Machiavelli and his half-blood Prince

niccolo_machiavelli_statue-2I’ve just caught up with Alan Yentob’s BBC documentary on Machiavelli and The Prince, broadcast (I think) around Christmas. Old Nick is going through something of a rehabilitation at the moment (Jonathan Powell has recently published a sympathetic “updating”, for example) at the hands of our plutocratic elite, who are increasingly confident and willing to openly flaunt their Machiavellianism. Boris Johnson’s remarks last year about greed being good and rich and poor deserving their lot was another example of this tendency.

Taken on its own, The Prince is a horrible book, but one perfectly in tune again with the age. One of Yentob’s contributors made the point that we’re living through times remarkably similar to those Niccolò Machiavelli lived through at the beginning of the Renaissance: intense but futile competition for power, instability, a collapse of old certainties, widespread fear about security, and a bunch of unscrupulous rulers of dubious competence.

It’s an age of turbulence and Machiavelli’s harsh message strikes a chord with many. Not least those in power, to whom it offers a virtual carte blanche to behave as they see fit if they can get away with it.  “The common people,” Machiavelli wrote, “are only interested in appearances and results.” But what are these “results” and why should a Machiavellian ruler care?

Machiavelli’s fans — always most plentiful among the rich and powerful — contend that he is “only telling it the way it is”. Like it or lump it, people really do only care about themselves, and experience shows it is better to be feared as a leader than loved (obviously no one told that to Nelson Mandela). But for me it’s never been really clear what all this Machaivellianism is for. Often boiled down to “the ends justify the means”, Machiavelli’s thinking in The Prince seems to lack any concept of the common good. What are the ends exactly? Sometimes he talks (in striking echo to today’s leaders in the US and UK) about the “security of the state”, but this often means little more than the leaders own personal interests.

Machiavelli’s is an impoverished view of human nature. Even if it’s true to some extent of all of us, it’s not all that we are. Yes, we all want power and control over our own destiny, not everyone wants the same destiny, or sees the means of pursuing it as irrelevant to the value of acquiring it. He assumes everyone wants to live in a perpetual state of competition. This may suit the story of hyper global capitalism, but I don’t think it’s how most people want to live their lives.

The Prince is a book born of despair, written by a desperate man just released from prison trying to ingratiate himself with the new Mr Big in Florence, Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici. It leaves no room for love or kindness, or for the idea that the people might want to collaborate (or any other “idea” for that matter). Machiavelli knew a lot about one aspect of human nature and one aspect of power, but he either knew nothing about the other half, or chose not to express it in The Prince. Probably, every politician needs a bit of Machiavelli. But Machiavelli’s Prince, and Powell’s “new Machiavelli”, would be half a politician and, worse still, a bloodless half of a human being.

(Incidentally, Machiavelli emphatically did not take his own advice. Shortly after writing The Prince, he retired to his vineyard outside Florence and lived a quiet life writing books and plays. You can still buy his wine – I imagine it leaves a bitter taste.)

Andrew Rawnsley wrote on Nelson Mandela: ‘His ego was pressed into the service of an idea, not self’. Machiavelli has nothing to say about ideas and, for him, self-interest is the only thing that a prince should concern himself with. But there is low scheming and there is scheming in pursuit of an idea, what Rawnsley called Mandela’s ‘classy cunning’. Ultimately, what’s wrong with the Machiavelli of The Prince is not that he thinks the means don’t matter (although they do a bit, because bad means can tarnish good ends), but that he doesn’t think the ends matter much either.

A new Bambi or a new Speedy in the Matignon?

Manuel Valls, France’s new prime minister, is often compared to Tony Blair. He even describes himself, without apparent irony, as “Blairiste”. Surprisingly, this hasn’t done him much harm. In recent months, Valls has emerged from relative obscurity to become by far the most popular member of France’s embattled Socialist government.

Manuel Valls in the Assemblée Nationale, 2012
Manuel Valls, France’s new PM, combines Sarkozy-style aggression with a Blairite tendancy to face both ways at once.

Like Blair, he comes from the right of a left-wing party. Like Blair, it’s the issue of crime that brought Valls to political prominence. Blair made his name with his “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” slogan as shadow home secretary in the early 1990s. As interior minister since 2012, Valls has revelled in his role as France’s premier flic (‘top cop’), and ruffled the feathers of his socialist comrades with his generally hawkish approach to crime and immigration. And like Blair, Valls likes preaching the virtues of free market capitalism to a party that remains very suspicious of its vices.

Valls was even endorsed by the free marketeers’ house rag, The Economist (also an early fan of Blair’s) when he ran for president in 2012. This didn’t impress Parti Socialiste activists much: he got just 6% of the vote in the party’s primary

To me, a more useful comparison would be with Hollande’s predecessor as president, Nicolas Sarkozy. Valls’s energetic, media-savvy image, evokes Sarkozy’s time as interior minister under Jacques Chirac, when he earned the nickname “Speedy”. Valls has enthusiastically adopted Sarkozy’s ultra-aggressive style. Hollande, announcing his appointment on Monday night, was playing this up when he said Valls’s administration would be ‘a government for combat’.

Both as mayor of the depressed Paris suburb of Evry (Essonne) and as interior minister, Valls has endorsed — and even stepped up — Sarkozy’s policies on immigration and crime.

Valls took a lot of flak over his support for cops in their heavy-handed deportation of a 15-year-old Kosovan schoolgirl from France last year. Tough new immigration rules and quotas, introduced by Valls, build more in Sarkozy’s legacy than Socialist Party principle. His remarks on Roma people — “these people have ways of life extremely different to ours”, and claims that it was impossible for most Roma to integrate into France, echo similarly controversial remarks by the former president.

(Interestingly, like Sarkozy, Valls is of foreign origin himself. Sarkozy was famously the son of Hungarian immigrants, while Valls is a Catalan, born in Barcelona, who did not become a French citizen until he was 20.)

Valls’s appointment sets the seal on Hollande’s “tournant social-démocrate”, his supposed shift towards pro-market and austerity-based solutions to France’s economic woes. While Valls is hard to pin down on economics (he’s certainly more “left”, as we Brits would understand it, than Tony Blair, although not necessarily more so than Sarkozy) there’s no doubt Valls is a more credible frontman for Hollande’s “responsibility pact” — his pledge to cut France’s deficit in line with EU demands — than the outgoing Jean-Marc Ayrault.

Valls is an enthusiast for austerity. He has supported the idea — floated by Sarkozy himself — of enshrining the need for a balanced budget (France hasn’t had one since 1974) in the French constitution. Valls’s enthusiasm for “TVA sociale” — shifting some of France’s social insurance charges onto VAT — is another a policy which finds more favour in Sarkozy’s party than his own.

Nicolas Sarkozy during the 2012 presidential campaign.
Sarkozy’s energy and ambition made him a thorn in Jacques Chirac’s side towards the end of his presidency.

He has also been critical of France’s 35-hour working week, introduced by Lionel Jospin’s Socialist government in 1998, which remains a talismanic policy for many French Socialists. The policy was also a frequent target of Sarkozy’s ire, although he never got round to doing much more than moaning about it. In true Blairite style, Valls talks about “flexisecurité” — a vague and meaningless blend of protection against unemployment and making it easier to sack people.

The appointment is not without risks for Hollande. Valls is loathed by many on the centre and left of the PS and has little real power base in the party. The Greens have threatened to leave the government over his appointment. And everyone knows, like Sarkozy, Valls is murderously ambitious.

Sarkozy’s noisy campaigning for the presidency was a constant pain in the backside for Chirac after the president passed over his interior minister and appointed the donnish Dominique de Villepin as prime minister in 2005.

In sending Valls to the Matignon, Hollande has perhaps been shrewder, and tied Valls’s political fortunes to his own. Yes, the president has a big problem in 2017 if his ambitious prime minister is successful. But he has an even bigger one if he isn’t.

Thumbs up for the real digital revolution

Cover of Petite Poucette by Michel Serres
Petite Poucette, by Michel Serres. Editions Le Pommier 2012.

Saint Denis was beheaded on the hill looming over northern Paris now known as Montmartre. The legend is that he picked up his own head and carried it several miles north, before finally collapsing and expiring on the site of the present day suburb that bears his name.

It’s to Saint Denis that Michel Serres compares future generations of human beings in this remarkable little book (barely 90 pages long). Petite Poucette (“little thumb”) is his female avatar for today’s young people who, with their dextrous digits, carry their heads — their knowledge — on laptops, mobiles and tablets. This is changing everything, not just the way we learn, do business and enjoy ourselves. It’s changing human nature itself, and just as importantly, the way we live together.

I’ve been a Serres fan since writing about him in my very first blog three years ago. His reasoning is razor-sharp, and he writes with the radical clarity of someone very young and the wisdom of someone very old. Yes, he’s 83, French, and professor of something very intellectual at Stanford. But he’s no grumpy old don whingeing about porn-addicted kids with minuscule attention spans and the world going to hell in an online shopping cart. Believe it or not, Serres is optimistic about the future.

You might think only a conservative could be optimistic at the moment, but Serres reckons that if the powers that be aren’t trembling yet, it’s only because they don’t understand what’s hit them. “I see our institutions shining with a brightness similar to that of constellations that astronomers tells us have been dead for a long time,” he says.

With knowledge freed, existing power structures will crumble. It starts, says Serres, with education.

Why sit listening to a tired teacher reading “approved” excerpts from a book, when the whole book is out there, freely accessible from anywhere, at any time? Why accept the established interpretations when you can read and discuss the comments of thousands if not millions of people who’ve read it and thought about it?

Why sit with your ‘arse parked’ in serried ranks, when you can sit in the park, on the beach, in the pub? Why listen to this single narrow conduit of knowledge and power (the teacher at the lectern) when the whole world of knowledge is there in your hands? And why bother learning facts when you can bring them up under your thumb? The minds of Petite Poucette will be free to think and have ideas instead of being clogged up with remembering second-hand information.

This, says Serres, is the true birth of the individual. ‘Grumpy adults’ may see this as “selfish”, but weigh that egotism against where the “libido of affiliation” has got us in the last 100 years. In the name of abstract collectives like the nation, race and religion, hundreds of millions have died. Individuals rarely ask this of each other. And no one was ever asked to die for a virtual community.

Michel Serres
Michel Serres: “I would like to be 18 years old, since everything is to be remade, everything is left to invent.”

“To no longer build a community on the massacre of another or of oneself — this is our future life set against your history and your politics of death,” replies Petite Poucette.

And are the virtual communities young people have created any less “real” than the ones we have been taught to value? ’We adults have succeeded in creating no new social connections,’ says Serres. The “community”, the nation, the church, school, family, class, the market — where do they stand today? To Petite Poucette, they are just ‘abstractions flying overhead like cardboard mascots’.

Are the British and French “nations” any more “real” than a Facebook group? Do we “belong” to a social class, or the company we work for, more than the online communities we choose to join?

For thousands of years, from the pyramid of Cheops to the Eiffel Tower, the ‘global form’ of human society has been broad at the bottom and narrow at the top, with power, wealth and the control of knowledge concentrated in a few hands. New technology is set to change that, perhaps within a generation, says Serres. The real revolutionaries are not the inventors of this technology, but the users. They will turn the world upside down.

It’s a striking view of the future, both optimistic and disturbing at the same time. But unlike the zombie ideology of free market capitalism, young people don’t have to sit back and take it. It’s something that they can shape for themselves. Serres has no fear. ‘I’d like to be 18 years old,’ he says, ‘because everything is to be remade, everything is left to re-invent.’

Forgive but don’t forget

The Blunders of our Governments by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe
The Blunders of our Governments
by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe
Oneworld, 470pp, £25

‘To err is human, to forgive, divine,’ wrote Alexander Pope. But we mortals often forget rather than forgive. Even if you lived through all the calamities described in The Blunders of our Governments, you’ll probably still find yourself asking, ‘How the hell did they get away with that?’

Veteran political observers Tony King and Ivor Crewe kick off this analysis of the biggest political cock-ups of the last 30 years with the textbook case. The poll tax was cooked up in splendid isolation by two ambitious junior ministers (William Waldergrave and Kenneth Baker, since you ask). The team never seriously considered alternative policies, ignored implementation problems and seemed deaf to even constructive criticism.

No one has ever successfully introduced a ‘head tax’ in Britain (the last attempt was in Pope’s time, in 1698). This one became a ‘runaway train’ which led to riots on the streets and cost taxpayers billions of pounds.

But at least Mrs Thatcher paid the price, and hopefully it will be another 300 years before anyone tries it again. With most blunders, say the authors, the chances of ministers ever being held accountable ‘approach zero’. Worse still, the same mistakes are repeated over and over again.

Often policymakers seem to develop a defensive ‘group-think’ mentality which sees ‘all objections as obstruction’, a tendency made worse by the ubiquitous PowerPoint presentation – ‘a dangerous instrument of persuasion’ which encourages group-think, warn the authors.

Then there is ‘cultural and operational disconnect’ – the authors’ polite term for ignorance. The Child Support Agency failed mainly because policymakers just didn’t realise that many absent fathers couldn’t or wouldn’t pay maintenance. Years later, ministers presiding over the individual learning accounts fiasco simply didn’t understand that some people in the training ‘marketplace’ could be dishonest. Fraudsters siphoned off a third of the £290m spent on the project.

These are Pope’s ‘human failings’, and they can affect any large organisation with ambitious plans, private as well as public. In fact, private contractors were at the heart of some our costliest blunders, including the public-private partnership to modernise the London tube, which collapsed in 2007, leaving taxpayers with a bill of at least £20bn (John Prescott and Gordon Brown, since you ask).

But, without completely exonerating officials, King and Crewe largely blame the specific behaviour of British politicians for making blunders much more likely and costly. We pay a high price for our adversarial politics and ‘decisive’ system of government, they say. ‘British politicians in general have a curious habit of functioning in crisis mode…even when no crisis exists. They seem to enjoy it.’

Far from being presidential, they argue that British government suffers from a ‘weak, under-organised and understaffed’ centre, a rapidly revolving door of ministers and officials and a chronic lack of accountability. As for parliament, their verdict is brutal: ‘As a legislative assembly…parliament is either peripheral or totally irrelevant. It might as well not exist.’

Although the authors reserve judgement on the Cameron government, the early signs are not good. ‘Omnishambles…is scarcely too strong a word to describe its performance so far,’ they warn. In fact, Cameron’s ‘may turn out to be the most blunder-prone government of modern times’.

Reform is possible, say the authors, but their tone is not optimistic. We’ll have more forgetting – and perhaps forgiving – to do in the years ahead.


A version of this review was published in Public Service Magazine, Autumn 2013.

The game has changed

2010 looked like the beginning of a three-party system in the UK. But British politics is fracturing in unpredictable ways.
2010 looked like the beginning of a three-party system in the UK. But British politics is fracturing in unpredictable ways.

Do you ever think, looking at the British political scene, that all possible results of the next election just feel wrong? That no one deserves to win? That we’re in a weird place where the 2015 poll might as well be decided by rolling dice or drawing lots?

Everyone says Labour’s opinion poll lead is fragile. The party doesn’t look ready to return to government and, for all his efforts, voters don’t see Ed Miliband as a potential prime minister. Optimistic Tories are talking up their ‘summer recovery’, but they’re still stuck at around 30% in the polls, and have a mountain chain to climb in terms of seats to gain a majority in 2015. Which should make a hung parliament and another coalition involving the Lib-Dems (which amounts to a ‘win’ for them) the most plausible outcome. But that doesn’t feel right either. Lib-Dem support is hovering around 10%, Nick Clegg is a national joke and the party appears to have lost a significant slice of its core support to Labour. It’s like one of those periodic seasons in the Championship when suddenly no club seems to want to win the title.

When everyone is unpopular you don’t have to be popular to win. You don’t have to have the best policies, the most likeable leader or a good record in government. You just have to be a bit less unpopular or a bit luckier than the other party.

British politics is fracturing in unpredictable ways. We’re used to elections being decided by a relatively small group of ‘swing voters’ – uncommitted to either main party – shifting their heft one way or the other, ‘lending’ their votes to Labour or the Tories on an election-by-election basis. But now there are a lot more swing voters, and they’re all over the place: toying with UKIP, the Greens and local ‘anti-politics’ candidates, voting differently in local and national elections, switching back and forth between parties while puzzling over whether there’s any real difference between them, and – increasingly – not bothering to vote at all.

Of course, this isn’t new. Ever since I started studying politics in the 1980s, people have been talking about the ‘breakdown’ of the two-party system. And the share of the vote taken by the main parties has indeed fallen steadily from 97% in 1951 to 65% in 2010. Perhaps it has now (finally) reached a critical point beyond which, instead of the three-party system we expected, we are seeing multi-party politics or even ‘no-party’ politics.

Despite this, most commentators are still talking the old language of stable majorities and the ‘magical’ 40% barrier. But what if no one gets over 40% again? What if Labour’s 29% last time round was not a ‘disaster’ (as it undoubtedly was in 1983) but a ‘normal’ score for a party coming second. What if hung parliaments are not the result of an unusually strong third party performance, but the norm – and the Lib-Dems don’t have to do well to end up in government? What if so-called ‘fringe’ parties become ‘niche’ parties, able to appeal successfully to particular voters in particular areas?

If you look at it this way, Labour’s overtures to the Lib-Dems and Ed Miliband’s reputed ‘35% strategy’ (the idea that Labour only needs 35% to win an election, so why bother alienating core supporters by moving onto Tory territory?) looks less like defeatism or complacency and more like the results of a sober assessment of the political future.

The man who wants to turn the world upside down

Herbert: more is less and anyone who thinks different will be "mugged by reality".
Herbert: less is more and anyone who thinks different will be “mugged by reality”. Pic: Twitter.com

Specious use of statistics, intellectual sloppiness and deliberate misunderstanding have been hallmarks of David Cameron’s government and its supporters, but former Home Office minister Nick Herbert’s piece in the Guardian on Tuesday plumbs new depths.

If you can’t be bothered to read it (and, frankly, why should you?) it boils down to this: as crime has fallen when police numbers are being cut, this proves that cutting public services makes them better. Not just better at getting by on a shoestring, but better full stop.

You know it already, but I’ll say it anyway: just because two things happen at the same time doesn’t mean that one caused the other.

There is no evidence that crime is falling because police are fewer or more efficient (if there was, you can be sure Herbert would have quoted it). Since crime has been falling for almost 20 years, during which time police numbers have risen and fallen, what evidence there is suggests there is no real link between the two.

You can, of course, just reverse Herbert’s “reasoning”: perhaps we’re getting by with fewer police because there’s less crime. Just a thought. But I think there’s an old saying that says if you can reverse an argument and it makes just as much sense, it’s no argument at all. (And if there isn’t, there is now.)

You might as well say that because it’s hot and England are thrashing the Aussies in the Ashes, England play better in hot weather. Or, just as well, that when England are winning at cricket, God sends us a heatwave.

Stuart Broad and Matt Prior celebrate another Aussie wicket: but are England winning because it's hot, or is it hot because England are winning?
Stuart Broad and Matt Prior celebrate another Aussie wicket: but are England winning because it’s hot, or is it hot because England are winning?

On this invisible intellectual sand, Herbert wants to build a very big castle: cut the NHS and we’ll all get healthier; cut schools and our kids will be brainer; cut tax inspectors and Amazon and Starbucks will stump up the billions they owe us. For Herbert’s ilk, austerity is not an emergency measure; it’s a permanent panacea. ‘It was only when the country ran out of money that the old orthodoxy was challenged,’ he writes. ‘Suddenly the world where we measured the quality of services by how expensive they were [I must have missed that ‘world’] has been turned upside down.’

On Herbert’s logic, you go on cutting until public services cost absolutely nothing, by which time they will have reached a point of infinite perfection – fucking brilliant, eh?

If Herbert really believes this stuff, I’ve three challenges for him:

  • Try applying it to the military – they’re very big spenders. I’m sure our boys in Afghanistan will welcome the opportunity to do more with less.
  • MPs are an expensive part of the private sector. As a pilot measure, why not slash your own office cost allowance? This should make you a much more efficient representative for the people of Arundel and South Downs. And having to type your own letters should give you less time to pen crap articles for the Guardian.
  • Lobby Eric Pickles (in public please) to cut funding for Arun, Chichester, Mid Sussex and Horsham councils. The super-efficient services that will surely result should pay handsome dividends for you at the ballot box (and think of all those pints lined up for you by grateful local councillors in the Arundel Conservative Club).

Time and time again ideological neo-cons like Herbert try to ram this ‘world turned upside down’ shit down our throats, and mostly we keep swallowing it: you help the poor by making the rich richer; you get out of a recession quicker by making it worse; you create jobs by making it easier to sack people. Time and time again evidence from the real world proves them wrong, but they don’t care. Their free market ideology tells them that it is so.

Saying ‘you get more for less’ rather than ‘you get what you pay for’ is certainly a challenge to ‘the old orthodoxy’. But so is saying the world is flat and water flows uphill. Sometimes challenging the old orthodoxy just means talking crap.

Ask a stupid question…

For once I’ve some sympathy for William Hague. Asked on the radio this morning if Britain ‘supported’ yesterday’s coup which removed the Islamist President Morsi from power in Egypt, the foreign secretary squirmed and wriggled for while, before coming up with, ‘We don’t support military interventions but we will work with the people in authority in Egypt.’ Well, ask a stupid question and you get a stupid answer.

You can’t support or oppose something when you don’t have a clue what it is. A democratically elected president is under house arrest somewhere. Liberal politicians like Mohamed ElBaradei appear on telly alongside the coup leader, General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, to lend him their support. Pro-democracy demonstrators celebrate as the army fans out in force across Cairo. Then Sisi hands over the presidency to a top judge, a shadowy figure from the days of the Mubarak regime which the military helped to overthrow two years ago. Make what you can out of that.

General Sisi announces the suspension of the Egyptian constitution, 3 July 2013, flanked by opposition leaders including former UN diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei.
General Sisi announces the suspension of the Egyptian constitution, 3 July 2013, flanked by opposition leaders including former UN diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei.

Forget the 1989 ‘velvet revolutions’ in eastern Europe; Egypt’s revolution looks more like those of France in 1789, Russia in 1917 or China in the 1940s.

Revolutions are a process, not an event. The overthrow of the existing regime is only the start of it. Two heaves in Russia – the first to get rid of the Tsar, the second to establish Bolshevik rule – then a prolonged civil war which lasted into the 20s. In France, Louis XVI was overthrown not by the storming of the Bastille in 1789, but by the coup of 10 August three years later. As in Egypt in 2013, the initial constitutional settlement under Louis, including the elected national assembly, was shoved aside because many people thought the original revolution was being betrayed.

Revolutions are rarely morally unambiguous and rarely set one side clearly against another; they bring to the surface all the competing tensions you should expect in a society in tumult. Revolutions are messy, they go backwards and forwards; sometimes they stumble towards the light, sometimes they fall into darkness. In Russia, one form of autocratic rule was eventually replaced with another. In France, Louis XVI was toppled but it took another 80 years – and a further three Louis of various kinds – before stable republican government was finally established in 1870.

We shouldn’t be too prissy about the military getting involved. Revolutions happen in all parts of society, including the military, and sooner or later the people in charge have to make up their minds. They can stick with the ancien régime, in which case the revolution usually fails, often bloodily. They can split, and we get civil war. Or they can change sides, and we call it a ‘coup’. All successful revolutions are military coups of some sort, whether or not they end with a general addressing the nation on TV adorned with the presidential regalia. It’s usually a decision by someone military that turns a rebellion into a revolution.

Louis XVI clung to power for three years after 1789, but it took another 80 years to establish a stable French republic.
Louis XVI clung to office for three years after 1789, but it took another 80 years to establish a stable French republic.

In Russia, the military first deserted the Tsar, then splintered into factions. It was the crucial support of Bolshevised elements at a particular time in St Petersburg that enabled Lenin to stage his audacious coup d’état on 25 October. In France, Louis was left with so little support among the military establishment by 1792 that, when the Paris ‘mob’ stormed the Tuileries, barely a musket was lifted to defend him.

By all accounts, Morsi sounds like a dreadful leader – incompetent as well as autocratic and opportunistic. Yes, he was elected, but democracy is about more than elections. The winner’s legitimacy depends on governing democratically, not just getting the most votes on a particular day. A lot of Eygptians didn’t think Morsi was governing democratically. Whether they were a voting majority of more than 50% doesn’t matter because Egypt is in a revolutionary, not a democratic, situation. Like Louis, Morsi did eventually offer to compromise, but it was too little, too late.

It’s too early to say if General Sisi’s coup is revolutionary, counter-revolutionary or reactionary. Or just pragmatic. It’s another event in an unfolding and unpredictable story. For now, all we can do is watch and wait, fascinated and apprehensive, but let’s face it, more than a little exhilarated by the whole thing.

Little bangs and big bucks

You know you’ve hit your mid-40s when histories of ‘your’ decade start to fill the bookshelves. Writers are always nostalgic for their youth and thirty years seems about right for a proper historical perspective. I turned 18 at the height of the miners’ strike in 1984 and often feel cheated about being landed with the decade of piano-key ties and Rick Astley rather than the Rolling Stones or the Sex Pistols. But at the time, it seemed like fun, even if I was on the losing side of virtually every political and cultural argument for an entire decade.

Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s By Graham Stewart Atlantic Books, 546pp, £25
Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s
By Graham Stewart
Atlantic Books, 546pp, £25

We can assume that Graham Stewart, a former Times leader writer and historian of the Tory party, was very much on the winning side. For him, the 80s ‘exploded with a decisive bang’ and settled all those arguments for the next thirty years and beyond. Stewart’s only real reassessment of the legacy of free markets and deregulation is to imply that by not following ‘the Grantham gospel of Thatcher’s faith’ and cutting public spending, it was governments who caused the great crash of 2008.

Although Margaret Thatcher dominates the pages, she never really materialises in flesh and blood from the web of supportive clichés that Stewart weaves around her. Indeed, it’s hard to see how his Thatcher could arouse ‘the attraction and repulsion’ he says defined people’s attitudes in the 80s. She just seems so damn reasonable, at least until the end, when ‘experience was making her careless’ and her cabinet ‘were tiring of her brusqueness and rudeness’.

What Bang! really lacks – for want of a better word – is ‘bang’. Assembled almost exclusively from newspaper clippings, published memoirs (mainly those of Conservative politicians) and statistics, Stewart provides a crisp commentary on the key events and arguments without ever getting under the skin of the times. There are none of the interviews with people caught up in the big events which made Andy Beckett’s history of the 70s, When the Lights Went Out, the instant classic of the genre. Sometimes you wonder if Stewart wrote Bang! barricaded in his Buckingham University office, with the internet down, the phone off the hook and oblivious to anything that’s happened in the last five years.

This weakness is most glaring with Stewart’s chapter on the miner’s strike. While few would dispute that at the end of the dispute the miners were ‘a beaten army marching towards oblivion’, Stewart doesn’t talk to any of the miners or police officers involved, and doesn’t even seem to have visited any pit communities. Shorn of human context, this just makes the miners look silly and the dispute childish. Similarly, with the 1986 Wapping print dispute, Stewart pompously asserts that ‘the printers were protesting to ensure their industry continued to use outdated technology and inefficient practices’. In the words of the book’s heroine: No, no, no! Most were protesting because they feared losing their jobs and a way of life they treasured. To fail even to try to understand that is to fail as a social historian. Social history needs people and in Bang! the people seem to have been expunged from their own decade.

If you lived through the 80s, Bang! could make you wonder if you were really there. If you didn’t, you could end up wondering what all the fuss was about.

A version of this review was published in public service magazine, spring 2013.

 

British politics goes continental

With UKIP’s success in the local elections and recent polls, Britain may be moving rapidly to a four-party system before we’ve got used to a three-party one. In fact, the trend towards continental-style multi-party politics has been going on for some time. The share of the vote taken by the two main parties – Conservative and Labour – has fallen from 96.8% in 1951 to just 65% in 2010. The scores of the three largest parties – 36-29-23 – have a very European look about them. And it’s not just UKIP: the SNP are well established as a party of government in Scotland; Respect and the Greens have MPs at Westminster.

Giulio Andreotti's often chaotic governments presided over considerable economic success.
Giulio Andreotti’s often chaotic governments presided over considerable economic success.

Until now, Britain has had no real experience of multi-party politics or the sort of shifting coalition governments which are common on the continent. Brits tend see multi-party systems as unstable, riven by bickering (both personal and political), prone to repeat elections, collapsing governments and a revolving door of prime ministers. We think of Italy, above all, which after a brief period of two-party pendulum politics seems to be reverting to post-war type, or the supposedly chaotic French Fourth Republic, which Charles De Gaulle put an end to with his presidential system in 1958. We tend to overlook Germany’s long and distinguished record of coalition government, perhaps because its two-and-a-half party system looks very similar to ours.

But the era of collapsible governments and multi-party politics coincided with what many see as a golden age in Europe. Italy may have had 48 governments between 1946 and the collapse of its post-war party system in 1993 (Giulio Andreotti, who died last week, was seven times prime minister between 1972 and 1993), but the Italian republic was a remarkable economic success during that period. Chaotic it may have seemed to the outsider, but Italy worked; the saying at the time (supposedly taken from Galileo) was eppur si muove – ‘yet it moves’. In 1987, Italian politicians celebrated il sorpasso: the moment when Italy briefly overtook Britain – stagnating under Thatcher – as the world’s fifth largest economy. It didn’t last long, but it’s a wonder it happened at all. Then came Berlusconi and a period of more ‘stable’ governments, and the Italian economy stagnated, then sunk without trace.

In France, there were 38 governments between 1946 and the end of the 1970s, when France’s political system began to crystallise into the left-right blocs we see today. (France’s tradition of multiple parties right, left and centre survives thanks to the two-round voting system, but only two are really parties of government). But this was the time of les trente glorieuses – the thirty glorious years – when France’s economy boomed and its generous welfare state reached its height. There’s no need to point out Germany’s success, achieved with perpetual coalition government since 1949.

Of course, there’s no proven link, and not everyone sees the post-war decades as a golden age. But at the very least we can say that multiparty politics, government instability and coalition administrations are not always a disaster. Fractious, argumentative – even chaotic – political systems can work.

The unfortunate Pierre Pflimlin, last prime minister of the French Fourth Republic, whose 1958 administration lasted just two weeks.
The unfortunate Pierre Pflimlin, last prime minister of the French Fourth Republic, whose 1958 administration lasted just two weeks.

Maybe governments just don’t matter as much as we think they do. Belgium managed quite successfully without a government for 16 months after the June 2010 election. Another reason may be that the constant dialogue that has to go on in multi-party governments: the much-derided ‘smoke-filled room’. In Britain and the US, we tend to elect one party and leave them to get on with it for four or five years, with the opposition carping impotently from the sidelines. With multi-party systems, you may have to negotiate on every bill or every significant tweak in economic policy. This itself brings a kind of stability. Things get talked about a lot more, decisions are taken more slowly, and perhaps a lot of bad ideas fall by the wayside.

Perhaps the most important factor is that for parties to work together long-term they have to share some common values about what the country can or should be, or some sense of overriding common purpose. We saw this in Britain with the Churchill’s wartime coalition, but in France it survived in the idea of the Republic, to which almost all major parties subscribe, and the notion of social solidarity it entails. The main German parties all support the social market model. I’m not sure what common purpose Italian parties have; perhaps it’s just the need to – somehow – keep the show on the road. Italian politicians seem to relish an atmosphere of permanent crisis, and a battle for national survival can be a powerful galvanising force – as we saw again with Britain’s wartime coalition.

I doubt anyone will look back on the Cameron-Clegg era as a golden age. But the Coalition isn’t really a coalition at all: it’s just two parties locked in the same (smoke-free) room together, waiting for someone to find the key. It hasn’t worked because neither side really expected it to last, or sees coalition as a permanent feature of the political landscape. The Tories in particular seem to think the result of the 2010 election was a statistical fluke. But all the signs are that European-style multi-party politics is here to stay in Britain. We’d better get used to and start trying to make it work.