It’s been a good week for grasping for classical reference points to describe the fast-changing political drama of UK politics, with lots of betrayal and hubris and tragedy, and a little farce too. With the front-stabbing by Michael Gove of Boris Johnson’s hopes of becoming British Prime Minister by acclamation of the sleepy members of the Conservative Party, this trend has reached its peak. The term ‘Machiavellian’ has never seemed so apt, and rarely so often invoked. Johnson’s transparently self-interested betrayal of David Cameron to lead the Leave campaign for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU has been trumped, shall we say, by the cunning treachery of Cameron’s other nemesis figure, Michael Gove, who denounced Johnson’s suitability to replace Cameron as Prime Minister, universally understood as the only reason Johnson had U-turned on the Brexit issue in the first place. Attention to real calamity is displaced by displays of perfidy.
Hold on, hold on. This seems all very unfair. To Machiavelli.
It’s true that Machiavelli recommended, in The Prince, that “a sensible leader cannot and must not keep his word if by doing so he puts himself at risk”, which sounds a little shabby it’s true, but he did add that this was all OK “if the reasons that made him give his word in the first place are no longer valid”. Gove might appear to be absolved by this caveat, if one were inclined to believe that he came to an honourable judgement that Johnson was not after all up to the job and felt he had an obligation to say so in public before it was too late. Lots of us had already decided long ago that Johnson hardly deserved the seriousness bestowed upon him as a potential Prime Minister. Michael Gove is the only person I know of who believes that reaching this judgment for himself actually qualifies him for the job instead. Gove’s performance over the last day or so is almost hilariously lacking in self-awareness, which is the primary quality one needs to be a successful ‘Machiavellian’.
Johnson is an even worse Machiavellian than Gove, if we retain the common understanding of that epithet. Machiavelli’s proposition was that it was crucial for a leader to seem to possess virtues, to seem to be compassionate, loyal, humane, honest and so on, while having to act in a less dignified manner than they might want to be widely known: “In general people judge more by appearances than first-hand experience, because everyone gets to see you but hardly anyone deals with you directly. Everyone sees what you seem to be, few have experience of what you really are”. There’s an important point about the civilising force of hypocrisy lurking in this account of the importance to the effective exercise of power of keeping up appearances, and a lesson too about how to think about the possibilities of political life in light of an acknowledgment that we are “a sad lot” not always prone to goodness.
But unlike other plotters and schemers this week, Johnson and Gove have both long since relinquished any pretence at all of seeming to be anything other than what they seem to be. Naked ambition and brazen hypocrisy and boastful arrogance are hardly what Machiavelli was concerned with. So let’s not diminish the significance and profundity of Machiavelli’s thought by associating his name with theirs.