The face of power
Machiavelli is cynical bedtime reading for the powerful. David Walker wonders if he keeps Peter Mandelson awake at night
Thursday 05 March 1998
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.
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