The face of power

Machiavelli is cynical bedtime reading for the powerful. David Walker wonders if he keeps Peter Mandelson awake at night

MEN are turned on by power in a very particular way, especially when the power is of the political variety. They divest themselves of the capacity to distinguish right and wrong, good and bad. This is the nub of the political doctrine known as Machiavellianism: in the service of the state, anything goes.

Historians long ago agreed that Niccol Machiavelli, the Renaissance civil servant, was a lot more subtle (and confused) than might be suggested by a quick reading of The Prince, his cynical bedtime book for the powerful. But the label has stuck. "Machiavellian" entered the language, a synonym for amoral, unthinking service of power, ie spin-doctoring.

Which is why a bunch of academics at Manchester Metropolitan University who are mounting a conference on Machiavelli are playing up the New Labour angle and trying to make a connection with the roles of Peter Mandelson and Charlie Whelan. It's true that Tony Blair's summer retreat (Geoffrey Robertson's Tuscan villa) is close to Niccol's old home in San Casciano, high in the hills south of Florence, but does the resemblance go any further?

The reason The Prince has survived the centuries is that it remains required reading for civil servants, junior ministers, courtiers, all those flying near the flame of power. It's full of modern-sounding aphorisms, the kind of thing you might easily imagine Peter whispering to Tony (or Charlie bawling across an office to Gordon) "A prudent ruler cannot keep his word, when such fidelity would damage him"... "The common people are impressed by appearances" ... "It is better to be loved than feared, but better to be feared than nothing at all."

And so on. But there are good reasons why any comparison between Mandelson and Machiavelli is far-fetched - above and beyond the stern injunction from the Cambridge Professor of Political Science, Quentin Skinner, that you should never read political books outside the context in which they were written, especially those of the early 16th century.

For one thing, Machiavelli was not the proverbial prince of darkness. His career plans crashed when the fickle Florentines welcomed back the Medici family and Niccol got his P45 as well as a light touch of torture. But before then he had been a personality in his own right, as an ambassador and military strategist.

Last May Peter Mandelson made the transition from backroom boy to public figure. Conditions looked good for his emergence as a substantial politician. Instead he was given no proper job to do, or at least not one on which the public can judge his mettle. Overseeing the Dome is a non-job. For his own sake, let alone that of the Prime Minister, he should have left its management to arms' length professionals. A "Machiavellian" would surely have seen that as a way of garnering credit if the thing works and putting the blame on others if it fails.

A true Machiavellian might sometimes be moved to tell the prince some unpalatable things. "Friendships that are acquired with money and not through greatness of character prove unreliable just when they are needed," Niccol wrote. Would Peter ever steel himself to tell Tony that some of his alliances (for example that with Murdoch) fall into this category?

It's said of Machiavelli that his true "Machiavellianism" lay in not meaning the advice he proffered in The Prince. The book was intended as a job application, a way of getting into the good graces of the Medicis not for the sake of personal aggrandisement but because Italy needed a strong dynasty.

A kind reading of Mandelson's career might suggest all he has sought to do has been for the greater good of socialism, at least in its New Labour guise. In this reading Mandelson (who was once thick with Neil Kinnock) takes an instrumental view of Blair. If Blair were to lose the plot, Mandelson would cast around for a substitute.

Alternatively, you can read The Prince for an early expression of the great maxim of politics which says socialism is what a Labour government does; in other words, never mind the big picture, let's get on with the job of governing. That phrase about socialism was, surprise surprise, coined by Peter Mandelson's granddad, Herbert Morrison, so it may have come down to him in the genes.

Niccol was a Renaissance man whose interests ranged from play writing to designing enfilades and glacis for the defence of Florence. It would be hard to picture Peter in a steel helmet, but he has been known to tread the dance hall boards which one must suppose makes him a man of the world. Machiavelli could write. Mandelson's prose style - witness his pre- election book The Blair Revolution - is hardly classical.

There is a key chapter in The Prince which sometimes gets overlooked. It's about a ruler's obligations to his servants. Their loyalty, Machiavelli hints, is not unlimited. A wise ruler will see his servant all right. It's a chapter Tony Blair should study. Keeping his servant hanging on in his indeterminate and increasingly ineffective position has done neither any favours.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>
filmRobert Downey Jr named Hollywood's highest paid actor for second year running
Life and Style
Dale Bolinger arranged to meet the girl via a fetish website
life
Property
Sign here, please: Magna Carta Island
propertyYours for a cool £4m
Life and Style
tech
News
The Commonwealth flag flies outside Westminster Abbey in central London
news
Arts and Entertainment
Struggling actors who scrape a living working in repertory theatres should get paid a 'living wage', Sir Ian McKellen has claimed
theatre
Extras
indybest
News
Skye McCole Bartusiak's mother said she didn't use drink or drugs
peopleActress was known for role in Mel Gibson film The Patriot
Arts and Entertainment
tvWebsite will allow you to watch all 522 shows on-demand
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Community / Stakeholder Manager - Solar PV

    £50000 - £60000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

    Senior Marketing Executive (B2B/B2C) - London

    £32000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

    C# .Net Developer

    £23000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: C# .Net Develop re...

    Electronics Design Engineer

    £35000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: My client are l...

    Day In a Page

    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
    Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

    Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

    They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
    The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

    20 best days out for the summer holidays

    From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
    Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

    All the wood’s a stage

    Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
    Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

    Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

    Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
    Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

    Self-preservation society

    Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
    Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

    Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

    We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor