Book Review: The New Machiavelli

Twenty years ago I was up watching Michael Portillo, the darling of the Thatcherites who had lost his seat to an unknown Labour candidate, which basically was the icing on the cake to demonstrate how in May 1997, New Labour triumphed at the polls and had ushered in an era many expected to be of hope and change under the Premiership of Tony Blair.

“The New Machiavelli” in my eyes the best insider’s account of the Blair years, a period of politics I have been obsessed by as it took place during a period which had helped shaped my interest in politics and media. Also, because I like many young people had resonated with New Labour as a vehicle of change and had watched Tony Blair say to the world “a new dawn has broken, has it not?” The rest, as they say is history.

This book is a gripping account of life inside ‘the bunker’ of number 10 through the eyes of Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former Chief of Staff from 1994–2007. Why “the New Machiavelli” in my eyes was the best account of the New Labour years is because Powell reworked Niccolo Machiavelli’s “the Prince” which was the influential 15th century classic manuscript of government and how government should be run. Taking lessons from Machiavelli who was an official in fifteenth century Florence, Powell uses the works to describe the events that occured during the leadership of Tony Blair with the intention of using “The New Machiavelli” to be “the Prince” for a modern day government.

Powell unlike Alistair Campbell, Peter Mandelson, Anji Hunter, Ed Balls and others managed to stay under the radar during the volatile battles between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and throughout the book his words echoes as someone who was partisan towards Tony Blair. Powell does highlight a few number of failures of Blair’s decisions such as the lack of reform in certain areas, the outbreak of foot-and-mouth, the rolling out of the Freedom of Information Act, the hunting ban and not being progressive on Europe, also it was written in 2010, so the political aftermath of the Blair years is somewhat limited. However, Powell does use the book to throw the gauntlet on Gordon Brown as someone who sounds not only flawed, but actually was mentally ill to be a robust leader but was a man who for ten years acted as the Dauphin who just wanted to be leader, rather than serve his own leader. Powell throughout the book is devastating towards the neighbour from hell: how Brown would demand a standing down date for Blair to stand down, how Brown would blame Blair for David Cameron’s rise, demand that he “stop” journalists writing bad things about him. Powell does in a subtle way blame his former boss for not sacking Gordon Brown when he had the chance in 2001 or even call Brown’s bluff each time he was challenged, but stops short of stating why Blair had failed to act. I would believe that Tomy Blair’s handling of Gordon Brown had shown how he lacked the one ruthless streak of asserting one’s influence.

Quite often Machiavelli is connected with duplicity, intrigue and backhand politics, however Powell brilliantly argues through Machiavelli’s writing, that he is not an icon for duplicity as what people used to believe but a person who spoke about the ‘art of government’ of ‘what government is’ and not ‘what government should be.’ Yet, I do feel Powell does focus more on securing the reputation of Machiavelli and of Tony Blair.

Powell does not go into detail about Iraq, but attempts to vindicate Blair by saying he pursued some private influence over the US President George W Bush with the supposed success was in getting the Americans to make war through the UN route, and how the road to Baghdad was a route towards peace in Palestine. And as history showed, both situations were a facade and Iraq was a disaster. Again another Tony Blair supporter did try to absolve their leader on this one issue which hung over the successes of New Labour under Tony Blair.

This book also sheds light on the operation of power and the use of power. Powell narrates how within the British political system the difficulties of getting a grip on the civil service, and on the peculiarities of prime ministerial power which can change depending on the Prime Minister of the day as Powell challenged the narrative of the so called ‘sofa cabinet’ of Tony Blair by showing that the civil service was somewhat archaic and a vehicle of obstruction rather than progression.

I think that all budding statesmen/women, political junkies and strategists should study on the merits of government, but “the New Machiavelli” is also an account of an integral figure who was privy to some major decisions during the Blair years.

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