'Ascetic in his pursuit of power,a puritan without a conscience'
Machiavelli's advice to virtuous leaders can be usefully adapted for the people in charge of education today. Patrick Scott re-assesses 'The Prince'.
When Chris Woodhead concluded a speech last year on 'OFSTED and its Critics' by quoting from Machiavelli, he was no doubt hoping to confirm the worst fears of his listeners. Niccolo Machiavelli. Old Nick. The nightmare continues. Did he really have a well-thumbed edition of The Prince at hand? Perhaps he just struck lucky with the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Is he as ruthless as he likes to pretend or was he merely teasing?
The idea that Machiavelli might be a role model for modern managers has received further support in recent weeks from Alistair McAlpine, former treasurer of the Conservative party. In this entertaining new book, McAlpine updates the Florentine statesman's most famous work, finding more than a few parallels between the circumstances of the beleaguered and warring Italian city states at the beginning of the sixteenth century and the corporate jungle of the late twentieth.
It's not difficult to see why The Prince might be so appealing to those who fancy they are made of sterner stuff than most. The book is divided into 26 brief sections, each of which announces itself in typically forthright fashion: "Those who come to power by crime", "The need to avoid contempt and hatred", "Whether it is better to be loved than feared". The tone is brisk, the advice direct. This is not, you feel, a book written by somebody who worries a lot. Reading it is like being briefed by a rather testy and slightly impatient senior officer. You have the uncomfortable feeling that if you re-read the last paragraph to make sure you had understood, you might get a sharp reprimand for not having grasped it first time round.
For anybody who has had their fill of conventional management advice about team-building, staff development and communicating the vision, Machiavelli's astringent prose style and the absence of humbug are, superficially at least, quite refreshing. Imagine consulting a personnel department about a difficult case, only to be advised that "Men must be either won over or destroyed". No problem.
But Machiavelli was no apologist for despotism. His advice to princes is about how to gain and retain power without resort to butchery. Take this key passage. "One can make this generalisation about men: they are ungrateful, fickle, liars, and deceivers, they shun danger and are greedy for profit; while you treat them well they are yours. They would shed their blood for you, risk their property, their lives, their children, so long, as I said above, as danger is remote; but when you are in danger they turn against you. Any prince who has come to depend entirely on promises and has taken no other precautions ensures his own ruin." This is a world in which people are not so much wicked as unreliable. What Machiavelli is pointing out is that most people are not heroes. In extremis, they will choose self interest over disinterest. You cannot rule by appealing to their better nature.
From this stems all his beliefs about the exercise of power. If men are most dangerous when they are most afraid, then they must always believe that by serving the prince, they will also be serving their own best interests. The tyrant seeks to achieve this by grotesquely inflating the price of disloyalty. Machiavelli is clear that such a strategy is ultimately self-defeating. Men who are cowed by fear may be roused by hatred. His approbation is reserved for the prince who wins the approval of his subjects, and "from this arises the following question: whether it is better to be loved than feared or the reverse. The answer is that one would like to be both the one and the other; but because it is difficult to combine them, it is far better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both".
What makes Machiavelli so interesting is the advice he gives about how that is to be achieved. There is no substitute, he insists, for a blameless life except, of course, a flair for managing the news - "to those seeing and hearing him, the prince should appear a man of compassion, a man of good faith, a man of integrity, a kind and religious man". He makes clear that the discipline required in seeming to be virtuous is every bit as great as that which is required in actually being so. What makes it so much more worthwhile is the prize. The prince must be ascetic in his pursuit of power, a puritan without a conscience.
All of which makes Machiavelli's advice particularly apposite in a world which places so much store on managing events. It should come as no surprise that this, more than anything else, is what preoccupies him in The Prince. "Political disorders," he says "can be quickly healed if they are seen well in advance ... when for lack of a diagnosis, they are allowed to grow in such a way that everyone can recognise them, remedies are too late." He advises against the easy solutions because "there is nothing so self-defeating as generosity: in the art of practising it you lose the ability to do so, and you become poor and despised". Instead, the ruler who will control events needs to take tough decisions while doing everything possible to minimise their impact, "violence must be inflicted once for all, people will then forget what it tastes like and so be less resentful. Benefits must be conferred gradually; and in that they will taste better."
Never one to neglect the art of presentation, Machiavelli underlines the importance of having a principled reason for betraying your principles, "a prudent ruler cannot and must not honour his word when it places him at disadvantage. If all men were good, this precept would not be good, but because men are wretched creatures who would not keep their word to you, you need not keep your word to them". Finally, and if all else fails, the wily leader will make sure that "if cruelties had been inflicted they were not his doing but the harsh nature of his minister".
There cannot be much doubt that Machiavelli knew what he was doing, although he may not have anticipated that his name would remain a byword for ruthless duplicity 450 years after his death. He would, no doubt, argue that, like it or not, his was the only reliable prescription for strong and effective government. It's hard not to feel that, in some respects at least, he has a point. Anybody seeking to manage without making sure that events beyond their control are likely to be favourable, may well find themselves, in that compelling phrase, in office but not in power.
* Patrick Scott is deputy director of education in Redcar and Cleveland, but is writing here in a personal capacity.