Saturday, 21 May 2011

The New Machiavelli by Jonathan Powell

It's got Machiavelli on the cover, it's about Tony Blair's time in power, and it's written by Blair's chief of staff - an important political figure in his own right.

But the dominant character here is none of these. One person casts a gloomy, vindictive shadow over proceedings. Gordon Brown.

This is a first rate hatchet job from a genuine insider. There was lots of talk about Brown being psychologically unsuited to being prime minister. This book suggests he was psychologically unsuited to being a human being. It's not really anything we haven't heard before - he's a bully, a coward, a liar, paranoid, self-deluding and consumed with jealousy and hatred - but I find it endlessly fascinating. I'm missing him more than I thought I would.

This book comes firmly from the Blair camp, but it does have the ring of truth. Blair himself comes across as personable and capable, but vague and without that killer instinct. A central point of this book is that he should've sacked Brown early, rather than let him poison the whole of government.

Now, I'm not a fan of Blair. My big problem with him is what he and Powell see as his strength - centralising power, wanting to cut through "red tape" and "civil service bureaurocracy" to do exactly what he thinks needs to be done. They see it as efficiency, I see it as dictatorial and wrong-headed. But I can recognise that the intentions were good (road to hell, etc.) Brown's a different kettle of fish. He just wants power for power's sake.

There's some more interesting stuff in the book about other cabinet figures, etc, but nothing earth shattering. The Machiavelli lessons are only partially successful, but that's possibly because his writings have become political common sense. It did make me want to check out his Discourses, which are about Roman politics rather than renaissance Italy.

I'm blaming my peripatetic lifestyle of late for embarking on five books simultaneously - Peter F Hamilton's conclusion to the Void trilogy, a big book about Mao's Cultural Revolution, The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson, the Hobbit on tape, and an amusing travel book, which I've finished and shall review soon.

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