised? This, we have been repeatedly told, is the first occasion since the Second World War in which such a thing has happened, but instead of feeling grimly determined, the country seems to be curiously chipper, as though having a government which has coalesced around two men who are behaving like friends is somehow better, more cheery, more plain damn' hopeful, than a country whose political life is characterised by infantile snarling, the inarticulate roarings of the House, and all the idiotic hair-splitting and case-making and acting-out which is set in motion by an adversarial, two-party (sorry, Dick, but it was true) Parliament.

Nice. Optimistic. Nicest of all, it must be living hell for the barking extremists on either side. But surprising? No.

It's not even new. Politically, we may have to look back to the Second World War. In human terms, we'd have to go a long way further back. The very first story about two men who became friends after combat is also perhaps the very first written-down story to survive: the Epic of Gilgamesh, from ancient Iraq, then the Land Between the Rivers, Mesopotamia. It's around 4,000 years old and begins with a friendless ruler, Gilgamesh. Nobody is worthy to be his friend. But they find a wild but powerful man of the woods, Enkidu, subdue him with courtesans (politics never changes) and bring him to town where, immediately, he and Gilgamesh fall into a frightful thrashing roaring punch-up. Davegamesh wins; Clegkidu embraces him and from then on they are inseparable. (It doesn't end so well, but five years is a long time in epic.)

Small boys in the playground fight to bond – or used to, until risk assessment and the rise of the female model of how-to-be-human. Slightly larger boys bond together in gangs who fight each other. Throughout life, we compete to test not only territory but also alliances. That friendship should be preceded by combat is a human fundamental, and venerable.

Yet surely the Cleggeron friendship (not the political alliance, which is obviously expedient, even on the basis that it's better to reign in hell than serve in heaven) is suspect. What about their principles? What about their differences?

The trouble is, that's all we see. Looking at my own friendships as an observer, I cannot think of one with whom I did not have profound differences of opinion or taste. Two were gay, one liked the Beatles, this one was an athlete, that one a celibate, X played football and Y was a devout Tory ... but we were friends, and nor did we have to account for it. As Montaigne wrote in his essay, Of Friendship, "Pur genuine libertie hath no production more properly her owne, than that of affection and amitie."

If we look more closely at Cleggeron, the possibility of a genuine, not purely instrumental or PR-driven, friendship increases exponentially. Both went to great and ancient public schools. Both went to great and ancient universities. Both sprang from the educated upper-middle class. Both are heterosexual, married, with children. Both are, and always have been, passionately interested in the profession of politics. A computerised dating agency would match them in a nanosecond.

The gloomy – count me in, to some extent – cite all this as precisely the return to the politics of privilege we've been trying to get away from all these years. The phoney case-making of the school debating society and of the Oxford or Cambridge Union may be a decent training for arguing a case outside of personal conviction, but its continuation into the Houses of Parliament – grown men behaving like pompous witless undergraduates who substitute partisanism for judgement and rodomontade for argument – is a curse on our public life. So, too, the fake adversarialism of the law courts. You can still see the barristers chattering away happily ("Damn good win, old chap; thought you'd lost it there for a moment but splendid recovery, splendid") to their opponents, regardless that a human life has been ruined in the jolly old game.

But an adversarial system is what we've got and we might hope that at least it were run by men who at least appear to believe, with Immanuel Kant, that the mark of the enlightenment was to secure an ethical Chinese wall between the public and the private facets of one's life.

Perhaps if Cleggeron were less like David and Jonathan or Gilbert and George and more like Didi and Gogo from Waiting for Godot, we might feel less uneasy. But to see them in the garden or the steps of No 10 is to see the triumph of the Posh Boys. Yet this is nothing to do with their personal relationship. That both appear already to have friends – not simply beneficiary, book-balanced friends, as Seneca described "as sisters in a circle" in On Benefits, or "clients", fawning and seeking preferment, as his imperial Roman contemporaries surrounded themselves with – is surely a mark of a sort of human character far more endearing and, in the end, useful than the dour, isolated, single-mindedly heroic model which Cleggeron's predecessor chose as his own.

In the end, this is what men do.

They do it in the armed forces; they do it in sport, in the professions, in life in general. No man ever went up to another and said "I'd like you to be my friend", though almost all the women I have asked said they had done precisely that. There is, it's true, a generality among men to have a cut-off point for making friends, usually said to be at school or at university. But there are exceptions. I barely see anyone I knew from school or university days; our lives have simply drifted apart.

Men's friendships manifest themselves in strange ways. The exchange of grunts across the bar can convey as much information as two women would need an entire evening and two bottles of Jacob's Creek to get across. When you see a group of women talking, they're looking at each other. A group of men will have a third-party object of their gaze: a football match, a gadget, a lap-dancer, a challenge. It's how we are. The "English friendship which begins with a careful avoidance of personal confidence and ends in complete silence" is no more than an extreme version of this, as is the English gentlemen's club, in Anthony Lejeune's words, "a place where 300 Englishmen can go to be alone".

At the other end of the bell-curve you find odd male-bonding rituals: the rock stars' spit-roasted groupie, the naked woman being passed from bedroom to bedroom: these aren't men getting it on so much as getting it together. So what appears to be political expediency, and therefore untrustworthy instrumentalism, might more likely be simply what men do, and that Cleggeron is doing it suggests that we are being governed by human beings, not hyperpolitical machines.

If there's one major sadness in all this, it's that it clarifies something still at the heart of male British life: what brings people together – and what excludes people – is still class. Can you imagine Cleggeron with one of its components a first-generation immigrant from a Glasgow tower block? Me neither. Whereas, oddly, one can imagine a friendship like that between women. But that's another story.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in