First published in the Scotsman 3 August 2012
When Niccolò Machiavelli, in 1513, needed to get out of early retirement and find a government job he didn’t write out his CV for possible employers. Instead he wrote a book. Then he sent “The Prince”, with a grovelling covering letter, to Lorenzo di Medici in Florence. ‘Lorenzo the Magnificent’ was a ruthless autocratic prince of great wealth and power and our Niccolo, as any good civil servant should, wrote how such a Prince could maintain and increase his power. It has two really good things about it. It is written in shockingly plain language about the real politik of renaissance Italy. It is also commendably short. Magnificent Lorenzo probably wasn’t a great reader.
But Niccolò doesn’t deserve to be called ‘machiavellian’. His best book is much longer and, so, today rarely read. “The Discourses on Livy” is about republicanism and the beginnings of democracy. It is pertinent, learned and often witty. Politicians today should read it.
Our Prime Minister, for instance, the best public relations expert we’ve had in government for a long time, might benefit from Machiavelli’s rendering of the Roman praetor Annius’s view on government. “It seems to me of the utmost importance….”, he said, “that you should consider what is to be done rather than what is to be said. It will be easy, when you have arrived at a decision, to accommodate words to acts.”
And more than just David Cameron would learn from Machiavelli’s description of how tiny Syracuse just couldn’t make up its mind whether to ally with Rome or Carthage during their great war. There was delay and indecision. It was clear this would bring first isolation and then destruction by one or both of those big powers “whereas, should they arrive at a decision, whatever way it went, they might expect good to come from it.” In other words – any decision you make is better than no decision at all.
If the wise Machiavelli is right – why do our politicians today so often plump for no decision? Is it dangerous dithering or ‘masterful inactivity’?
There are plenty of reasons. Let’s take a few from today. Reason one for preferring ‘no decision’ is that, as in poor Syracuse, or in our own coalition government, there are strong influential people pushing in opposite directions. The LibDems want us to ally closely with the European Union, many Tories want to strike out for independence; so there’s talk, but no action. Then there’s welfare, the health service, the House of Lords, green energy. When opposing forces on different sides of the argument are strong enough to cause problems if the decision goes against them, the ‘long grass’ of no decision is luscious and tempting. Bad for the country, probably, but holding on to political power is more important.
Reason two for preferring ‘no decision’ is carefully considered and strategic – don’t do much, don’t upset people, don’t divert attention, steady as she goes. Our SNP Scottish Government is really good at this. In government for five years, with almost all the domestic powers of any nation state at their fingertips, full of complaint about how Scotland has been held back from being all it could be – they’ve done what? Letting the Lockerbie bomber out of jail and trying to end football violence. But for the SNP this is the right path. By not doing much, no one’s upset and the big to-do list is still there to do ‘if only we could govern ourselves’. Bad for the country, probably, but achieving their one political aim is more important.
Reason three I saw for myself in local government. Every decision you make hurts someone. Approve a late-night kebab shop licence and the shopkeeper and weary customers are pleased, but the neighbours upstairs, fearful of noise and fumes, are hurt. Approve a planning application for new homes and the builders and first-time buyers are pleased, but neighbours looking out over what once was green fields are hurt. The political problem is people just pocket and forget about the good things as being the proper course of events. The hurt they hang on to and turn into resentment. Because of this I’ve seen councillors turn down a good planning application because the neighbours, voters all, would be pleased and the eventual blame would rest with a civil servant who would, rightly, in the end of the day approve the application on appeal. Bad for local democracy, but gaining party votes is more important.
Reason four is surprising. Sometimes politicians actually think making decisions is not their job. For the LibDem councillors leading Edinburgh Council before the last election, making decisions on running the city, or sorting out the tram fiasco, was for the Council officials, not politicians elected like them by the people. The Prime Minister said something similar after a government minister got too cosy with the Murdoch TV empire. Even though press and media ownership affects the health of our democracy, he thought it could be decided by an unaccountable official, not ministers. Bad for our democracy, but keeping clean hands is more important.
All those are sad, but understandable in their way. The really dangerous reason why politicians don’t make decisions is fear of their own leadership – an uncertainty about what they believe and an inability to chart the way ahead. This is really worrying. When David Cameron was asked why he wanted to be Prime Minister and replied “because I think I’d be rather good at it” rather than saying what he wanted for the country, we should all have trembled a little. And Scottish Labour now looks like it might drift to the same place. A party that knows for sure it has to change, that has said it must, and yet has shown little sign yet of doing so, despite the eagerness of members and electorate for it to speak with a loud and fresh voice about what it sees as the way ahead, could well run into more problems.
All need to heed the words of Liverpool poet Roger McGough:
I wanna be the leader
I wanna be the leader
Can I be the leader?
Can I? I can?
Yippee I’m the leader
I’m the leader
OK what shall we do?