My son Ludo celebrated his sixth birthday last week and one of his friends gave him a miniature air-hockey game. It’s like the ones you see in amusement arcades, with two pushers, a puck and a goal at either end, but no bigger than a box of Cornflakes. When it was my turn to get up with the children on Sunday, I decided to start the day with an air-hockey tournament. Nothing like a bit of sibling rivalry to get the competitive juices flowing, I thought.
The opening match was between Ludo and Freddie, his three-year-old brother. Ludo won the first six points comfortably and looked all set to cruise to victory. Then something strange happened. Freddie scored a goal — it was more of an own-goal by Ludo, in fact — and his older brother turned into a different person. He exploded with rage, threw his pusher on the floor and tried to pick up the air-hockey game with a view to smashing it to smithereens.
‘FREDDIE CHEATED,’ he screamed. ‘FREDDIE CHEATED.’
‘He didn’t cheat,’ I said. ‘Come on, you’re in the lead, you’ll probably win. Don’t be such a baby.’
Trying to coax Ludo back to the table proved impossible. He was shaking with fury. His breathing became quick and arrhythmic, interrupted by howls of primordial rage. Tears began to stream down his cheeks. Conceding a single goal to his younger brother was more traumatic than anything he’d ever experienced before, including breaking his collarbone. Sweet, good-natured Ludo was now possessed by Beelzebub. He was in the throes of what clinical psychiatrists call a ‘psychotic episode’.
This is the first time I’ve ever witnessed full-blown, brother-on-brother sibling rivalry. I had no idea the schism went quite so deep. Suddenly, Ed Miliband’s decision to challenge his older brother’s candidacy for the leadership of the Labour party makes sense. Until now, I’ve always wondered what sort of man would knife his own brother in such a public, humiliating way. Ed knew that David had devoted his entire life to securing the leadership of the Labour party. Yet this didn’t prevent him throwing his own hat into the ring.
Turns out he isn’t a monster after all — or no more monstrous than the average politician. He’s just in the grip of a psychosis caused by being brought up in the same household as another male child. Having seen how Ludo reacted when Freddie scored an air-hockey goal, I now realise that Ed simply couldn’t resist the opportunity to make his brother suffer. Far from being a disincentive, the pain his candidacy would cause was probably a big part of his unconscious motivation. Indeed, ‘unconscious’ is probably too charitable. Late at night, as Ed plotted away in the flat above his brother’s home in Primrose Hill, he may have allowed himself the occasional cackle of sadistic glee as he imagined David’s reaction to the announcement of his victory.
As for David, I cannot begin to imagine what he’s going through. According to Freud, sibling rivalry is prompted by fear of abandonment — you imagine your parents only have a finite amount of love to give and more for your siblings means less for you. Usually, the link is heavily disguised, but in David’s case it could not have been more explicit. He and Ed competed with each other to see who was more loved by the Labour party — a proxy for the love of their late father, Ralph Miliband. And it turned out that the party loved his younger brother more. It must be absolute agony.
I imagine that behind the stoic facade, David is reacting much like Ludo did last Sunday. As he observes his younger brother wafting up and down the corridors of power, flunkies trailing behind him like courtiers, he probably has to suppress a torrent of rage. At one point, Ludo launched himself at Freddie’s throat, talons at the ready, and I had to restrain him. Presumably, every time David sees the expression on Ed’s face when the topic of his older brother comes up — that mask of condescension and pity — the impulse to smash his fist into it must be overwhelming. David must spend half his waking life fantasising about acts of terrible revenge.
Thank God I don’t have a younger brother to torment me in this way. If I was David Miliband, I’d now be doing a stretch in Pentonville for involuntary manslaughter.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator