May is Machiavelli to Corbyn’s philosopher-king

14 Jun|Mark Vernon

Detail from "The Death of Socrates" by David, 1787

Will cunning win out over idealism? asksĀ Mark Vernon

Theresa May has survived the after-blasts of her radioactive campaign like a political cockroach. Jeremy Corbyn has apparently brought back socialism from the dead like a red phoenix. We’re told that everything has changed. We’re back to the old days. There’s one party on the right, one on the left. It’s the 1970s all over again. But is it?

After all, both May and Corbyn seem to be softening on Brexit, moving away from austerity, championing social liberalism. As George Osborne noted, in his new role as editor of the Evening Standard and gadfly to the Conservative Party, both the Tories and Labour have marched away from the globalizing free-for-all of the Thatcher-Blair-Cameron years. I suspect that policy-wise, they have much in common, and will increasingly share more. So, we are going to need different criteria to discern the differences between the two. Some philosophy may help.

Put it like this. You could say that May is a political Machiavelli. The Renaissance advisor to the princes of Florence argued that what a good leader needs is virtue – virtue in the Renaissance sense of “manliness”, after the Latin, “vir” or man. The goal is not to be liked but to be stable; not to be cheered but to survive. Be feral like a beast, Machiavelli advised. Deploy your stealth secretly, not in front of the TV cameras, but in the corridors and meeting rooms. You see it in May’s angular gait. She is the praying mantis to Boris’s Cheshire Cat.

Corbyn is different. He’s the bearded philosopher king in the tradition of Karl Marx. What drives him is ideals. He offers hope. He waxes lyrical on the virtues (modern sense) and proudly aligns himself with justice, kindness, truth. He has none of the guile of the prince-statesman, never having been one. But he believes history is on his side, as Marx did, and that’s infectious. One day what he stands for will be made manifest as capitalism sways under the weight of its own contradictions, caring for the few not the many. That said, he’s no Marxist in the policy sense. He’s too dependent upon capitalist success, needing that money tree to be harvested by the exchequer. But he is a philosopher king in spirit. You feel it in his smile. It’s leonine, a tad shy of too proud. All you have to do is roar with me, it says.

This is to say that, post-election, the soul of the main parties matters more than the small differences of policies. It’s over the unconscious feel of the two tribes that future elections will be played out. And being about feeling, the stakes are high.

May’s great risk is that she unwittingly presides over the return of the nasty party in her final weeks and months, not because she’ll follow the DUP and rescind on equal marriage, but because it’ll become too clear that the Tories will do anything to stay in power. Every time she declares that they are acting in the national interest, she’s administering the antidote advised by Machiavelli. People will thank you for the stability, he told the princes. Do whatever it takes.

Corbyn’s great risk is that all that now appears so solid about him melts into air. His philosopher kingship will be undermined as his ability to deliver is scrutinised. The youth who flocked to his cause will not be much bothered, as they can live on ideology, particularly if the state pays off their debts. But the political middle ground want to hold onto their property as much as their ideals, and so will be wary. Every time Corbyn declares that he stands for the many not the few, he’s administering the antidote advised by Marx. Keep the conversation about class struggle, and pitch it as a struggle between the top 5% and all the rest.

It may be that we live in ideological times, in which case Corbyn’s idealism has a natural advantage over May’s cunning. Hope is an appealing mood to project over the major issues of our day which they’re not otherwise talking about: the decline of the west, climate change, the emptiness of materialism. Or it may be that we secretly are admitting that we live in desperate times, and so May’s scheming will have a natural advantage over Corbyn’s idealism. As Machiavelli pointed out, the ruled really want manly strength.

But I think it will certainly be the spirit of the two parties that matters when the next election comes. Don’t think Tory or Labour, think Machiavelli or Marx, political cunning vs philosopher king. Whoever best responds to the soul of our times will be the one who wins.

ENDS