Blood Politics

LONDON – The race for the leadership of the British Labour Party isn’t normally a world-shaking event. But the recent contest between two brothers – David and Ed Miliband – not only provided the material for a riveting family drama; it also illustrated some peculiarities of democratic cultures that often go un-noted – and the strange relationship between the personal and the political that is built into the   hierarchy of democratic protocol.  

Politics, or at least the exercise of power, was traditionally a family affair. Kings typically hankered after male heirs, because power was vested through filial lineage, and distributed through tribal affiliations.

Hereditary power did not necessarily make for warm and open family relations. Henry VIII was willing to execute two wives and overturn Christendom in pursuit of a son. There are examples, in polygamous societies, of royal concubines murdering each other’s children in order to assure the predominance of their genetic line. The Ottomans introduced the practice of “judicial royal fratricide,” supposedly to prevent civil war.

Whether it involved absolute loyalty or murderous rivalry, traditional politics was rarely divorced from personal passion. Not so in modern Western democracies, where personal passions are, at least in theory, supposed to be completely separate from the impersonal representation of group interests.