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