on 4 March 2011
This is a good read, and for those interested in the Blair years, one of the best books from the pro-Blair camp. Powell was the ultimate insider, always at Blair's side. He is searing in his judgement on Gordon Brown, and backs this up with chapter and verse on exactly how Brown was so toxic. I read this soon after reading DC Confidental, Sir Christopher Meyer's book, and it covers much of the same ground (9/11, Iraq etc.). Both are worth reading.
on 18 April 2011
Powell Jonathan, The New Machiavelli: How to wield power in the modern world (London, The Bodley Head, 2010)
This is an interesting book, built around Machiavelli; although in the early part Machiavelli seems to get in the way of the story about the Blair days in power. Indeed, it sounds more like the butler's view of what goes on inside No 10 than a text book on `how to wield power'. The picture however, is entertaining, the garden girls, `switch', the comings and goings of ministers and foreign dignitaries.
The flashes of insight also are fascinating, such as the importance of Blair's Chicago speech of 1999, the role of the PM in the European parliament or the need for Europe to be dealt with by a minister in the cabinet office rather than the FCO and the excellent and illuminating assessment on how to be a bridge between the US and Europe.
The curious use of `we' however, puzzled this reader at first. `We won' might be assumed to refer to Labour, but then `we appointed' or we moved out of Downing St makes it clear that it is a royal we of (the unelected) Powell and the PM.
Some of the best chapters however, are the appraisal of `inquiries', or the muddle over Europe, although one misses a candid analysis of the dominating oppressive presence of the Blair wars. Perhaps the subtext should be `how I hate Gordon Brown' as the latter seems to stray onto most pages in a threatening way.
At the end of the book, one is left with a sense of hiatus - the remarkable (unique?)ten year partnership of PM & chancellor and the reasons behind Blair's loyalty to Brown, are never really addressed.
Also was Brown's repeated complaint of Blair's moral corruption reflected by the latter's apparent deception over WMD in the Iraq war and his explanation of going into Hellman province not to fight but to assist development? Again perhaps sometime, despite `not doing God' , might we look forward to an examination of why Blair, the devout attender at mass, despite Christ's anti-war teaching was the most militaristic of all our post-1914 PMs.
on 24 November 2010
This book is a surprising page turner - couldn't put it down.
Fascinating how apropos Macheiveli's observations were regarding the wielding of power, but how Powell, after making such interesting comparisons indicating that flakey Blair and the pathetic nightmare that was Brown, ignored most of Machiaveli's advise, that he still considers Blair will go down in history as one of the best Prime Ministers of all time made me laugh out loud.
That the chaos, incompetence, the downright melicious and mendatious game playing that went on behind the scenes of New Labour, was allowed to carry on for such a long time, thus bringing the general publics attitudue to politics and politicians into the gutter, is truly shocking.
An excellent read but a shaming lesson on how not to behave.
on 29 April 2011
Having read Great Hatred Little Room I looked forward to reading this book. I was greatly disappointed. The references to Machiavelli are a cover for a selective memoir whose aim seems to be to backstab Gordon Brown, eulogise Tony Blair and settle old scores. He is highly selective and offers no evidence for what is really prejudice an example being "General Dannatt was not up to his job" an assertion made without any facts. In fact most commentators think Dannatt did an excellent job as head of the Army he just didn't agree with the lousy strategic judgements Blair made. He makes startling assertions such as the Coalition Government being a continuation of Blair's policies on schools etc - it could be equally be argued that the later Blair governments merely resurrected Major's policies on schools (city technology colleges as a predecessor of academies) and the internal market in Health. For me the central flaw of the of the book was best exemplified in the last paragraph when he argues that Blair will be seen by history as one of the best Prime Ministers of the last 400 years. After the massive misjudgements and lies surrounding Iraq, the corruption of cash for honours, the personal sleaze of the celebrity holidays etc that claim is simply laughable as sadly is so much of this book.
on 15 June 2015
For almost a century after Walter Bagehot's The English Constitution The English Constitution (Oxford World's Classics) scholars of the constitution relied heavily on anecdotes and heavy tomes of jurists Cabinet Government to examine the evolution of decision-making by cabinet government under collective responsibility, until Richard Crossman decided, beyond the grave, to throw a spanner into the works, with his eye-opening details in his ministerial diaries of the day-to-day management of governments throughout the Wilson administration The Crossman Diaries: Selections from the Diaries of a Cabinet Minister 1964-1970. The "myth" of cabinet government was further crucified by Thatcher and Blair who it was claimed attempted authoritarian "prime ministerialism" and US style "presidentialism" by "sofa government".
Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's Chief of Staff between 1994-2007, depicts an insider analysis of the Blair government using the ideas of the scheming double-dealing backroom Renaissance philosopher Nicolò Macchiavelli, and tries to rehabilitate the work, legacy and the reputation of his New Labour political chief.
Claiming to touch exclusive domestic issues - excluding Ulster as was already presented in an earlier publication (Blair's five wars has been promised in a future work on foreign and military policies), without footnotes, or an extensive bibliography (it has a brief working one), the author suggests his 313 page collection should be treated as comments on fairly recent events, incidents, and political figures to be used in future for analysis by contemporary historians of the late twentieth century, as well as for political scientists.
They are, indeed, extended, useful thoughts in progress, with a political agenda by a loyal supporter and collaborator of Tony "Bambi" Blair who took Britain on a bold, at present totally unrecognised or appreciated journey as Attlee's Jerusalem between 1945-51. However, despite his original aim, Powell does not discuss the work of individual domestic (home, education, work & pensions, health) policies, ministries, or criticise / praise individual ministers. He does admit that mistakes were made when government / cabinet decisions were made, not necessarily because of the absence of the Cabinet Secretary, the unpreparedness of a particular minister, but because they were wrong, without then choosing to give any example of any case, much less explaining why he considered the decision or the policy had been a mistake, or that in his personal opinion a correct decision had been taken but ultimately failed to achieve its intended goals.
Throughout his ten years as Prime minister the author states Blair adopted various techniques: Task forces, full cabinet and sofa government, though despite first sight appearances from the Downing Street Agreement in 1998 through the reforms of the public sector with the introduction of academies, and the war on terror at home and abroad, Blair believed he was on a "achievable" "mission" with "history" which was "right", and to be placed in first, "strong", of two categories, rather than "weak" leadership. Despite profound differences in character and ideologies, he has been repeatedly been associated with Margaret Thatcher, in contrast to both his predecessor, John Major, and successor, Gordon Brown, who are singled out as weak leaders.
The author explains briefly the term "sofa" government went beyond the feature of furniture or of space; rather it was set up to allow the Prime minister to be regularly briefed directly by his political subordinates, and to allow them before any full cabinet gathering to realise the importance of each individual piece of legislation within the policies of the government which all were working together. It became a term of abuse against the traditional workings of the system by the mandarins, and in particular the first Cabinet Secretary, Robin Butler, because the permanent civil servants were on this instance kept away from proceedings.
Their criticism of bringing more politics into government was not incorrect or false, but misplaced and misunderstood by outsiders, even by TV commentators (who through organized leaks and anonymous bad mouthing became the civil services daily tools to whip the backs of ministers), since governments should deliver political goods chosen by the electorate and not the policies of faceless unelected Sir Humphries, operating continually behind the scenes. Time available to absorb material, which both Thatcher and Blair as trained barristers achieved in soaking up, while others could not, may have been the telling point on the successes or failures of this style, and the decisions of Blair governments.
At the personal level Powell describes his own, as well as his colleague's, Alistair Campbell, role in the organization of government, of people whom the civil servants wished to pack up and banish to a furthest room. With Campbell there is an evident additional personal dislike among civil servants towards a bully, who had no intention to be accepted, respected, or follow their guidelines, and because he was backed by his political head, he felt he could order the ministers around (ministers, Powell reminds, are not servants of the Ministry, but senior members of the party and representatives of their constituents), be seen at meetings overseas, and (shock horror) even had the nerve to criticize and suggest re-arranging the duties of non-political advisors -which may be an extension or variant of Crossman's regular shouting matches and silences he encountered with his permanent secretary, Dame Evelyn Sharpe, known as "The Dame".
The author is very supportive of Alistair, because he was good at his job, and he obtained results for the benefit of the party in government. But when the author wanders into the case of Iraq, WMD, and the suicide of scientist David Kelly major incidents become clouded or omitted, Bambi, and his side kicks have still much to explain in future and to families who sent sons, fathers and husbands to an unnecessary war.
No doubt, Powell, received less understanding from civil servants -wisely he makes no mention of this, as he originated from the diplomatic corps, so he would have been considered a "wolf in sheep's clothing", one who joined the "other side", and to be reminded of "the other Powell", his brother, Charles, who was an efficient advisor for Thatcher. The author, however, never spoke of the occasion when it was reported (i.e. leaked) that during one of Blair's absences, another "new", "untried", "un-constitutional" practice was introduced with Cherie Blair being called in to chair one of the meetings. As no one has disputed it, surely it occurred. Why no explanation?
The lion share of the content covers the regular battles of the jilted lovers, after 2001, both in public and private, directly or indirectly between Blair and his Chancellor Brown and their supporters. In Renaissance terms, there existed two courts, headed by two Princes, or one main Prince and his vassal.
Powell stresses that the strength of a leader was first, his boldness to present himself: which Blair had in the leadership election in 1994 whereas Brown never attempted, possibly realising he was not psychologically suited (one wit compared Brown to Eden, both becoming leaders well-past their sell-by dates - Brown by 13 years!), and secondly, the ability to depose unwilling rivals. Here lies Blair's real problem - which the author believes was due to Blair's past friendship and respect towards his colleague, and as in Britain today, outside the realms of fiction, unlike Tudor England, Blair would not be able to physically eliminate his rival, there was a constant fear of his rival organizing dissent on the back benches - as occurred for Thatcher from 1986 after the resignation of Heseltine, instead of tolerating opposition within government: similar to President L.B Johnson's observation of having the opponent "inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in".
Blair should have asked himself was Labour prepared to tear itself apart a second time as after 1979-82 and keep itself firmly in the wilderness for an additional eighteen years? I doubt it. Powell shows Blair was very resourceful in crisis management. So a little more courage to cut the "Gordonian Knot", and New Labour would have been heralded with further long term accomplishments to be proud of. Instead, he lacked Thatcher's Lucrezia Borgia's fatal killer instinct - a feature she used once too often, and which ultimately killed her. So Blair's strength and power had its limitations.
By not sacking Brown, Blair's failings brought a slowing down in decision-making in government; allowing conflicting rumours and confusion to circulate, and a loss of confidence in the government and its personnel. It started to resemble sleazy and Major-like. The author has tried to explain and justify Blair's refusal to provide a time table of his tenure in office for fear of losing his powers, and then becoming a lame-duck US President; in reality, after 2001 Blair like Thatcher was starting to demonstrate that he had to go on and on to complete his unfinished dream.
Leaders always think about their legacy. Blair may have started thinking before becoming Premier in 1997. The author focuses on one of two important issues, though he does passes over the second. Agreed, New Labour became a new electoral force; yes, Brown did not halt the change, and the Coalition expanded both the education and health reforms, all to Blair's credit. However, legacy requires preparing a new cadre to pursue the dream. Blair, like Thatcher, behaved like a Leninist chief overlooking the vanguard of his people; he (and indeed Brown too with regards to Ed Miliband and Ed Balls) forbad David Miliband and Powell to stand for parliament until he thought they were ready to be used properly; they were never simple Labour foot soldiers in the battle, that was a gong for loyal local activist. In military terms they were part of the General Staff for promotion into government when the time was ripe. Events later caused unexpected changes to arise, and just as Thatcher's one time dauphin did not succeed her, the New Labour train fell off the tracks soon after 2007 after Blair went to the Middle East.
But more important, legacy depends on the person. Blair unlike Thatcher was respected and popular, but his popularity started to drain away after 1998, and was only tolerated in Labour in 2005 because he was an election winner. He was never the "straight sort of guy" after the Ecclestone debacle. He was a man of the past, and since 2007 he has become an embarrassment for the party faithful, for successive seniors, and less popular in Northern Ireland with the pointless £200 million bill for the Saville inquiry on Bloody Sunday. A nice legacy! Gladstone was once described as the GOM, meaning "Grand Old Man", until the siege of Khartoum in 1885, when the initials were inverted to become the "Murderer of Gordon"; similarly, President Nixon. Maybe Blair will only be rehabilitated after his death, maybe not.
Jonathan Powell has produced a very readable addition to the history of the Blair government. He may have eradicated certain "myths" of collective responsibility. On the other hand, it will need more material and time to wipe away the bad feelings either for Alistair Campbell, and of course Tony Blair, particularly as the latter has continued to show no contrition for any of his decisions.
Powell's contribution, thus, is another stage on that Journey A Journeythrough mud and slush to allow smarmy Blair to convince everyone that he had a religious right mission in life. The question is in justifying the successes and failures of a shady character, was the author, like the Renaissance philosopher, also squeaky clean? For, when working close to dishonest individuals one sees crooked life as the norm, one will follow the ways of others, and if a buck can be made all the better. Is this JP's case? By working through and with dirt, the author will remind all of its presence, and some may have stuck to him. If that is correct, he can thank Blair.
on 1 October 2012
In Phillip Powell's The New Machiavellian, he does what he vowed he was not going to do; he has attempted to firstly write, and then to rewrite history. This is not a criticism, simply an observation.
His account of his time at the heart of power and the machinery of government is enchanting. The book is replete with historical information and sprinkled with an awareness of the sensitivities of individuals, personalities, departments and competing entities. Powell shows that timing is as important as the need to be strategic and purposeful. He provides the casual observer of politics with great insight into the working of the labour administration, its juxtaposition with events and explores the internecine conflicts - which had its genesis then and - which are again raising its head in the current opposition.
Great ideas and observations include;
* The importance of history which has parallel to Plato's edict of what a ruler needs,
* The reluctance of officials to adjust theory to reality,
* The need to remove the requirement that ministers be drawn from the ranks of MP's,
* The short sighted rush to deliver the first 100 day plan which leaves government bereft of what to do after the first hundred-days:
As a business man, I take comfort from the advice given to Tony Blair by Bill Clinton; "When things look grim... just turn up for work every morning expecting something good to happen".
The most surprising part of this book is where Powell essentially accuses Tony Blair of being a pathological liar. Whilst Powell subsequently attempts to dampen this accusation, he is unsuccessful; the damage is done.
I really didn't know what to expect from this book but what I got, I didn't expect
Whilst there are criticisms of Tony Blair, the book is essentially a hero worship to Mr Blair. The way Powell treats Gordon Brown has the effect, that criticism of Tony Blair seems to be thrown in for good measure rather than being truly critical i.e. Powell's criticism of Blair for not going further, is more of an endorsement, a pat on the back and a little nudge rather than a criticism. In contrast, Powell's criticisms of Gordon Brown are scathing and a full blown character assassination.
The failings and flaws of Gordon are clear for all to see, but if the New Machiavelli does nothing else, it leaves the reader feeling that there really is another - untold - side to the conflicts between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. There are facts and there's fiction, there are also interpretations of what constitutes fact and what constitutes fiction; on this issue, Powell attempts to be too authoritative and certain that his facts are the only facts. His intense dislike of Gordon Brown leaves him unable to dissect and provide a truly neutral account of the flaws inherent in Gordon and Tony.
The lingering view that I have of this book is that it is itself Machiavellian. The lingering impression is that despite his wealth, his illustrious career and his proximity to power - at the time of writing - the author appears lost and still looking for an opportunity to serve at the feet of his great leader again (don't rule out his wish to also serve the current prime minister).
Powell has undoubtedly produced an informed work which clarifies what Machiavelli really espoused: however, for those who refuse or are unable to make the leap from the commonly held perception of Machiavelli - as a self-centred, self-obsessed power hungry person - to someone who merely described how to acquire, wield and hold on to power, the association of Mr Blair with Machiavelli is unfortunate as it implies something quite and dark about the personality of one of Britain's greatest Prime Ministers.
Dr Floyd Millen
on 13 October 2014
I didn't agree with all the views (but that's okay) but I did enjoy this book. It gives an insiders view of what goes on in government and is rather more frank about the personalities than one might have expected of someone with a political background. I liked the link with Machiavelli although, while at the beginning of the book I felt that the events of the Blair years were, in a sense, being used to reinforce Machiavelli's views, by the end of the book it seemed that Machiavelli was being used to support Jonathan Powell's understanding of events.
One key issue which comes across very strongly throughout the book is how little power to change things the Prime Minister actually has. This, and the way that different Government departments appear to work against each other was rather disturbing. However, the issue I found most illuminating was the impact of the press and the almost complete lack of responsibility that they seem to take. Whilst I entirely support the notion of press freedom, the ability of the press to scupper perfectly sensible debate within Government by speculation and alarmist reporting strikes me as not being healthy for the country in the long run. Press freedom has to be coupled with greater responsibility. Powell's insights in this area were fascinating.
Whatever your politics, I recommend this book as an interesting insight into the way that Britain is governed and into where power really resides.
on 16 October 2010
Having read the first couple of chapters, I'm finding this book enjoyable and illuminating. Jonathan Powell applies his experiences, working in the upper echelons of the civil service and then as chief of staff to Tony Blair for ten years, to illustrate the principles set out by Niccolo Machiavelli in the classics 'The Prince' and the Discourses which are still widely read by students of politics today. He makes it clear in the preface that "[This book] is confined to looking at the art of government and at the mechanics of power, not why a leader might want to get hold of power or what they would want to do with it once they get hold of it.. it is important that idealistic and optimistic people who come to office understand the reality of how power can be wielded effectively so they can make the country a better place". But I think it's a worthwhile read for *anyone* who wants to be in a better position to participate in our democracy, since it will allow them to understand better the different factors that influence our political leaders in their decisionmaking. And it has funny bits too - Powell can be quite witty.
The chapters are as follows:
Introduction: In Defence of Machiavelli
1. 'Of New Princedoms Which a Prince Acquires With His Own Arms and by Merit': Coming to Power
2. 'The Prince': Leadership
3. Cabinet, the Civil Service and Making Things Happen
4. The Court
5. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor
6. 'Whether it is better to be loved or feared': Politics and Parliament
7. The Importance of Being Strategic
8. Spin Doctors and Media Moguls
9. Scandals, Inquiries and the Police
11. War and Peace
12. Hubris and Leaving Office
on 27 January 2011
In the preface to the book Powell claims its purpose is to provide a guide to future ministers / advisors on how to govern and uses the device of comparing modern day government with the works of Machiavelli.
This device is clumsy and it fails badly.
The regular references to Machiavelli feel false and interrupt the flow of the underlying narrative.
He would have been much better off simply producing a straight forward memoir, although Powell's book tells us nothing we don't already know from other books such as those by, amongst others, Blair and Campbell.
This book certainly provides no new insights to either Machiavelli nor how modern government really works, although it does really bring home just how weak Blair was in dealing with Brown
If you want to really understand the New Labour years avoid this and, instead, buy Andrew Rawnsley's "The end of the Party".
on 14 June 2015
Very readable and some interesting insights into how Government worked under New Labour. But the title is too grandiose. In the end, the Machiavellian ruthlessness in pursuit of good outcomes wasn't in evidence on the big decisions. Like almost every book emanating from those years, including Blair's own autobiography, the impression is not of strength but of weakness at the heart of Government - it is cowardice that leaps from the page. Blair's team did not have the courage either to sack Gordon Brown (extensively recounted here) or to stand up to George Bush on Iraq. You can spin the reasoning for and fallout from those decisions any way you like (Iraq here repackaged as an extension of the Kosovo "we free the world from dictators" strategy - not a WMD in sight) but on both, they couldn't make the tough call - so this is not how to wield power in the modern or any other world and is the reason Labour could well not be wielding it again any time soon.