A Prince among men

I may have a reputation for cynicism, but Jonathan Powell’s tale of life within the Blair court has taught me a thing or two about insider politics, writes Niccolo Machiavelli
November 17, 2010
My advice to Powell: hire mercenaries, fast

The New Machiavelli: How to Wield Power in the Modern WorldBy Jonathan Powell (Bodley Head, £20)

I am often asked to review books about myself. This is wearisome, but I lift my quill with genuine alarm in this case. I caused my volume The Prince to be published five years after my death, and Brother Powell would have been well advised to do the same. For when I said that it is better to be feared than to be loved, I was preaching a doctrine of necessity for princes, not a rule of life for their servants, who have a choice in the matter.

Prudence was another of my maxims. Now that Powell has advertised his poor opinion of powerful fellow advisers and ministers, he should take great care for his life and hire mercenaries from a friendly power as soon as possible. I understand the Prince he served is most highly esteemed by the most powerful potentate on earth; I am sure Medici Obama will oblige.

The catalogue of Powell’s enemies is large. First there is Chancellor Brown. Let us hope that he is distracted by the avalanche of other unflattering treatises about him, written by still more powerful figures—including the illustrious Prince himself and his henchmen. One of them, disguised as the Third Man, is a long-time client of mine. He has sought my advice at every key stage of his career and followed it faithfully—including my advice that he should at all costs prevent the person called the Chief of Staff to the Prince (a post I divine from Powell’s treatise that he himself held) from actually performing that role. To execute his duties, the Chief of Staff must needs regulate access to the Prince and be present at all his dealings with other advisers, which would prevent the frequent secret audiences upon which the Third Man’s power depended.

Powell clearly failed to impose his will in the manner befitting his role, and the court of his Prince was an unseemly marketplace of competing advisers and merchants peddling their wares. Yet he may indeed have been a wiser and more successful counsellor than either the Third Man or the Chief Propagandist, Campbell. For unlike them—and indeed virtually every minister who served the Prince—he survived for all ten years of the Prince’s reign without either falling into disfavour or being dragged into the public square for summary execution. In his treatise he is too modest to explain this feat, but an absence of what I believe is now called ego, plus great secretarial ability, appear to be the causes. He also relates that he never briefed journalistic scribes on the manifold treasons of his enemies at court. This would make him unique in the entire annals of princely advisers, so it cannot possibly be true. Nonetheless, it is a good image to portray and serves him well.

Let me return to those whose enmity Powell has deliberately provoked. He must hope that the Chief of the Army, Dannatt, has been entirely disarmed. Although one can never disarm those who have recourse to the pen and the House of Lords, so the heads of the civil service whom he lambasts will doubtless be revenged. Powell advertises a particular aversion to Sir Ricardo Wilson, a mild-mannered bureaucrat whose crime appears to have been a lack of ardent enthusiasm for governmental projects. Since this is a crime of which virtually the entire British civil service stands guilty, why has he been singled out in this way? However, I heartily approve of his exposure of the fraudulence of the mandarinate attacks on sofa government and the supposed golden age of cabinet government in the 1970s. The cabinet may then have met for hours on end and debated long formal papers, but the Princes of the day were useless, their decisions bad, and the state fell into as grave a crisis as Florence in the age of Savonarola—from which I had to rescue it in much the same way as did your Thatcher, whom I am told was not much given to collective discussion either.

As he rightly says, the issue is not the furniture in the Prince’s office, but whether the process of government is effective and whether the decisions taken are the right ones. Yet it is not evident from this treatise that the process of government under the said Prince was altogether sound. How is it that this Prince, whose Chancellor was—according to Powell—daily hatching plots to usurp him, made the fulcrum of his government his relationship with that same Chancellor? Powell relates numerous schemes for the replacement of the Chancellor yet, for all his power and glory, the Prince never sought to effect any of them.

In all my study of history, too, I find few examples of a Prince who began with such popularity and national rejoicing, or one with a national treasury so overflowing with gold and silver. The safety of his realm was not in jeopardy and the only acts of war he committed were entirely voluntary. Prince Tony was both loved and feared to a degree enjoyed by few potentates, and he held power for a span of years rarely surpassed in those unfortunate states where the plebeians are entrusted with the franchise.

Surely, Powell must believe—as he lies awake in the dark hours of the night fearful of assassins—that much more might have been accomplished? Is it not extraordinary that a Prince who came to power by slaying the union barons should have had his descendant, Miliband the Younger, in effect chosen by those barons because his party’s constitution was left unreformed? What of those great public services which are still only partially reformed, for all the treasure lavished upon them? What of the divisions between the nation’s north and south? But enough. I must attend to my consultancy. I have one Osborne beseeching advice on how he can take money out of the mouths of the poor and be esteemed as their saviour.

Niccolo Machiavelli was speaking to Andrew Adonis