Renaissance Florence isn’t ‘my period’ – to trot out the familiar historian’s defence – but I do wonder whether the Medicis don’t provide the closest precedent for present-day British politics; not in their bloodiness, of course, but in the amorality of their political discourse. I did study Machiavelli as an undergraduate (for ‘Political Theory’), both the Prince and the Discourses, and remember writing an essay where I argued that he wasn’t really commending the low tricks he described there, but was merely making his readers aware of them so that they could avoid being influenced by them.
As an Etonian and a Classicist, Boris Johnson may well not have read anything as modern as Machiavelli; but the Discourses, of course, were based on ancient Roman history, which he did steep himself in. The conduct of both Boris and Dominic Cummings – who will almost certainly have ‘done’ Machiavelli in his ‘Ancient and Modern History’ course – is reminiscent of the great Florentine, in its apparent underlying assumption that politics is a game to be won or lost by fair means or foul, and without much concern for ideology, except insofar as it might attract the people you need to support or (in a democracy) to vote for you. ‘Principles’ and ‘values’ are similarly unimportant, except as tools. Hence Cummings’s famously technocratic approach to politics, moving on from Machiavelli to employ the latest clever means of influencing the outcomes of elections and referenda, like the now notorious Cambridge Analytica. If lies and tricks can win power for you, then so be it. ‘Playing the Game’ is an outmoded English concept.
I’ve known people like that in ordinary life: who if questioned on their conduct would have less regard for the ‘truth’ than for ‘what they can get away with’. That has been Boris’s habit all along, and seems to be Dominic’s too. Sometimes they’re found out, if they’re stupid enough; which is why Boris has his deserved reputation as a rogue and a liar; the cleverer ones however, like Dominic, keep it better hidden. But the stigma of dishonesty has stuck to both of them; and is the reason why Dominic’s extraordinary explanation for his out-of-lockdown Durham trip yesterday was so widely doubted – and indeed much mocked.
The extent to which this will damage either of them can’t be known at present. They could survive – like Trump has done. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Cummings is out quite soon; or Johnson, with that other unprincipled Machiavellian, Michael Gove, taking his place, and Cummings staying on as his Svengali. Mikey is no better than Boris. This is not a prediction, but a warning – of the kind that I used to attribute to Niccolo.
The most recent of Dominic’s lies is his claim yesterday that he anticipated coronavirus a year ago in his blog. In fact some clever blog detectives have established that the reference to coronavirus was inserted into that blog retrospectively. So he’s perhaps not so clever after all. Ultimately the tragedy of the ‘Cummings affair’ may be that it undermines trust in Boris’s and Dominic’s government even further. So ‘character’ – the sort of thing the Public Schools were supposed to impart, but clearly do no longer – may after all be important in politics.
In the meantime it’s reported that the UK has now come out top of the international scale of deaths by Covid-19, measured as a proportion of her population; higher even than the USA and Brazil, and up there with – sadly – Sweden. A world-beater, you might say.