To lose 21 MPs may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose your own brother looks like carelessness. In 2013, Boris Johnson mocked David and Ed Miliband after Ed defeated his elder brother in the Labour Party’s 2010 leadership race. “We don’t do things that way,” Johnson declared. “That’s a very left-wing thing . . . only a socialist could do that to his brother, only a socialist could regard familial ties as being so trivial as to shaft his own brother.”
Awkwardly, the Conservative universities minister, Jo Johnson, did exactly that to his equally Conservative elder brother, the prime minister, last week — presumably in disgust at the latter’s decision to withdraw the whip from the 21 rebels who had voted against the government to avert a no-deal Brexit.
“In recent weeks,” wrote Johnson Minor on Twitter, “I’ve been torn between family loyalty and the national interest — it’s an unresolvable tension & time for others to take on my roles as MP & Minister.”
“Blow for Bojo as bro Jo go goes,” was the London Evening Standard’s headline, which suggests that the chief sub-editor has been reading Dr Seuss’s Fox in Socks to the kids at bedtime.
It cannot have escaped Jo Johnson’s notice that his decision to resign would hurt his brother. It was already a nightmare week in No 10 — one in which all the prime minister’s game-theoretical calculations unravelled so completely that he now finds himself held hostage by the House of Commons, bleakly confronting the choice between seeking yet another article 50 extension and resigning to go down in history as Britain’s shortest-lived premier. Et tu, Jo?
Never having had a brother, I have always rather envied my sons their fraternal relationships. I’ve also long been interested in brotherhood as a historical phenomenon. The fortune of the Rothschild family, whose history I wrote in the 1990s, was made by five brothers who were born and raised in the Frankfurt ghetto but by the 1830s were almost certainly the wealthiest men on earth. Later in the 19th century came the Warburg brothers, the Lehman brothers and many others.
Studying such family firms, I came to see that their experience of brotherhood was far more widely shared than in our time. In many ways the Victorian age was the zenith of the large family, to be followed by a swift collapse. In the 1890s, for example, 58% of German families had four or more children. By 1930, however, only 19% still had four or more; nearly two-thirds had two or one.
At the same time, the late 19th century was a time of rapidly improving healthcare: male life expectancy rose from 35 to 55, on average; in Hamburg in the two decades after 1893, the mortality rate fell from 25-35 per 1,000 to 15-20 per 1,000.
This improvement, combined with somewhat more effective birth control and the shift towards sexual equality, helps to explain the rapid contraction in family size in the 20th century. But before that happened, there was a golden age of big families with numerous, long-lived siblings — in short, brothers galore.
The ubiquity of fraternity may help explain why the ideal of brotherhood was so frequently invoked prior to the 1900s. The spread of freemasonry in the 18th century is a part of the story, as masonic lodges challenged the hierarchical social order of the ancien régime, encouraging men to regard and address one another as brothers.
Both the American and French revolutions made much of fraternity: along with liberty and equality, it became (and remains) one of the pillars of the French republic.
“Alle Menschen werden Brüder” (All people become brothers) was one of the great utopian aspirations of the age of revolution. Friedrich Schiller’s lines, written just four years before the storming of the Bastille, and set to music by Beethoven six years prior to another revolutionary wave in 1830, are fascinating to revisit. Originally, Schiller wrote “Bettler werden Fürstenbrüder” (Beggars become brothers of princes).
The same sentiment can be found in A Man’s a Man for A’ That, Robert Burns’s great egalitarian poem. “Then let us pray that come it may, / . . . That Man to Man, the world o’er, / Shall brothers be for a’ that.”
This idealisation of brotherhood has proved remarkably persistent, even as fewer and fewer of us have actually grown up with a brother. Traces of fraternal solidarity survive in the trade union movement. At many US colleges, fraternities remain the basis of student social life. The term “bro” now conjures up an insalubrious image of boozy characters from National Lampoon’s Animal House, but I continue to hear American men greet male friends as “bro” in an affectionate rather than ironic way.
Yet the reality of brotherhood is often completely at odds with the ideal. The Bible gets this, from Cain and Abel to Joseph and his brothers. So does Shakespeare, as he constructs Hamlet’s tragedy around Claudius’s murder of his brother or pits Edmund against Edgar in King Lear.
However amicable two brothers may start out in life, a competition often develops, even if they attend different schools. Sibling rivalry may exist between a brother and a sister, of course, but it tends to be less intense.
Once, a few years ago, my elder son and I watched his younger brother play rugby for his school. He played with an uncharacteristic ferocity, scored a try, made a bone-crunching, try-saving tackle and was justly named man of the match. Slowly it dawned on me that he would probably have played a different game had father and big brother not been present.
It is not easy being a younger brother, especially if your older brother is an achiever. But one advantage is that you know what score you have to beat. Boris Johnson’s Oxford career was brilliant in many ways, but not academically: he got an upper second. Little brother Jo was awarded a first.
It was perhaps just as well for Sir Austen Chamberlain that he did not live to see his younger brother Neville become prime minister. Both men led the Tory party. Neville knew what he had to do to finish ahead.
There are two truly great novels — both of Scottish provenance — that revolve around fraternal feuding: James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae. In each case, the rival brothers are chalk and cheese — one good-hearted, the other diabolical. Jo has probably read them. Boris probably hasn’t.
Come to think of it, that is just one of the many reasons why I look forward to Jo Johnson’s premiership.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
“Hey, Toreador! . . . We head for the edge, and the first man who jumps is a chicken. All right?” In Rebel without a Cause, Jim (James Dean) and Buzz (Corey Allen) play the most famous game of chicken in Hollywood history, driving their jalopies at full speed towards a Californian cliff. At the last minute, Jim jumps. Buzz, his sleeve caught on the door handle, plunges to his death.
Games of chicken are all around these days. Indeed, it starts to feel as if the whole world is playing a massive, multiplayer game of chicken.
Clearly, Boris Johnson’s jaunts to Berlin and Paris last week were part of a diplomatic game of chicken. The prime minister repeated his readiness to go over the cliff of a no-deal Brexit if the European Union is not prepared to scrap the Irish backstop. Contrary to some UK press reports, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and French president, Emmanuel Macron, essentially reiterated their commitment to the existing withdrawal agreement. Vroom!
If Mr “Million-to-One-Against” himself were driving, there would be no chance of the Europeans chickening out. But the man at the wheel of the British jalopy is not Boris but the prime minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, and the glint in his eye tells you that he would quite enjoy hurtling over the precipice. After all, for him, Brexit is just a means to a higher end: the revolutionary disruption of Britain’s broken system of government.
A bigger game of chicken is going on between America and China. The trade war that Donald Trump initiated last year by imposing tariffs on Chinese imports has escalated because neither side’s negotiators have jumped. Not only have the two sides ramped up the tariffs this summer; there has also been an intensification of the tech war over Chinese companies, notably Huawei, as well as the first phase of a currency war.
Frustrated by the strength of the dollar, which he sees as a drag on US exports, Trump has resumed his other game of chicken: with the Federal Reserve. “We have a very strong dollar and a very weak Fed,” he tweeted on Friday. “My only question is, who is our bigger enemy, Jay Powell [the Fed chairman] or Chairman Xi [Jinping]?”
Even the president’s own advisers know that the economic warfare between the world’s two largest economies is lowering growth everywhere and that the insouciant US consumer will eventually feel the effects. Yet neither Trump nor his Chinese counterpart wants to be the chicken. On they both drive, pedal to the metal.
The stock market hates it, so Trump piles more pressure on Powell. Will he cut interest rates again next month? Or will he drive over the cliff marked “recession”? Xi also has a subsidiary game of chicken — with the Hong Kong protesters. Will he tolerate their defiance, or will he send in mainland security forces? Will the protesters jump or keep driving for democracy?
Rebel without a Cause was released in 1955. The English philosopher Bertrand Russell clearly didn’t go to see it. We know this because in his classic account of the game of chicken published four years later (in Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare) he gave a different version of the game.
Chicken, he explained, “is played by choosing a long straight road with a white line down the middle and starting two very fast cars towards each other from opposite ends. Each car is expected to keep the wheels of one side on the white line. As they approach each other, mutual destruction becomes more and more imminent. If one of them swerves . . . the other, as he passes, shouts ‘Chicken!’.”
“As played by irresponsible boys,” Russell went on, “this game is considered decadent and immoral . . . But when the game is played by eminent statesmen, who risk not only their own lives but those of many hundreds of millions of human beings, it is thought on both sides that the statesmen on one side are displaying a high degree of wisdom and courage.”
The target of Russell’s critique was the US secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, who had described “the ability to get to the verge without getting into the war” as “the necessary art”. “If you try to run away from it,” he argued, “if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost.”
To Russell, such brinkmanship had become “absurd” in the age of nuclear weapons. “The moment will come”, he argued, “when neither side can face the derisive cry of ‘Chicken!’ from the other side. When that moment is come, the statesmen of both sides will plunge the world into destruction.” Just three years later, the superpowers came perilously close to doing just that in the Cuban missile crisis.
Pioneers of game theory and nuclear strategy — notably Thomas Schelling and Herman Kahn — sought to turn Russell’s logic on its head, arguing that the alternative to playing the game of chicken was surrender, and that the way to win was to put on a blindfold or remove the steering wheel, signalling that swerving was not an option. But I am not sure how strong those arguments really were.
Today’s games of chicken, you may say, are for lower stakes. There are economic risks to a no-deal Brexit and to an all-out US–China trade war, but no one is about to launch nuclear missiles. That may explain why so many games of chicken are being played: even if nobody jumps or swerves, it’s not Armageddon.
There is, however, a possible exception to the rule, and that is the game of chicken being played by the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, with the planet itself. In defiance of climate science and educated opinion, he has rolled back environmental protections for the Amazon rainforest. The result is a vast conflagration.
Nothing could better illustrate the dilemma of the modern green movement in Europe and North America. All the efforts they expect their own governments and peoples to make will be ineffectual if Brazil — and, more importantly, India and China — brazenly increase their carbon dioxide and other emissions. Yet environmentalists shrink from the imperialist implication: if Brazil, India and China won’t mend their wicked ways, then they must be forced to do so.
Bolsonaro is not just playing chicken with the planet. He is playing chicken with an international system that, until now, assumed global warming could be halted by voluntary agreements between sovereign states. And he does not look like a jumper — or a swerver — to me.
Trump ended his Friday on the phone to Bolsonaro. “Our future Trade prospects are very exciting and our relationship is strong,” he tweeted, “perhaps stronger than ever before. I told him if the United States can help with the Amazon Rainforest fires, we stand ready to assist!”
Fried chicken, anyone?
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
Ours is a time of paradoxes. For example, even as information technology has empowered enormous and open-access social networks, politics in Britain continues to be run by the tiny and exclusive old-boy network. The contest for the Conservative Party leadership will decide who is Britain’s next prime minister. Seven of the original candidates were Oxford men. The two remaining candidates, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, are respectively the former president of the Oxford Union and the former president of the Oxford University Conservative Association. Johnson went to Eton; Hunt was head boy at Charterhouse.
Of Britain’s 54 prime ministers since Sir Robert Walpole, 27 were educated at Oxford and 19 at Eton. If Hunt defies the bookies by winning, he will be the second Old Carthusian to occupy No 10. (The first was Lord Liverpool.)
Johnson is believed by some to be the British Donald Trump. Aside from big hair and body mass, however, they have nothing in common. Although born into a wealthy family, Trump was and remains a social outsider, sneered at by Manhattan’s Upper East Side. When he announced his bid for the presidency four years ago, Arianna Huffington said she would cover his campaign in her Huffington Post website’s entertainment section. Johnson was already a member of Britain’s social and political elite before he even got to Oxford.
Trump was early to see the huge political potential of social media, joining Twitter in 2009. He has 61.5m followers. Johnson was late to the game, joining in 2015. He has 614,000-plus followers, 1% of Trump’s total — and fewer than a third as many as the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
Trump notoriously communicates at the level of a 10-year-old. Johnson speaks the archaic jolly-good-egg English of PG Wodehouse. Last week, apropos of the Irish backstop, he told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg: “We were the authors of our own incarceration.” Trump would simply have said: “We locked ourselves up.”
“People are yearning . . . for this great incubus to be pitchforked off the back of British politics,” Johnson declared. If MPs failed to deliver Brexit, they would face “mortal retribution”. Boris isn’t Trump. He’s Wodehouse’s spoof demagogue, Roderick Spode, the 7th Earl of Sidcup.
Moreover, this quintessential product of the old elite is three weeks away from being anointed prime minister by another old elite. At the last general election, 46.8m people were registered to vote, of whom 69% turned out. But Britain’s next leader will be chosen by one-third of 1% of the electorate: the 160,000 people who pay the £25 annual subscription that is required to become a member of the Conservative Party.
For most of the 20th century, mass-membership political parties were the organisations that ran democracies. In 1953, the Conservatives could claim to have nearly 3m members. The number of individual members of the Labour Party peaked in 1952 at 1,015,000; there were more than 5m corporate (mainly trade union) members.
Today, as in most European countries, the parties have withered away so that Social Democrats and Christian Democrats alike resemble enthusiasts for an anachronistic hobby such as stamp collecting.
The Tory party looks like a classic case of an obsolescent hierarchy: 97% white, 86% middle class (ABC1), 71% male, 54% from southern England and 44% over 65. Fully 84% oppose a second referendum on EU membership and two-thirds of Tory members favour a no-deal Brexit. Why not just ask the Oxford Union to choose the new prime minister?
Here is a further paradox: the British political landscape, under the strain of Brexit, increasingly resembles a continental European system. The age of two-party dominance, despite a fleeting resurgence in 2017, looks to be over. According to the Britain Elects poll aggregator, four parties now have the support of more than 15% of the electorate. YouGov places the Brexit Party — registered by the true British Trump, Nigel Farage, less than six months ago — level with the Tories on 22%. There are similar stories of fragmentation in most EU countries. Ironically, as Britons seek to leave the EU, they are becoming more politically European than they have ever been.
The final paradox has to do with the logic of Brexit itself. Since the 1980s, British Euroscepticism has rested on the belief that the European Economic Community that we joined in 1973 was inexorably morphing into a federal superstate. Here was Margaret Thatcher in her seminal Bruges speech from September 1988: “Working more closely together does not require power to be centralised in Brussels or decisions to be taken by an appointed bureaucracy . . . We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them reimposed at a European level, with a European superstate exercising a new dominance from Brussels.”
For a time, especially as the continental leaders forced through their ill-conceived monetary union, this seemed a legitimate fear. Tory journalists, not least the young Johnson, covered every step in the direction of Bundesrepublik Europa with febrile excitement. True, some of the quotes were made up, but the central thrust of Euroscepticism was correct: with its distinctive history, Britain could not possibly tolerate the loss of sovereignty inherent in the federalist project.
The rise of the internet dooms the European federalist project as surely as it does the old political parties. A hierarchical structure of recognisably 1950s provenance, the EU has proved unequal to the challenges of three network-propelled crises: the US-originated bank panic, the Arab revolutions and the trans-Mediterranean migration surge. The political backlash against these failures, of which Brexit is just a part, has been a death sentence for the project of “ever-closer union”.
A new generation of right-wing populists — of whom the most talented is Matteo Salvini of Italy’s League party — has worked out that it’s easier to remain inside the European tent but constantly to bitch about it, than to exit. Soon there will be enough populist governments to erect a permanent barrier to further integration inside the council of ministers. In any case, almost no north European leader takes seriously the proposals for European reform of Emmanuel Macron, the French president. He is the last federalist standing.
So an Old Etonian is about to become prime minister because he looks “to the manner born” in the eyes of a tiny, self-selected electorate and is willing to promise them the magical Brexit they still believe in. In reality, Brexit is an impossibly expensive and complicated divorce from a spouse who is terminally ill. It’s like seceding from the Holy Roman Empire.
One day we shall realise what a colossal waste of time and energy all this has been. Speaking of modern networks, we would be vastly better off if we had spent the past three years mining bitcoin.
The revised and updated second edition of Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money will be published by Penguin on Thursday
“Linkage” was a term introduced to American diplomacy by Henry Kissinger at the outset of the Nixon administration. Linkage could be an explicit gambit — for example, making “progress in settling the Vietnam War . . . a condition for advance in areas of interest to the Soviets, such as the Middle East, trade, or arms limitation”. But it was also an implicit reality in an increasingly interdependent world.
Few commentators on international relations would credit Donald Trump with such sophistication. When we think of the current president, the word “links” tends to conjure up images of golf courses rather than grand strategy. And yet his administration’s foreign policy is too frequently underestimated. Linkage is central to it.
The context is different, of course, because the Soviet Union has dwindled into Vladimir Putin’s Russia, while China under Xi Jinping is now the rival superpower. And today there is no foreign policy mess like the Vietnam War, sapping American strength and tearing the country apart. Yet the world is even more interdependent in 2019 than it was 50 years ago. Linkage is all around.
Consider the following linked issues. First, there is the Trump administration’s use of tariffs to force China to change its behaviour with respect to trade. Second, there is the tech war, which is being waged not only against the Chinese firm Huawei but more generally in the area of artificial intelligence. Third, there is Washington’s effort to alter the Middle East balance of power to the disadvantage of Iran — an effort that nearly led to a retaliatory airstrike on Thursday after the Iranians shot down a US drone.
Finally, there is the president’s desire to keep the American economy growing, which explains his renewed pressure on the Federal Reserve and especially its chairman, Jerome Powell. Investors probably ought to be more worried than they are about the US-China trade war, as well as the danger of conflict with Iran. But as long as the Fed looks like giving Trump the rate cuts he wants, markets remain exuberant, consumers stay confident and the 2020 re-election campaign is on track.
A recent visit to Washington taught me two things about the new linkage that I had not fully grasped. First, the administration wants to ramp up the pressure on Xi. Tomorrow, the vice-president, Mike Pence, was due to deliver another key speech on China. The one he gave at the Hudson Institute in October focused on the geopolitical rationale for a tougher American stance. This new speech was going to come at Beijing from a different angle.
Pence’s speech was originally scheduled to be delivered on the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, but Trump himself responded to Chinese pleas to avoid that most sensitive of dates. (This is the kind of linkage the president loves. Giving Xi a low-cost break such as this ensures he has the upper hand at the G20 in Osaka.) Pence’s speech was to focus on the Chinese government’s mistreatment of political dissidents and religious minorities, both Muslim and Christian.
This would have upped the ante at a time when Beijing is reeling from the vast show of people power in Hong Kong that forced the suspension of a law to facilitate extradition to the mainland. The great vulnerability of Xi’s regime is not its lack of democracy; few Chinese expect to see free elections in their lifetimes. It is the lack of the rule of law that people resent — which is why so many yearn to invest their money in America.
As he loves to do, the US president has teased both Beijing and Wall Street by promising “an extended meeting” with Xi in Osaka. On Friday he postponed Pence’s speech. I suppose Trump might, on a whim, agree a trade deal over dinner. But that would run counter to all the other moves his administration has been making. It seems more likely that, unless there are big concessions on the Chinese side, Trump will slap yet more tariffs on Chinese imports. With the Fed poised to cut rates next month and the stock market at new highs, Trump has no incentive to let Xi off the hook. Better to save the trade deal for election year.
The other thing I now understand better is the administration’s Middle East strategy. As Trump revealed when he cancelled the planned airstrikes, he is not itching for war. Temperamentally, Trump is just not a war president. His goal is to maintain the pressure on — and the isolation of — Tehran for diplomatic reasons. No journalist I know takes seriously Jared Kushner’s Middle East peace initiative, the first part of which will be unveiled at a conference in Bahrain this week. “Dead before arrival” is the conventional wisdom. But I take the contrarian view that the timing is propitious and the design of the plan ingenious.
When you reflect on the changes there have been in the region since his father-in-law’s inauguration, two things leap out at you. The first is that Israel is no longer beleaguered, surrounded by foes. It has become part of an American-led Arab-Israeli coalition against Iran. The second is that the Palestinians, whose status as victims was once so useful to both Arab nationalists and Islamists, have been marginalised.
Previous peace initiatives put the big constitutional and territorial questions first. Big, but insoluble. Kushner’s goal is to begin with the small matter of money, which in reality is not so small. Large-scale investment in the West Bank and Gaza, funded in part by the oil-rich Gulf states, stands a chance of weaning at least some Palestinians away from Hamas. The lesson of the Arab revolutions was that there is a constituency of small businessmen who are as sick of the rackets run by terrorists as they are of the extortions of venal governments.
The unforeseen hitch has been the failure of the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, to form a new coalition, which is sending his country back to the polls in distant September. That is bound to weaken the linkage between economic opportunities and political concessions.
“Linkage . . . is not a natural concept for Americans,” Kissinger once admitted. “Our bureaucratic organisations . . . compound the tendency to compartmentalise. American pragmatism produces a penchant for examining issues separately: to solve problems on their merits.” That’s what they teach you to do at law school. But Trump’s contempt for the bureaucratic mindset means linkage comes quite naturally to him.
Still, let’s not get carried away. Linkage can backfire if a single failure causes a chain reaction. Linkage also needs allies to play their part — whereas the Europeans would prefer to be non-aligned in the tech war, neutral in the trade war and signed up to the old Iran nuclear deal.
No matter how ingenious, linkage may not compensate for the effect of Trump’s wrecking-ball style on American influence around the world, which can best be summed up in a single world: shrinkage.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford