March 10, 2020
Author: Ralph Berry
‘Feared am I more than loved, let me be feared.’ Young Mortimer, the anti-hero of Marlowe’s Edward II, is the play’s Machiavellian voice. Marlowe was fascinated by Machiavelli and features him as the prologue, the Ghost of Machiavelli, to The Jew of Malta and Guise in The Massacre at Paris. Shakespeare knew of him too, and mentions him in Richard of Gloucester’s ‘And set the murderous Machiavel to school’. The Host, in The Merry Wives of Windsor, puts a mildly comic question to the audience: ‘Am I subtle? Am I Machiavel?’ Shakespeare could not have read Il Principe in English, but was aware of its notorious reputation. Marlowe, in his French travels, might have read Gentillet’s Contre-Machiavel. The Elizabethan stage made much of Machiavelli as the archetype of scheming villainy: Marlowe made him a spokesman for the estranged, independent critic of human society. To him, as to later generations, Machiavelli is an analyst of politics who recognizes that power must be exercised in ways separable from orthodox morality. ‘We are much beholden’, said Francis Bacon, ‘to Machiavel and others that write of what men do, and not what they ought to do.’
The keynote of Il Principe comes in Chapter 17, with its headlined question ‘Whether it is better to be loved than feared.’ Machiavelli answers that ‘men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment, which never fails.’ A prince (leader) should inspire fear but not hatred. And this precept takes us into the contemporary world of Britain, and its rule by Boris Johnson.
‘Princes ought to leave affairs of reproach to the management of others, and keep those of grace in their own hands.’ John Webster made the point more brutally in The White Devil: ‘Fool! Princes give rewards with their own hands, /But death or punishment by the hands of others.’ The primary decision of Boris Johnson’s premiership to date was his appointment of a hit man, Dominic Cummings, as his Senior Political Adviser or consigliere. He is what David Cameron described as ‘a career psychopath’, a radical free thinker who delights in confrontation and has no fear of making enemies. That is just as well, because he makes them all the time. The latest, all but one, was the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid, who resigned after being ordered to accept the humiliation of having his own special advisers appointed by Cummings. In his resignation speech in the Commons, Javid spoke–to some amusement–of recent changes in office as ‘Cummings and goings’. Cummings throws grenades into the system, and is naturally hated by the mandarins.
That class is personified by Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne) in the classic sitcoms Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister. His latest real-life reincarnation is Sir Philip Rutnam, Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, who has thrown a grenade back at the Prime Minister’s choices by resigning and threatening an action for constructive dismissal. His complaint is against Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, whom he accuses of ‘bullying’. He went public on TV with an aide holding an umbrella over him, an unusual posture for a top civil servant. In an upsurge of loyal support, a number of other civil servants have come forward with parallel complaints against Patel. They are many, she is one. Urged on by Labour, the cry is ‘Patel must go!’ She won’t.
To get to the core of the matter, we need only note Sir Philip’s language. By their words shall ye know them. Of Priti Patel, he has said: ‘I have encouraged her to change her behaviours.’ The exquisite condescension of the plural ‘behaviours’ speaks of the upstream authority chiding a mere cabinet minister who simply does not know the form. And who is also—the truth will out—a woman. Sir Philip has decided to take on the instrument of her master, the Prime Minister, and intends to maintain inviolate the power of the Home Office against all attacks. The ostensible target is Priti Patel, the real one Boris Johnson.
This is the error of a lifetime. Boris has already made it clear that he stands absolutely by Priti. He appointed her, she is his proxy. He not only stands by her, he sits by her, for she is on his right side at Prime Ministers’ Questions. The crowded conditions of the Commons front bench mean that she is squeezed against Boris in a way that in a different context would look like sexual harassment. For the outcome, we need look no further than Machiavelli himself. He was a first-rate civil servant, sent by Florence on diplomatic missions to other city-states. He would have been in his element like Sir Philip Rutnam, making repeated journeys to Brussels and the European Union, hence the unconcealed horror of the civil service at Brexit, which they did everything in their power to thwart. But a change of government in Florence meant that the Medicis took over, and Machiavelli fell out of favour. Il Principe, dedicated to Lorenzo de’ Medici, was an attempt to restore his standing with the great man. It failed, probably because Lorenzo (‘the Magnificent’) knew it all anyway.
This is easily understood if you contemplate Bronzino’s portrait (modelled on the Verocchio bust) which you can see at the National Art Gallery, Washington. It is the face of a hard, intelligent, determined, and implacable man. Lorenzo had survived with a neck wound an assassination attempt by his opponents, the Pazzis. Even so distinguished a civil servant as Machiavelli stood no chance against the will of the Prince. Boris Johnson does not look at first sight like a Medici clone; he is affable, fond of jokes, a brilliant wordsmith. But he purged the Tories of dissidents with his version of Pride’s Purge, withdrawing the whip from the 21 MPs who had voted against him. Four returned to the Commons, suitably chastened, in the December general election. The Prime Minister, Lord Hailsham’s ‘elective dictator’, is now taking a hard line with the European Union, telling them that they will have to agree by June on his rules or Britain will walk away. He has created a Cabinet that ignores the usual balance-of-power formula; it is stocked with sworn Brexiteers, all of whom have vowed fealty to the Prime Minister. There will be no revolt there. Sir Philip Rutnam will be reduced to writing his memoirs, or reflections on the scene. Machiavelli was, and did.