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The other Prince of Darkness

This is a clever publishing idea, a light academic-historical cloak for another set of political memoirs.

6 November 2010

12:00 AM

6 November 2010

12:00 AM

The New Machiavelli: How to Wield Power in the Modern World Jonathan Powell

Bodley Head, pp.340, 20

This is a clever publishing idea, a light academic-historical cloak for another set of political memoirs. Jonathan Powell, chief of staff (the term should not be taken literally) at No. 10 throughout Tony Blair’s premiership, kept a diary. Blair himself couldn’t, Powell explains: ‘There simply isn’t time for a prime minister to set out detailed reflections and lead a country at the same time’. One wonders how Ronald Reagan managed it. Besides, is not reflecting on events, actions and consequences — ‘examining with diligence the past’ — one of Machiavelli’s precepts?

Despite its title, however, the book is not a re-casting of the tenets of Machiavellianism. It is an extended essay, the exam question being not so much ‘Examine Machiavelli’s The Prince and The Discourses with special reference to Tony Blair’s premiership’, which could have been dull, but rather ‘Describe Blair’s premiership with special reference to The Prince and The Discourses’ — which needn’t be dull as long as the Machiavellianism isn’t laboured.

On the whole it isn’t. For the most part, Machiavelli observes human nature as much as political method, and so Powell judges him still apt, and does so with considerable wryness. The narrative is lively enough, though at times a bit simplistic:

Great leaders are both born and bred. They need to be brave and endowed with extra- ordinary political instincts, but they also have to be armed with a range of skills if they want to carry people with them.

One is left wondering what is new in this New Machiavelli.

But, goodness, it is revealing. Machiavelli was acutely aware of how the way in which a prince comes to power affects the way he governs. New Labour, in Powell’s account, resembles the civil administration of a foreign power brought in to govern a newly conquered state. Its members know little of the country beyond the capital. But worse, ‘hardly any have any experience of government, or indeed of running anything’.

They are not comfortable venturing any distance from London into what is alien territory, where there is ‘the usual agricultural background noise’. When Foot and Mouth strikes, for example, Powell rings (‘most days’) a farmer in Cumbria whom Blair had met on a visit: the impression is one of surprise that there are telephones in Cumbria, or farmers who speak the language. But just when there seems no solution to the terrible plague afflicting the people of this little-known country, ‘a saviour appears in the unlikely form of the government’s chief scientist, David King’. Why, one wonders, is it unlikely that the chief scientist would be the source of cool scientific analysis?

When Foot and Mouth is over, with English tourism in freefall, Alastair Campbell insists that Blair holidays in Cornwall rather than abroad: ‘He hated it. It rained every day.’ Later, David Miliband, when he is appointed to the new Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, complains that he’ll have to deal with ‘cows farting’, and is only won over by Blair talking up ‘Environment’.

Powell himself walks in the country one day, on Eggardon Hill in Dorset (with ‘a lesbian couple from Hollywood’), and leaves his briefcase full of secret documents in the car, though aware of the menacing presence of local tribesmen. On return, the briefcase is missing. He rings the capital for advice, and is told to go and speak to Special Branch in Dorchester. Astonished that there is SB in the Dorset Police, he has a Hardyesque conversation at the station with an officer in a metaphorical smock. You begin to understand why the Countryside Alliance never really stood a chance when the Hunting Bill came forward (the account of it is wonderfully ludicrous). Actually, Powell misses a trick — perhaps intentionally — by not including Machiavelli’s advice that a prince should hunt frequently to get to know his country thoroughly.

Powell’s more substantial omissions, however, undermine both his Machiavellian intention and the Blair story itself: Northern Ireland, foreign and defence policy, and Iraq especially: ‘The critics will just have to wait for the next book for that.’ This is a lot to ask, as well as ungraciously put. And some of his exclusions are a little too pat:

Much of The Prince is, of course, no longer relevant. The issue of whether a state should use condottori [sic ] (mercenaries) or its own army to defend itself … is of little practical use to modern leaders.

With more imagination Powell could have produced an interesting discourse on the relationship of the Armed Forces — professionals, rather than citizen-soldiers — with their ‘prince’, and the obligations of alliances. Instead all we get is blatant score-settling, in the process revealing an alarming lack of understanding of the function of the chiefs of staff. This might be forgivable in time of peace, but with Iraq and Afghanistan in full swing, it is incomprehensible.

When Sir Richard Dannatt’s CV is sent across to No. 10 as prospective Chief of the General Staff, Powell (seconded by Nigel Sheinwald, Blair’s foreign policy and defence adviser) considers it ‘too trivial a subject’ to set before the prince. He acknowledges that this was a mistake, but seemingly only because Dannatt later bit. Yet since the CGS has automatic access to the PM on matters touching on his own service, why did Powell and Sheinwald not understand that with two ground wars going badly, and the Chief of the Defence Staff an air marshal, it was a racing certainty that Dannatt and No. 10 would be an item?

When in a Daily Mail interview Dannatt appears critical of the government’s position on Iraq (which he subsequently strongly denies) Blair becomes tetchy: who is this man? (Noel Gallagher gets invited to No. 10, and Princess Diana to Chequers, but clearly not senior officers). So a sandwich lunch is arranged in the CDS’s office for all three service chiefs. ‘Dannatt insisted on talking, and after a few minutes it was quite clear to me that he was unsuited to his job.’ So Powell rapidly concludes that General Sir Mike Jackson, Dannatt’s predecessor, who had selected him, is no judge of men or their military capability. It is reassuring that Blair had advisers possessed of such insight. Not even Churchill, notorious scourge of generals, would have been so decisive.

Powell’s propensity to underestimate outsiders is very marked, though he is not without the capacity to laugh at it, even if he is unable to draw the right conclusions. When, for example, he goes to Washington after Bush is elected, he delivers a monologue on New Labour thinking to Dick Cheney. At the end, Cheney simply asks, ‘How’s Charles?’ Yet rather than salute the witty economy of words with which the Vice President has signalled how much the administration still regards the philosophy of Margaret Thatcher (to whom Jonathan’s brother, Charles, was private secretary) Powell junior describes Cheney as ‘curiously monosyllabic’.

But the book is fascinating in all its examples of ghastliness. Ghastliest of all is Gordon Brown, who squats above the narrative like Alberich, but even more malevolently, and far more unassailably (for Blair is no Siegfried). Brown lies, he bullies; Brown, and his ghastly namesake-henchman Nick, scheme disloyally; Brown subverts decent men (Ed Balls); he evades, he quavers, and ultimately he brings down the prince, the paragon of first-class temperament. All Blair’s failures appear to be the result of other men’s weakness or spite, or else of outrageous fortune.

Powell does not mention the theory
that Machiavelli’s Prince is a satire, but there are clues that this may in fact be his purpose too. On Blair’s love of the spotlight, he recounts the story, told by Blair’s father, of the time they were on a ship to Australia, where Blair senior was briefly a law lecturer. Tony as a toddler stood up in front of the whole ship’s company and ‘danced and danced until his nappy fell off’.Is this a coded metaphor for ‘the Project’? What else, indeed, but satire could explain Powell’s closing line, that ‘Whatever his faults, Tony Blair will certainly be counted as one of the four or perhaps five great British prime ministers of the last 100 years’?

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