Macchiavelli Assesses Labour and Conservative Leaders

I glanced over the summary of The Prince by Macchiavelli written in 1513 in Florence, published in 1532, five years after his death. This work reveals a great understanding of the processes of power, built from Macchiavelli observing and advising a series of Principalities, and their varying fortunes during peace and war.

While reading it I could sometimes visualise how Gordon Brown is getting the game of power wrong from the Macchiavellian viewpoint, and how Blair also offended some of his key principles. Next I found myself measuring Cameron and then Boris Johnson against the Macchiavellian yardstick, and wondering how Macchiavelli would rate their chances of success in the game of power.

It should be remembered that power successes such as Stalin followed Macchiavelli as his bible, as well as power failures such as Mussolini.

Here is part of the summary of The Prince, which I lifted from Wikipedia. See if you recognise anyone.

He (Macchiavelli) states, “…a wise prince should establish himself on that which is his own control and not in that of others; he must endeavor to avoid hatred, as is noted.”

Yet the way men live is so far removed from the way they ought to live that anyone who abandons what is, for what should be, pursues his downfall rather than his preservation; for a man who strives after goodness in all his acts is sure to come to ruin, since there are so many men who are not good.”

Might one see Cameron as one who is verging on striving after goodness? He seems good at working from what he knows he can control, I would say.

Since there are many possible qualities that a prince can be said to possess, he must not be overly concerned about having all the good ones.

That would give a point to Boris Johnson, who has many ‘not good’ qualities.

Also, a prince may be perceived to be merciful, faithful, humane, frank, and religious, but he should only seem to have these qualities.
A prince cannot truly have these qualities because at times it is necessary to act against them.

Is Cameron merely good at being perceived as ‘good’, as defined? Is he more ruthless than first appears? In which case, he’s doing well on the first items on the Macchiavellian scale. There’s more.

Although a bad reputation should be avoided, this is not crucial in maintaining power. The only ethic that matters is one that is beneficial to the prince in dealing with the concerns of his state.

Blair springs to mind here. He had a bad reputation after the Iraq stink in 2003, but still managed to hold power through to 2007, winning the 2005 election.

Generosity vs. parsimony

If a prince is overly generous to his subjects, Machiavelli asserts he will lose appreciation and will only cause greed for more.
Additionally, being overly generous is not economical, because eventually all resources will be exhausted.
This results in higher taxes and will bring grief upon the prince.

Hello, Gordon Brown.

Then, if he decides to discontinue or limit his generosity, he will be labeled as a miser. Gordon Brown again.

Thus, Machiavelli summarizes that guarding against the people’s hatred is more important than building up a reputation for generosity. A wise prince should be willing to be more reputed a miser than be hated for trying to be too generous.

Boris Johnson seems to be getting that right, as did Mrs Thatcher, although she incurred much hatred by the time of her fall, often by making unnecessary hardship for others, as with the poll tax.

Cruelty vs. mercy

In answering the question of whether it is better to be loved than feared, Machiavelli writes, “The answer is of course, that it would be best to be both loved and feared. But since the two rarely come together, anyone compelled to choose will find greater security in being feared than in being loved.”

Blair’s downfall came because he wasn’t feared. Brown was feared before he became leader, but not any more, although the flying Nokias have kept a palace revolution at bay.

As Machiavelli asserts, commitments made in peace are not always kept in adversity; however, commitments made in fear are kept out of fear. Yet, a prince must ensure that he is not feared to the point of hatred, which is very possible. Above all, Machiavelli argues, do not interfere with the property of the subjects, their women, or the life of somebody without proper justification.

Regulators are hated because they interfere in these matters. Leaving people alone is a plank of Cameron’s local democracy platform. He is winning points here again. Interfering Labour are cordially hated and their powers are sunk.

Regarding the troops of the prince, fear is absolutely necessary to keep a large garrison united and a prince should not mind the thought of cruelty in that regard. For a prince who leads his own army, it is imperative for him to observe cruelty because that is the only way he can command his soldiers’ absolute respect.

Machiavelli compares two great military leaders: Hannibal and Scipio Africanus. Although Hannibal’s army consisted of men of various races, they were never rebellious because they feared their leader. Scipio’s men, on the other hand, were known for their mutiny and dissension.

Blair tried to rule by fear, but in the end it didn’t wash as he was chicken. His rule was exercised for him by bullies he permitted to sit beside him, Campbell, Brown, Mandelson, Cherie Antoinette. Respect for Blair conti
nuously eroded.

In What Way Princes Should Keep Their Word?

Machiavelli notes that a Prince is praised for keeping his word. However, he also notes that a Prince is also praised for the illusion of being reliable in keeping his word. A Prince, therefore, should only keep his word when it suits his purposes, but do his utmost to maintain the illusion that he does keep his word and that he is reliable in that regard. Therefore, a Prince should not break his word unnecessarily.

Blair and Brown fall down badly on this one. Boris Johnson is a little suspect, and Cameron gets very close to offending on occasions. But at this point, the Conservative leaders are way ahead. Labour tried to make a virtue out of lying, but as Macchiavelli knew, such attitudes lose your power for you.

Avoiding contempt and hatred

Machiavelli observes that most men are content as long as they are not deprived of their property and women. A prince should command respect through his conduct, because a prince that is highly respected by his people is unlikely to face internal struggles. Additionally, a prince who does not raise the contempt of the nobles and keeps the people satisfied, Machiavelli assures, should have no fear of conspirators.

Blair and Brown both suffered endless internal struggles, and neither are respected for their own rivalry. Cameron does command respect as does Boris Johnson, although his comic turns make that respect a little shallow on occasions. Cameron has kept his party surprisingly loyal since he took over, given the potential internal divisions on Europe.

Gaining honors

A prince truly earns honor by completing great feats. King Ferdinand of Spain is cited by Machiavelli as an example of a monarch who gained esteem by showing his ability through great feats and who, in the name of religion, conquered many territories and kept his subjects occupied so that they had no chance to rebel.

Blair and Brown had no feats. Boris Johnson is keen to press ahead with London’s new coastal airport, build Crossrail and develop a vast new transport system for London. Cameron appears more modest in this regard, but claims to be into making huge changes to the manner that public administration is carried out.

Regarding two warring states, Machiavelli asserts it is always wiser to choose a side, rather than to be neutral. Machiavelli then provides the following reasons why:

 If your allies win, you benefit whether or not you have more power than they have.

 If you are more powerful, then your allies are under your command; if your allies are stronger, they will always feel a certain obligation to you for your help.

 If your side loses, you still have an ally in the loser.

Machiavelli also notes that it is wise for a prince not to ally with a stronger force unless compelled to do so.

Cameron seems to be cooler in his relations with the US than Blair was. Brown too. Blair was the one to get this wrong, and most people felt most uncomfortable as he sold his soul to the US over Iraq.

In conclusion, the most important virtue is having the wisdom to discern what ventures will come with the most reward and then pursuing it courageously.

Blair hadn’t a clue and didn’t care except about his own and Cherie Antoinette’s interests, which they have feathered most successfully.

Nobles and staff

The selection of quality servants is reflected directly upon the prince’s intelligence, so if they are loyal the prince is considered wise; however, when they are otherwise, the prince is open to adverse criticism. Machiavelli asserts that there are three types of intelligence:
 The kind that understands things for itself—which is great to have.
 The kind that understands what others can understand—which is good to have.
 The kind that does not understand for itself, nor through others—which is useless to have.
If the prince does not have the first type of intelligence, he should at least have the second type. For, as Machiavelli states, “A prince must have the discernment to recognize the good or bad in what another says or does even though he has no acumen himself”.

Blair did have the realisation to rely on Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson, seeing their intelligence was superior to his own. He also followed that of Cherie. But he seemed to have a blank spot with Gordon Brown, or simply was afraid to ditch him. He was a curious mixture of great strength and great weakness in this area.

Cameron too has relied greatly on William Hague, who has great wisdom in many matters, and on George Osborne who seems to be a weak spot. Overall he does not look too strong on his selection of advisers, preferring to keep himself as the focus.

Boris on the other hand seems to be good as finding good people to trust, and has more capacity in that regard. He also is not shy of firing those he finds don’t measure up to his standards. While I suspect Cameron is too long-suffering with less capable people than himself. It is not good for business to be loyal to the less capable.

Avoiding flatterers

A prudent prince should have a select group of wise counselors to advise him truthfully on matters all the time. All their opinions should be taken into account. Ultimately, the decision should be made by the counselors and carried out absolutely. If a prince is given to changing his mind, his reputation will suffer. A prince must have the wisdom to recognize good advice from bad. Machiavelli gives a negative example in Emperor Maximilian I; Maximilian, who was secretive, never consulted others, but once he ordered his plans and met dissent, he immediately changed them.

Gordon Brown, hello again. The great ditherer. At least Blair had the balls to brush off dissent. Cameron seems to brush off dissent so far, although he is weak in his replies over his Bullingdon past, as if he cares too much about his image. Boris simply blasts ahead once he’s made up his mind.


Machiavelli argues that fortune is only the judge of half our actions and we have control over the other half. He expresses a high opinion of Cesare Borgia, but says he lost power because of unexpected illness. Machiavelli compares fortune to a torrential river that cannot be easily controlled during flooding season. In periods of calm, however, people can erect dams and levees in order to minimize its impact.

Brown wasted his chance to build strength in the good times, blowing his treasure on generosity. Now he’s sunk. Boris seems to be good with money. Blair was useless and didn’t care. Cameron seems in the middle.

Fortune, Machiavelli argues, seems to strike at the places where no resistance is offered, as is the case in Italy. Additionally, a prince’s rule must be suited and adjusted for the times. In a more controversial metaphor, Machiavelli writes that “it is better to be impetuous than cautious, because fortune is a woman; and it is necessary, if one wants to hold her down, to beat her and strike her down.”[3]Some translations use the word “rape,” although it is disputed. However, the attitude encapsulates Machiavelli’s view of power and his understanding of the lust which follows it. A prince should imitate the actions of great men before him but only to a certain extent, adjusting certain aspects of his predecessors’ ideas.

Cameron has adjusted politics to the present skilfully, enabling his party to progress where it seemed stranded before his arrival. But he lacks impetuosity and seems to veer on the side of caution. Brown is ludicrously cautious. Blair foolishly and casually uncautious. Boris seems the most likely to meet the overall Macchiavellian specification. Cameron’s part seems only temporary,and the reality of office could overwhelm him.

Time will tell.

PICTURED – Mayor Of London Boris Johnson walks past Sir Ian Blair, Chief of The Met, who he fired, bringing bitter recriminations from Sir Ian.

The Tap Blog is a collective of like-minded researchers and writers who’ve joined forces to distribute information and voice opinions avoided by the world’s media.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.