Magazine article The Spectator

What the G8 Needs Is a Kick from Old Nick

Magazine article The Spectator

What the G8 Needs Is a Kick from Old Nick

Article excerpt

G^sub 8^ meetings have rarely been productive affairs, for obvious reasons. The leaders of the world's foremost economic powers usually have conflicting interests, so it is almost inevitable that their discussions will conclude with sonorous platitudes. But up to now, there had been a pretence of a workmanlike agenda. Not any more; or at least, not when Mr Blair is in charge. Last weekend in Birmingham, it was impossible to tell the difference between the spouses' programme and their husbands' supposedly serious business. The cabaret was in continuous session.

Earlier this week, some art students got into trouble for spending bursary money on a spree abroad. But their jaunt had as much to do with art as Birmingham had with statesmanship. It was also rather less expensive.

The whole affair reached its climax on

Monday: a game of golf between President Clinton and Mr Blair, with Mr Clinton as the instructor. 'I told him, you hold the ball - I mean the club,' said the President; perhaps there had been a momentary confusion between golf and one of his other sports. The questioner was Michael Brunson, of ITN, who recently spoke at the Cambridge Union, opposing the motion that `this House would anaesthetise the spin doctors'. When Mike Brunson asks the President about golf and ITN choose the item to lead their political coverage, it is the spin doctors who have anaesthetised the reporter.

We are told that the current crop of ministers have no time for classical music and are only interested in pop, but that understates their radicalism. They do not merely want pop music to dominate the airwaves and concert halls; they want it to take over politics as well. The Birmingham G8 was the first ever pop summit.

Up the road in Manchester, meanwhile, another conference was taking place, with a less exalted cast list, but vastly more serious intentions. The theme was Machiavelli; the participants were mainly academics, but also included some of Machiavelli's descendants. The contrast between Birmingham and Manchester last weekend was one of illusion versus reality. There is a similar contrast between the popular version of Machiavelli and the man's real thoughts.

Within a few decades of Machiavelli's death, he had acquired an appalling reputation and even provided the Devil with a new nickname: `Old Nick'. As Macaulay put it: `We doubt whether any name in literary history be so generally odious.' In Britain today, most of those who have heard of Machiavelli assume that he was a Florentine version of Peter Mandelson.

This is both unfair and too complimentary to Mr Mandelson. It is easy to understand how a superficial reading of The Prince could lead to such a conclusion, for it appears to be an explicitly amoral work. Machiavelli is advising rulers, or aspirant rulers, how to acquire and then retain power. While he does not discount the possibility that a prince could win the affection of his subjects, he would not advise monarchs to rely on anything as fickle as popular support. He places great stress on the three Fs: force, fraud and fear, and if Renaissance technology had made it possible, he would have favoured the use of spin doctors: 'A prince ... need not necessarily have . . . great qualities . . . but he should certainly appear to have them.' The Prince takes a bleak view of human nature: `The gulf between how one should live and how one does live is so wide that a man who . . . wants to act virtuously . . . …

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