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.

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.


The strange afterlife of François Mitterrand

mitterrand_hat_1995François Mitterrand, French president between 1981 and 1995, died 16 years ago. Well, so they say. But turn on French radio or TV, look around a bookshop, or scan the feature pages of a French paper, and old Tonton is still with us.

Perhaps it all started with Robert Guédiguian’s remarkable 2005 film about the president’s final days, The Last Mitterrand (available with English subtitles on DVD). It was certainly given impeteus by the thirtieth anniversary of Mitterrand’s election last year, when Olivier Py’s play Adagio (subtitled ‘Mitterrand: secrets and death’) opened to packed houses in Paris’s Théâtre de l’Odéon. There are dozens of books about Mitterrand, both factual and fictional, and most a mixture of the two.

Mitterrand is summoned like a spectre in almost all political debate, his name mentioned more often than most living politicians (yes – hands up – just search this blog). Nicholas Sarkozy was said to be obsessed with him. Even with Hollande in the Élysée, the French Socialist party still feels like a family shorn of a dominant father. Last year, Florence Pavaux-Drory, Mitterrand’s biographer and one-time adviser – and an avowed atheist – told France 24: ‘Mitterrand is still our model and our leader – at least our spiritual leader. We feel the energy of Mitterrand is still with us.’

Antoine Laurain’s Le Chapeau de Mitterrand (Flammarion 2012) adds more mist to the mill of mystique around the former president. Set during the mid-80s, it’s a set of charming stories about four middle-class people (none of them natural Mitterrand supporters) who successively come into possession of the president’s lost hat. The hat, one of Mitterrand’s favoured black narrow-brimmed fedoras, mysteriously seems to confer on them some of the president’s élan, his gravitas, his genorosity of spirit and, in one or two cases, more than a little of the low cunning that Sarkozy so admired. Each has their life turned around while sporting the presidential titfer and comes to believe that it – and somehow Mitterrand himself – is responsible. The president himself makes only fleeting appearances at the beginning and the end of the book, where the stories culminate in a wicked twist that manages to be both touching and sinister at the same time.

Can you imagine a similar novel about any recent British political figure? Harold’s Pipe or Major’s Underpants, anyone? But it works beautifully with Mitterrand, who even in life moved in mysterious ways. His past was not so much a closed book as a palimpsest on which so many different versions were written that even now it’s impossible to discern anything as mundane as the truth: how deep was he in with Vichy? What did he really do in the Resistance? Did he set up the failed 1959 assassination attempt on himself? We still don’t really know.


But there’s more to it than that. The man is a ghost in the only real sense of the word. His slow death from prostate cancer, which he battled through his second term (and which it was later revealed he was already suffering from in 1981), gave him an air of tragic destiny which both repelled and fascinated the French. The sheer length of his career – he was first a minister in 1944 – his frequent comebacks, his links back to the Resistance, to Vichy and the Third Republic, made him seem eternal. And then, of course, he was so very French: a gourmet, a bibliophile, a philanderer with a secret daughter. In a country that likes to see itself incarnated in ambiguous historical figures (Jeanne d’Arc, Napoleon, De Gaulle etc), Mitterrand is slowly being petrified into part of France itself.

In his last New Year message as president, just a year before he died, the atheist Mitterrand turned towards the camera and, the trace of a smile about his thin lips, said: ‘I believe in the forces of the spirit, and I will never leave you.’

It’s spooky to watch. People have puzzled for 16 years over what he meant by this. But he knew. And now so do we.

  • ‘Le Chapeau de Mitterrand’ will be published in English as ‘Mitterrand’s Hat’ by Gallic press in 2013.

Who is François Hollande?

One of his cabinet colleagues once dubbed him ‘Flamby’, after a French brand of wobbly custard pudding. A member of his own campaign team called him a ‘marshmallow’. Even the mother of his four children, the 2007 presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, said he had ‘achieved nothing’ in 30 years of public life.

But François Hollande is President of the Republic and they are not. So is he a ‘dangerous man’, as the right-wing British magazine The Economist claims, or just ‘the captain of pedalo in a storm’, as the far-left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon quipped during the 2012 campaign? Dunno. The only thing I can say with certainty after 500-odd pages of Serge Raffy’s Le President is: don’t underestimate François Hollande.

Hollande combines undoubted ambition with a kind of patient fatalism and the tenacity of a dog with a marrow-filled bone. When he was 15, ‘with neither arrogance nor megalomania’, he calmly told a friends’ father: ‘I will be President of the Republic’. At the 1981 elections, heeding François Mitterrand’s advice to establish himself a political base in the provinces, he turned up in Corrèze, an unpromising rural area in central France, to challenge none other than Jacques Chirac in his own backyard. Mocked by Chirac as ‘less well-known than Mitterrand’s labrador’, Hollande failed to make the second round.

It took him seven years to get elected to anything in the département. Most other ambitious politicos would have bagged the experience and moved on, but Hollande stuck to his self-appointed task. Corrèze is now Hollande’s backyard and one of the most secure political bastions in France. Even Chirac votes for Hollande now.

‘One only emerges from ambiguity to one’s detriment,’ Mitterrand is supposed to have been fond of saying, and this is another piece of the old man’s advice that Hollande seems to have taken to heart. Throughout his career, Hollande has seemed reluctant to emerge from the shadows of his political father figures. A man who had an atrocious relationship with his own father – a fascist sympathiser – he moved between the grands hommes of the French left like an itinerant stepson, always looking up to, but ending up slightly disappointed by, his chosen mentor.

As well as Mitterrand himself, there was Jacques Delors, who let Hollande down by chickening out of running for the presidency in 1995 (as he’d ducked out of facing Chirac in Corrèze in 1981, allowing Hollande to step in at the last minute), and the donnish Lionel Jospin, with whom his relationship deteriorated so badly the two men almost came to blows during Jospin’s disastrous 2002 campaign (yes, it’s hard to imagine two more unlikely protagonists in a fist-fight). Another political hero (interestingly shared with Chirac) is Henri Queuille: a Corrèze politician of vaguely leftist convictions who, despite being prime minister of France three times in the 1950s, and a minister seventeen times in all, has left scarcely a mark on the public consciousness, even in France itself.

But Hollande’s choice of political mentors tells us a lot: these are not the romantic figures of the French left, they are not firebrands or ideologues. They are all machine politicians, skilful operators who travelled light ideologically and knew how to bide their time. Politicians, in fact, a bit like François Hollande.

With France now firmly in the eurozone pressure cooker and his popularity dropping like a stone, we will soon find out if Hollande is indeed a ‘Flamby’ or a political jammy dodger like Mitterrand himself.