Man walks into a column, no.6: Machiavelli

Jonathan Powell’s The New Machiavelli (sub-titled How To Wield Power In The Modern World) offers fascinating insights into the mind of a once-powerful man, but that man is Powell himself, not Machiavelli.

Powell, Tony Blair’s chief of staff, says in the preface that the book ‘is an attempt to test whether Machiavelli’s maxims still hold in the world of modern politics’. But it turns out that this is just a handy excuse (or ‘washing line’, to use Peter Mandelson’s term for the over-arching theme of a speech) for the second and third objectives: drawing lessons on leadership based on Powell’s experience in Number 10, and recounting anecdotes to illustrate what life at the top was really like.

JP is being a bit disingenuous when he says this is ‘not another memoir of the Blair years’, because that’s exactly what it is. I’m no Machiavelli scholar, but the breadth of the Italian apparatchik’s theorising allows Powell to find enough quotes to bolster his argument, most of the time anyway – towards the end it feels like Powell just gives up, and the chapters on ‘War and Peace’ and ‘Europe’ in particular are almost all anecdote, no Prince.

Still, I guess most people will read The New Machiavelli for the behind-the-scenes stuff – I know I did – and there’s certainly fun to be had. We hear how during the 2005 election campaign Powell assumed that Tony’s faltering delivery of a speech on immigration was due to a bust teleprompter, when it was actually the PM not looking at the camera on purpose, thus ensuring that the media didn’t report on the most politically sensitive bits of the speech. Or, when Blair was in hospital for a heart operation, we learn that Prince Charles sent a get-well card and box of Duchy of Cornwall fudge, signed from ‘Dr Wales’, which the security service thought was a suspicious package and proceeded to blow up, fudge and all.

What lets this book down, however, is the bloody-mindedness of Powell’s determination to defend the record of the Blair governments. I’ll leave aside the rightness or wrongness of the arguments he puts forward for specific decisions; the fact of the matter is that after only a short time the one-sidedness of the account really grates.

A big part of this defence is a hagiographical approach to Blair himself. Powell is convinced that Tony was a Truly Great Leader, and that the only things holding him back were Gordon Brown, an inexperienced and inept bunch of ministers, and the lying media. Whatever you may think of Blair, the complete and utter lack of balance is really distracting.

The stuff about Gordon is frequently hilarious (unintentionally and not) for the depth of hatred – there’s no other word – that it reveals. So on page 37 we have this entirely typical example:

Gordon’s influence on those around him was at times extraordinary. After a few years working with him his aides became changed people. Ed Balls, who had been a pleasant young man as a Financial Times leader writer, was transformed by his connection with Gordon. He reminds me of Quintus Fabius in [Machiavelli’s] The Discourses, who came under the influence of the tyrant Appius: ‘though an excellent fellow, [he] was after a while blinded by a little ambition and, under the evil influence of Appius, changed his good habits for bad and became like him’.

Blair, on the other hand, can do no wrong: consistently strategic, conciliatory, reforming, self-deprecating, visionary. His only failing, it seems, was being too much of a nice guy and not sacking people soon enough. I was talking to a colleague about this, who said that a friend of theirs also worked in Number 10 for a time under Blair, and that they (the friend) felt exactly the same way and would not hear even a modestly critical word against the ex-PM. The power of charisma, I guess: Machiavelli would’ve been proud.

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