What was striking about Blair’s testimony before Leveson today was his ability to be friends with all parts of the media. In this role, he was showing his skill as a politician. In time, like any leader he will reach a limit of his power. However, he was able to leave on his terms without having lost an election. To understand his success and his testimony in front of Leveson, one has to turn to Machiavelli. As Jonathan Powell, quite incorrectly, but conveniently, claims he and Blair were the new Machiavellians. Blair’s behaviour at Leveson and as Prime Minister showed how well he embodied the Prince. In particular, he demonstrated that many people can see the Prince but few can touch them.
Everyone sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result.
The media saw him in one light and he managed that relationship to control how they perceived him. What most people, especially his critics do not grasp is Blair was playing a role. He was acting as the leader of his party. To be a leader, he understood that would have to give up some of his personal beliefs. Here we see the gulf between men (and women) who would be leader and those who become leaders. The challenge is not being duplicitous or corrupt. On the contrary, successful leaders are scrupulous in these areas. They have to keep their word or they cannot succeed. Instead, it is that successful leaders like Blair or Lyndon Johnson, is that they are able to take on a role. They can change their approach to suit their audience or the occasion.
Was Lyndon Johnson a precursor to Tony Blair?
One only need to note how Lyndon Johnson had a reputation for being able to argue either side of an issue to promote his interests. As a result, he appears, as Robert Caro portrays him, a chameleon like figure bent on accruing power no matter the contortions needed to achieve it. What LBJ was able to do was to appear as a Lion on some occasions and a fox on others. In all cases, he was driven by his goal to accumulate power to achieve his aims.
Blair v. Foot is winning the only thing?
Tony Blair did something similar, with greater finesse and less harm. One may argue he was playing in a smaller theatre, yet that fails to consider talent transcends time and place. What Blair was able to do so well was fit himself to his audience. In his ability to change his role, to be like a chameleon can be contrasted with Michael Foot. Many would compare Blair unfavourably with Foot by stating that Foot was a man of principle while Blair is without principle. Yet, to make such an argument is to miss the subtle point that Blair was acting as a political leader.
For example, Michael Foot was unwilling to compromise his appears, beliefs or clothes. At an personal level, this is commendable. We want our friends and fellow citizens to be consistent in their approach to politics. For a political leader, the challenge is different. They have a role to play and for those politicians or those who aspire to be leaders, they have to understand what it takes to play that role. By adapting to the role, a person is not compromising their integrity. What they understand is that their personal priorities have to take a secondary interest to what they have to do for the common good, the greater good. Mario Cuomo captured this point. He explained that a leader can have a private or personal view about an issue, such as abortion or nuclear war, yet as a leader of a political party or a country, they have to take responsibility for what is needed for their party or their country. If they confuse their personal interests with those of their citizens or followers, they fall prey to pride or delusion and in either case endanger the responsibility they have been given.
Leadership is a role played well or poorly
What successful leaders understand is that they have a greater responsibility than to themselves. The choice is not simply between being true to oneself and compromise. If one does not want compromise then one should not enter politics because it entails compromise. If one wants to pursue politics, then it has to be with an understanding that without compromise the pursuit of leadership will likely fail because democracies are not unitary states without a divergence of interests. In effect, one forgets the main lesson from Plato’s Statesman that a political leader weaves a web of state. The web combines divergent interests and concerns to form a protective barrier around the regime. An immoderate pursuit of purity will doom the state to failure because success requires a flexible balance between courage and moderation when needed.
Adapt to lead and win: a key lesson for politics
Blair by contrast changed all as needed to run the party. He understood he was representing the party not himself. Therefore, he was willing to change his appearance, his beliefs, and clothes. He was able to adapt or stretch his policies and his approach to meet the audience, time, and the election. In doing this, he was not lying. In these instances, he was demonstrating an absolute political skill, which Machiavelli refers to as being able to keep faith. In Chapter 18, Machiavelli notes that leaders must be able to fight with laws and arms. In this, he sets forth a duality for political leaders and contrasts the beast with the man. A successful leader, for Machiavelli, is one who can use both natures in the right occasion. The contrast to note, perhaps without much distinction, is that Plato speaks of weaving while Machiavelli does not see these roles interwoven. He argues that the choice is between two different types of beast like natures.
A prince, therefore, being compelled knowingly to adopt the beast, ought to choose the fox and the lion; because the lion cannot defend himself against snares and the fox cannot defend himself against wolves. Therefore, it is necessary to be a fox to discover the snares and a lion to terrify the wolves.
In this description, we see a way that successful leaders, like Blair, work. He was able to tame the feral beast because he was able act as a beast when required. What is curious about Leveson is why they have not pursued Blair about how he managed the relationship beyond principles.
How does one tame a feral beast?
What the Levson misses are these “Machiavellian” moments. How did Blair manage the media? None of the questions touches on how Blair leveraged and managed the media relationship beyond being friends with them. What the inquiry would benefit from would be questions from Jay to politicians about how the press often traded stories for access or information. What was noticeable in the Rebekah Brooks testimony was what she was not asked. She was not asked about whether and how she traded or leveraged potentially damaging stories for greater access or favours. We may speculate about why this is overlooked, but it leaves a noticeable hole in the inquiry. One notices this with Blair because he could not have remained in power and as successful as he was without being able to act the beast when necessary. He claims that he was ready to stand up to Murdoch, but the question remains unasked “How would you have waged war against Murdoch?”
Did Blair succeed without attack politics?
What is particularly noteworthy is that Blair insisted that he would not engage in attack politics. If that is the case, which may be true, what political levers did he use to deal with opponents? How did he manage bad news stories or editors?
After Blair mediocrity?
What we should take away from this testimony is how good of politician Tony Blair was, is, and will be. He is not invulnerable and there is much that makes him vulnerable. However, the testimony has shown us two important outcomes. First, we can begin to understand why he succeeded. In large part, his success was from his ability to manage the media, his message, and most importantly, himself. Second, his testimony showed the gulf between his talent and those of Brown and Cameron.
The unasked questions that only Tony Blair can answer in his soul
What will always stay, though, are the unasked questions, the one that will stay with Blair long after the inquiry has finished and the lights fade on his career. They are the questions of how much he traded himself for power. How much of his principles were lost to achieve success. Only he can answer those questions.
- Leveson Inquiry: Tony Blair admits ‘unhealthy’ relationship between press and politicians (express.co.uk)
- Blair does his master class at Leveson (blogs.telegraph.co.uk)