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Opinion Jo Johnson’s resignation reminds us how fraternity can turn to enmity

It cannot have escaped the notice of former British universities minister Jo Johnson, seen in London on Sept. 5, 2019, that his decision to depart from cabinet would hurt his brother.

HENRY NICHOLLS/Reuters

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford

To lose 21 MPs may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose your own brother looks like carelessness.

In 2013, Britain’s future prime minister Boris Johnson mocked David and Ed Miliband after Ed defeated his elder brother in the Labour Party’s 2010 leadership race.

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“We don’t do things that way,” Mr. 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 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.

It cannot have escaped Mr. Johnson’s notice that his decision to resign would hurt his brother. It was already a nightmare week – one in which all the Prime Minister’s game-theoretical calculations unravelled so completely that he now finds himself held hostage by the British House of Commons, bleakly confronting the choice between seeking yet another Article 50 extension or 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 back 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. Couples had multiple children, as in the past, but improvements in medical science and public health meant that more survived to adulthood. 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.

The idealization of brotherhood has proved remarkably persistent: At many U.S. 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.

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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 amicably two brothers may start out in life, a competition often develops, even if they attend different schools. Such 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 eldest 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.

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 I look forward to Jo Johnson’s premiership.

©Niall Ferguson/The Sunday Times, London

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