Bagehot: In search of a modern Machiavelli. Political Observer comments

Bagehot ( Adrian Wooldridge) in his November 21, 2020 essay at The Economist:

Headline : In search of a modern Machiavell

Sub-headline: The ideal political adviser is hard to find

After some preliminary commentary on Johnson’s advisers, their costs and their ‘bromides’ Bagehot offers this advice to Downing Street ,not to Boris Johnson.

But a better way would be to read a few books. Start with Machiavelli’s “The Prince”—the first book on politics to describe men as they are, warts and all, rather than as moralists would like them to be, and a wonderful source of eternal insights. Then imitate Machiavelli’s method and “step inside the courts” of previous leaders by reading lots of history.

According to Bagehot, the vital part of the success of a politician is her/his chief advisor, names ‘James Baker, chief of staff to both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush’,  ‘Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s chief of staff’.

But Bagehot’s political ignorance or mendacity gets in his way with this: ‘Patrick Moynihan brought out the best in Richard Nixon.’ Moynihan provided the political twin of the Southern Strategy, un-mentioned by Bagehot.

The complete text of Moynihan’s “benign neglect” memo was printed in the New York Times in January 1970. Particular sections of this explosive document bear reproducing:

You are familiar with the problem of crime. Let me draw your attention to another phenomenon, exactly parallel and originating in exactly the same social circumstances: Fire. Unless I mistake the trends, we are heading for a genuinely serious fire problem in American cities. In New York, for example, between 1956 and 1969 the over-all fire-alarm rate more than tripled from 69,000 alarms to 240,000. These alarms are concentrated in slum neighborhoods, primarily black. In 1968, one slum area had an alarm rate per square mile 13 times that of the city as a whole. In another, the number of alarms has, on an average, increased 44 per cent per year for seven years.

Many of these fires are the result of population density. But a great many are more or less deliberately set. (Thus, on Monday, welfare protectors set two fires in the New York State Capitol.) Fires are in fact a “leading indicator” of social pathology for a neighborhood. They come first. Crime, and the rest, follows. The psychiatric interpretation of fire-setting is complex, but it relates to the types of personalities which slums produce. (A point of possible interest: Fires in the black slums peak in July and August. The urban riots of 1964-1968 could be thought of as epidemic conditions of an endemic situation.) . . .

The time may have come when the issue of race could benefit from a period of “benign neglect.”The subject has been too much talked about. The forum has been too much taken over to hysterics, paranoids, and boodlers on all sides. We may need a period in which Negro progress continues and racial rhetoric fades. The Administration can help bring this about by paying close attention to such progress — as we are doing-while seeking to avoid situations in which extremists of either race are given opportunities for martyrdom, heroics, histrionics, or whatever, Greater attention to Indians, Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans would be useful.  

How could Bagehot have so missed the mark? Undaunted Bagehot continues his testament to ‘adult supervision’ in first term of Clinton by David Gergen. The 1996 best seller Primary Colors by Anonymous could not have been stopped, by even a master of ‘supervision’ like Gergen? Here is a link to an insightful review by Alexander Cockburn. He was on the campaign with the Clintons.

What follows is a two paragraph testament to the value that the ‘modern Machiavelli’ can offer. It is the two most interesting paragraphs of the whole of his essay, although, at times, couched in the vocabulary of such current political catch phrases as ‘when to play nice‘.

The modern Machiavelli has to be willing to prick ideological bubbles. There is nothing more dangerous for an organisation than self-congratulatory groupthink. Advisers need to be well versed in past mistakes so that they can probe their bosses’ ideas and plans for weaknesses before rivals or reality expose those flaws. At the same time, whenever hubris turns to despair, as it so often does in politics, they need to be able to put the babble of daily headlines into perspective. Machiavelli’s injunction that both princes and advisers should study history and “note the actions of great men” is even more germane today, when too many politicians study economics or, even worse, management science.

The ideal adviser needs to know when to pick fights and when to play nice. Machiavelli was right that change is dangerous because “he who innovates will have as his enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and only lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new”. But too many Tories have come to believe that, because you can’t make progress without making enemies, the mere existence of enemies is a sign that you’re making progress. Demonising the establishment as a reactionary blob is less effective than co-opting its members by appealing to a mixture of their ambition and their better natures. Not all of the government’s ideas for universities, the civil service and the bbc are daft, and a little digging reveals that many insiders agree with some of them.

Bagehot offers this to ‘Advisors’ :

 Advisers need to help their bosses build coalitions across the political nation, supping not just with journalists, mps and civil servants but also with city mayors, who rightly feel slighted by the London-focused political system.

On the Rubber levers of power:

Finally, successful advisers also need to roam beyond Downing Street. One of the commonest complaints of prime ministers is that they grasp the levers of power only to discover that they are made of rubber:

Note that this attempts to offer an explanation of the self-interested manipulation of ‘the rubber levers of power’: the Grand Game as described by an Oxbridger, who is in search of a rhetorical formula, to impress his readers, that he has grasped the essentials, of the care and maintenance of that power. What is left out of Bagehot’s list of imperatives, is the power that a Leader can exert, via the expressed will of his followers to influence, pressure, demand political action, from the lower orders of that political system. Bagehot is the natural inheritor of an Economist tradition, whose self-presentation is that of the inherent virtue of a class of men, educated and convinced of their natural affinity for the management of that power.

Boris Johnson plays a minor role in Bagehot’s self-congratulatory polemic, as an object of scorn.

But none of his fine words about the green industrial revolution will mean a fig unless he can find a modern Machiavelli strong enough to drive policy forward and self-effacing enough to devote himself to the greater glorification of King Boris.


Political Observer

About stephenkmacksd

Rootless cosmopolitan,down at heels intellectual;would be writer. 'Polemic is a discourse of conflict, whose effect depends on a delicate balance between the requirements of truth and the enticements of anger, the duty to argue and the zest to inflame. Its rhetoric allows, even enforces, a certain figurative licence. Like epitaphs in Johnson’s adage, it is not under oath.'
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