The Strix was born in the age of the overly idealistic politician. As idealism rose with the popularity of Sanders and Corbyn, we were concerned that the moral case for pragmatism was being forgotten. Our website was initially a by-product our podcast on Niccoló Machiavelli, through which we wanted to study his famous work ‘the Prince’ as a means of critiquing our modern penchant for idealists
Yet, last week British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn managed to overcome the expectations of much of the British commentariat, something resembling a blow to our crusade. Like with the Exit Poll on election night, the evidence from both the election and its fall-out suggests that it might be too early to write off the Machiavellian analysis of British politics. After a week of Corbynite celebration, it appears that this election may signal the end, rather than the beginning, of his revolution.
One of the most important themes of Machiavelli’s masterpiece ‘The Prince’ is the relationship between the concepts of ‘fortune’ and ‘virtue’. To Machiavelli, the rise of a successful leader can result either ‘by the arms of the Prince himself or of others, by fortune or by ability.’ Put in modern terms, Machiavelli’s discussion is not simply about luck and skill, but about will and circumstance. While some leaders rise to the top thanks to favourable events, others rise because of their political savvy, knowing when to be cruel and when to be kind, when to be truthful and when to be duplicitous, when to act the brave lion and when to be the cunning fox. For Machiavelli, the masters of politics are the ones who have the skills to survive in a world where one may be stabbed in the back by ambitious others, even by fortune herself.
Machiavelli advised his readers to avoid reliance on the Roman goddess of luck, Fortuna. She was a meddlesome mistress, making kings of blundering fools before sacrificing them with menacing glee. The poor Prince who found themselves merely lucky would fail to prepare for their first inevitable political crisis, which would leave them either incarcerated, exiled or killed. Machiavelli therefore hypothesised that ‘he who has relied least on fortune is established the strongest,’ for the skills which had led to the astute Prince’s rise would also prevent their fall.
Prime Minister May herself rose to power in part due to lucky circumstances. After the departure of David Cameron, her most popular leadership opponent, Boris Johnson, was conveniently dispatched by his ally Michael Gove. Her eventual run-off rival, Andrea Leadsom, was then forced to pull-out of the contest after her clumsy comments appeared to suggest that she viewed May a poor choice of Prime Minister due to her lack of children. Then, as Prime Minister, opinion polls showed May comfortably ahead of all others, as her chief opponent Jeremy Corbyn suffered from continual gaffes, mass resignations, and an eventual leadership challenge. Being so far ahead, it seemed the cunning move to call an election and see her position as Prime Minister entrenched.
Yet, come the campaign, Theresa May was exposed as lacking in both charisma and consistency. Like a general whose army grossly outnumbered their enemy, May chose to fight the election almost recklessly because there seemed no way she could lose; opting not to turn up to television debates, irritating journalists through the heavy vetting of questions and choosing to forgo any real policy agenda beyond not being Jeremy Corbyn. Those who worried about her reckless approach to Brexit were either ignored or chastised. Her speeches were lazy, following the Psittacine School of Oratory where one repeats the same three phrases until the audience stops listening; ‘strong and stable,’ ‘no deal is better than a bad deal,’ and ‘coalition of chaos’.
It was only on May 22nd that her campaign came undone. By that fateful day, May had realised that her manifesto pledge on the payment of social care with the uncapped value of people’s house, the so-called ‘Dementia Tax,’ was very unpopular with the electorate. Thus May became the first Prime Minister to u-turn on a manifesto commitment before the election had even happened. Following the fiasco, any attempt to chide Corbyn’s creative manifesto mathematics fell flat since her programme for government did not even bother to try and cost its policies. Having worried her support base of older voters, angered those who voted ‘Remain,’ and having damaged her own reputation for consistency, the Conservatives were eventually forced to exile their ‘Team Theresa’ posters to some unknown dusty back room. In the end, May was forced to see her near 20% opinion poll lead reduced to a victory margin of just 2%.
Interestingly, now Corbyn appears to be the one who has become drunk on fortune’s favour. Although his party dramatically outperformed expectations, earning some 40% of the vote, Labour supporters have failed to notice that they have lost against one of the most calamitous election campaigns in British electoral history.
After all, Corbyn’s success can hardly be explained from his astute campaigning. Throughout the election, Corbyn was no paragon of consistency as he switched his position on European free-movement, membership of the EU single market, and his policies on benefits almost without care. His manifesto commitments were poorly costed, with both of the two main manifestos being criticised by the Institute for Fiscal Studies for their liberal attitude towards truth. Labour’s performance is much better explained through May’s mishaps, rather than Corbyn’s cunning.
Indeed, Corbyn’s history as a politician sheds doubt on the hypothesis that he has succeeded due to his political astuteness. Corbyn was the man who supported the British withdrawal from both NATO and the EU during the early 1980s, at a time when Soviets had stationed nuclear missiles across the eastern half of the European continent and had both invaded and engineered a coup in neighbouring Afghanistan. In 2016, Corbyn failed to campaign with any vigour for a ‘Remain’ vote in the EU referendum, despite the fall-out of the vote meaning higher prices for British families, severe threats to workers rights and the possibility of economic and political crisis. Even during the election campaign, Corbyn once signaled his openness to the possibility of another Scottish independence referendum before eventually backtracking.
Despite these gaffes, his supporters celebrate their triumphant defeat to a beleaguered Prime Minister who had overseen a disastrous campaign. Bottles of champagne were no doubt popped in Labour Party HQ, before his advisors began plotting their paths back to the opposition benches. If ‘New Labour’ is indeed deceased, it has been succeeded by a pulseless heir.
Now leading in the polls, Corbyn will likely face both pressure and expectations he has not yet had to suffer. The Conservatives and the electorate will not underestimate his chances again; each pledge will be minutely analysed, each gaffe thoroughly publicised.
When judging our leaders’ abilities, Machiavelli urges us never to ‘let our princes accuse fortune for the loss of their principalities after so many years’ possession, but rather their own sloth, because in quiet times they never thought there could be a change.’ Such a mantra applies to both of Britain’s main party leaders. It is the failure to know the extent of one’s own abilities, to not ‘make any provision in the calm against the tempest,’ which ultimately leads to the undoing of incompetents. This is a lesson Corbyn appears unwilling to learn.