Book Review: “The New Machiavelli”, by Jonathan Powell

April 10, 2011

In the last chapter of The Prince, Machiavelli whips himself up into an uncharacteristic passion on the subject of the unification of Italy. He urges Lorenzo de’ Medici to fulfil his destiny by being the main to bring it about:

This opportunity then, for Italy at last to look on her deliverer, ought not to be allowed to pass away. With what love would he be received in all those Provinces which have suffered from foreign inundation, with what thirst for vengeance, with what fixed fidelity, with what devotion, and what tears , no words of mine can declare. What gates would be closed against him? What jealousy would stand in his way? What Italian but would yield him homage? This barbarian tyranny stinks in all nostrils. Let your illustrious House therefore take upon itself this enterprise with all the courage and all the hopes with a just cause is undertaken.

The same injunction could be addressed to a British prime minister if the enterprise were the unification of Europe rather than that of Italy. In government, Tony Blair achieved one half of his ‘just cause’ by giving Britain back a leading role in Europe, but he failed in his aim of persuading the British people to love Europe.

When Tony came to power in 1997, Britain was marginalised in Europe. We had been embroiled in the ‘beef war’ where the government had made itself look ridiculous and achieved none of its aims. Britain was effectively powerless. The other European leaders saw the new government’s arrival as a chance for a new beginning for Britain in Europe. Mrs Thatcher had been respected but not liked. John Major had been liked but not respected. Finally, here was a leader who was both liked and respected.

… Our key objective was to get Britain to play a leadership role again in Europe so that we could exercise some influence on the direction the EU would take.

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

Jonathan Powell, chief of staff to Tony Blair from 1994 to 2007, penned these words in his book of ‘lessons’ for political leaders and advisors at the start of chapter eleven, ‘How Unity May be Restored to a Divided City’.

Powell’s “The New Machiavelli: How to Wield Power in the Modern World” claims to be neither a memoir of the Blair Years nor an academic treatise on Niccolo Machiavelli. Instead, he aims to “draw some lessons on leadership and the exercise of power for future practitioners, based on my experiences in Number 10.” To underscore these lessons, he draws on anecdotes from over a decade of diaries kept during his years working for Blair.

Although each chapter takes a central tenet of The Prince as its theme, The New Machiavelli doesn’t live up to being a “how to” claimed in its title. The claim to not be “another memoir” is shaky – really, Powell serves up a different take on the political memoir by giving it a purpose and theme above and beyond the simple egotistical reason of “telling my side of the story”.

But it does tell his side of the story. This book has been reviewed elsewhere as an attempt to rehabilitate Blair (the putative “prince”) and blacken the name of Gordon Brown. These sectional goals are evident throughout The New Machiavelli. Gordon Brown is a constantly looming, malevolent presence across the entire Blair premiership. Brown, in Powell’s memoir, lies, cheats, subverts, evades, switches, flips and flops, and corrupts the minds of men. More so than any other character in the book, Brown is the grand villain, constantly undermining and tearing down the brave, forthright and honourable Blair. Many of the faults of Blair’s government – especially the reforms left undone – are left by Powell at the feet of Gordon Brown.

Gordon Brown

Brown is indeed a loathsome figure. Almost every anecdote shows up his twisted character and bitter, spiteful nature. Powell recounts, for example, coming to power and the complex shuffling that took place to fit everyone into the offices of Number 10. There was not enough space, so Powell had to negotiate swapping the No. 10 flat for the No. 11 flat.

Taking over the Number 11 flat entailed negotiations with Gordon Brown, the new Chancellor, to persuade him that he should live in the Number 10 flat instead. He agreed but boycotted the Number 10 flat for the first few years of government, staying instead in his small private flat near the Palace of Westminster. A year later when we tried to take over a couple of rooms for offices since he was not living in the flat, he absolutely refused. In 2000 we had to annex a bedroom to make space for the arrival of Leo Blair [Tony Blair’s son], be he said we could only have it temporarily and must hand it back when the Blairs’ eldest son, Euan, left to go to university. He even insisted on putting the agreement in writing.

So toxic was the relationship between Blair and Brown that Powell devotes an entire chapter to the “crimes” of the Chancellor. Powell describes the relationship as one consisting of natural tension, between the Prime Minister who makes the appointments of government, and the Chancellor who controls the money. “There is an inbuilt tension between the two offices. Number 10 wants to spend money to win political support, and the Treasury wants to cut spending and preserve the fiscal position… Machiavelli agrees that for a prince ‘it may be a good thing to be reputed liberal’, but he warns that ‘A prince of liberal disposition will consume his whole substance in things of this sort, and, after all be obliged, if he would retain his reputation for liberality, to burden his subjects with extraordinary taxes.’ A prudent leader will save the purses of the citizens by listening to the Treasury.”

Tony’s Chancellor was “also his rival and the dauphin, unwilling to wait his turn. Gordon insisted that Tony had agreed that he should take over but was unwilling to cooperate with Tony’s programme in government and was keen to distance himself politically from most difficult things the prime minister had to do. All the ingredients were present for a very Shakespearian tragedy.” In Powell’s mind (and one supposes, Blair’s) Brown’s character defects and brattish behaviour came from the crippling inability for Brown to accept that his junior Blair had overtaken him by becoming Labour Leader in 1994.

The level of paranoia and distrust between the Blair and Brown camps is exemplified by Powell’s description of when he became Blair’s chief of staff in opposition:

They had already begun to drift apart by 1994, but Tony’s decision to run for the leadership in that year tipped Gordon into an outright hostility from which he never emerged. By the time I came over from America to be interviewed by Tony for the job of chief of staff in September 1994, their relationship was in trouble – so much so that on my way back to Washington from my interview I was horrified to stumble across Gordon Brown and Ed Balls in Terminal 4 at Heathrow on their way out to Washington for a visit I had arranged for them. I was under strict instructions not to let Gordon know that I was being considered for the job, and I had to dart into WH Smith’s to hide, and I made no mention of being in London when I met them the next day at the other end.

To Powell, Gordon Brown was a bully, who got his way by browbeating people. On the Brown “question”, Powell also acknowledges that both Blair and Brown ignored Machiavelli’s advice. For Blair, Machiavelli advised “killing Brutus” – that is, ridding the regime of all those who do not accept the new status quo. For Brown, Machiavelli’s advice was that those who are “ill-content with a prince should first measure their strength” and if not strong enough to “make war openly” should “acquire the prince’s friendship” so that they can share success and be positioned to replace the prince peacefully.

The “how” rather than the “why”

Powell’s opening statement sets the tone of the book. “I have focused entirely on the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of government. The substance of policy and the ideology of politics are, of course, of greater significance, but there is also an art of government and it deserves to be contemplated more carefully than it has been.”

As befitting the traditional view of The Prince, The New Machiavelli is mostly a politics free zone. The ideology of New Labour and the personal politics of Tony Blair himself (or indeed of Jonathan Powell) are either absent or presented solely in the context of the “art of government”  – that is, the pragmatic, practical exercise of influence and power. Absent the understanding of “why” and “what”, The New Machiavelli loses a great deal in the explanatory power of its “lessons”. The criticism of New Labor – being all style and no substance – is dutifully and largely unconsciously replicated in the pages of Powell’s book.

Nevertheless, Powell does exemplify the timeless quality of Machiavelli’s political advice by explaining the Florentine’s rules using modern examples and stories. In so doing, Powell readily accepts that in many cases, Blair (and Powell) were definitely not Machiavellian. More lessons are given life by demonstrating how Blair did not handle a particular situation well whether the foot and mouth outbreak or any of the Peter Mandelson scandals.

I’ve read Alastair Campbell’s diaries, The Blair Years, which is a day by day account of the controlled chaos in Number 10. Because of the non-stop roller-coaster ride, it’s difficult to get a sense of scale or perspective of Blair’s term. The small, contained anecdotes put many of the stories and historical events I’ve read about elsewhere in to a context – whether thematic or as one of Machiavelli’s “lessons”.

The media

Like many today, I am constantly frustrated at the parlous state of media today. Political journalism in Australia has only a little way to fall before it reaches the horrific depths of British tabloid media.

Tony had made his career in the Labour Party by attracting favourable press comment, and he continued to make a point of seeing journalists regularly once in government. Whenever things were getting difficult, we would go through another round of inviting in the editors and their key staff for lunch, one after another, and the relaxed chats in the small dining room in Number 10 delivered results in terms of coverage.

Ultimately feeding the dragon just empowered it. In my view, Powell understands the dilemma but couldn’t do anything about it.

The competition between newspapers with fewer readers and the demand for twenty-four-hour news has led to an inexorable decline in quality as the media grasps for shock as a way of attracting attention. The aim is impact rather than nuance and to generate heat rather than light. Interviews seem to be no longer about illuminating politicians’ arguments but about the promotion of the celebrity interviewer who cross-questions and constantly interrupts. A type of ‘gotcha’ journalism has developed where the only aim appears to be to catch the politician out in a mistake and thereby generate a headline. Not surprisingly, politicians become risk-averse and determined to avoid putting their foot in it. They try to be extraordinarily bland and mechanical in their responses, which in turn alienates the public.

Anyone who has watched Australian political journalism this week, with the ludicrous “gotcha” story about Kevin Rudd’s comments on Q and A last Monday as some kind of “crisis” for Gillard will recognise what Powell describes above. While the media claims that its role as the “Fourth Estate” is to keep politicians “accountable”, in reality these “journalists” are unaccountable for the misleading claims, comments and “opinions” that they foist upon the public. British and Australian political journalism is increasingly becoming cancerous to democracy.

The US

The last reason I found The New Machiavelli to be a worthwhile, interesting read, was the insight Powell gives on Blair’s relationship with the United States.

My Democrat friends in the US told me I was being naive in believing that Bush would ever agree to make progress in the Middle East. My own belief is that he honestly intended to but was unable to in practice.

The naivete is worrying if true, unsurprising of confected for the purpose of the book.

Blair’s attitude to America was to cleave as closely as possible to the President (whether Clinton or Bush) in the hope of influencing the decision that he would make.

Tony took the view that America was of central importance to Britain and that, as the only superpower, it was central to world security. He opted to ‘hug them close’… It is illogical to remain a member of the European Union but to stand on the sidelines complaining and having no influence. The same is true of relations with the US president. If you are going to have any influence on him, you need to convince him you are on his side.

And yet time and time again, Powell demonstrates that the influence held by Blair over the US president was limited at best, non-existent at worst. Instead, Blair ended up flying around the world talking to leaders here and there, achieving little more than providing a smoke-screen of legitimacy for Bush’s various wars and outrages (rendition, bombing of civilians, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, etc).

Powell also shows that figures in the Bush cabinet were – this isn’t how he put it – crazy.

Obviously it is right to learn the lessons of Vietnam and not to be dragged into a pointless quagmire again, but it is equally wrong to enter a war thinking about nothing but the exit strategy. That was what worried us about Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld when he said after the invasion of Afghanistan that ‘we don’t do nation-building’. That’s what we were afraid of: all he and neocons were really interested in was chasing down Osama bin Laden. We thought the task was to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a failed state once again so that the life of the people would be better and we wouldn’t go on being attacked from their soil.

There is a recognition that Blair’s influence over Bush was limited – especially in public. The influence was all private – “in the hope of being included in their counsels.”

Having read Dick Cheney’s biography – which included 100s of hours of interviews with Cheney, Bush, Rove, Rumsfeld and others –  in my view Blair’s influence was extremely limited indeed. The views or opinions of the British were rarely raised as considerations.

Powell – who was a diplomat from the Foreign Office before joining Blair in Number 10 – fears that Britain is “teetering on the edge of being irrelevant in foreign policy terms”. It’s not clear if this is an indictment of David Cameron, or the “wasted years” when Gordon Brown became Prime Minister. Nevertheless, Powell (and clearly Blair) see relevance as emanating from the coattails of the Americans.

Conclusion

There is a lot to recommend The New Machiavelli. But only as a political memoir of the Blair Years overlaid with sayings from The Prince and The Discourses (Machiavelli’s other main work). There are fascinating character portraits of 100s of public figures from Britain and the US, including John Prescott and the Royals.

I felt that although Powell was clearly pushing a factional, sectional agenda throughout – the demonisation of Gordon Brown especially – he was willing to be candid and honest about the mistakes that he personally made, and the mistakes made by Blair.

Until I read The New Machiavelli, I barely knew of Jonathan Powell’s existence – which goes to show his success at being a backroom operator. Powell is mentioned in passing throughout Campbell’s Diaries, but he is not a major character. However, Powell has the most amazing access to Tony Blair and was at the centre, next to or behind Blair, throughout the entire Blair Years, from becoming opposition leader in 1994 to leaving Number 10 in 2007. Unlike most other senior staff from Number 10 who left at some point due to scandal or pressure – even Alastair Campbell left in 2003 after the suicide of David Kelly and the subsequent inquiry – Jonathan Powell was there from start to end.

The holes in the memoirs are acknowledged up front – the Northern Ireland peace process (which he wrote about in an earlier book Great Hatred, Little Room) and the war in Iraq (he plans to write a third book to defend liberal interventionism, foreign policy and defence policy under Blair).

While not the last word of the Blair Years – it does not seek to be – it is an amazing insight into the premiership of one of the most successful British Labour prime ministers of the last 100 years. Someone who has found themself as a senior ministerial advisor or chief of staff could do worse than read this book. And for those interested in UK politics, it is an essential memoir of the Blair Years.

[box type=”info” border=”full”]You can buy The New Machiavelli: How to Wield Power in the Modern World on Amazon.[/box]


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