Marcus and Machiavelli

Reginald Dumas
Reginald Dumas


ACROSS THE world today, in what one would normally consider the most disparate of places – Haiti, France, Algeria, Assam, Chile, Iraq, Ethiopia, Iran, the Netherlands, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and so on – people have been out on the streets demonstrating for improved conditions for themselves and their societies. Some protests may be more overtly political than others, but the fundamental inspiration is the same: we want a better life than the one we have or the one we see down the road.

Your average citizen, in whichever country, is far more interested in the basics, as they affect him or her, than in the subtleties of high finance or the complexities of international affairs. That citizen wants a job with a good living wage, good education for his or her children, good roads, good environmental conditions (including effective watercourse clearance), good healthcare, good shelter, adequate water supply, etc.

Both central and local governments have their responsibilities for citizens’ existence (so also do citizens, who too often persuade themselves that they have rights only). It’s local government, however, that directly interfaces on a continuing basis with the public, or is supposed to. But from all I’ve been hearing and seeing, I think that in TT it isn’t so much local government as local abdication that too often characterises the attitudes of councillors and aldermen.

Members of the national Parliament are not excused from that criticism. The recent so-called “local government election” was fought as though it was a heavyweight title bout without rules or relevance to its raison d’etre – in this corner Cambridge Analytica, in that corner re-establishment of the sugar industry.

An opportunity to relate to citizens on their everyday concerns was assassinated with the long knives of political partisanship, honed by the usual tiresome and, except among party zealots, increasingly unproductive finger-pointing and demonising. There was even an invited descent to exorcism by cocoyea broom and holy water.

Are the people consulted on a regular, mature basis? Do their sentiments count? What, after all, is politics about? Let me give two views.

The first is from Marcus Tullius Cicero, the Roman orator/philosopher. Writing in De Legibus (Treatise on the Laws) more than four decades before the birth of Christ, Cicero said: “Salus populi suprema est lex” – The welfare of the people is the highest law. Do you agree?

Nearly 21 centuries have passed since Cicero’s words. Do politicians everywhere pay heed, or only lip service, to what he said? Do they constantly consider the welfare of their populations as a whole, or are they obsessed with “big” national issues and announcements? Why would the Prime Minister of Iceland, Katrin Jakobsdottir, have found it important to team up with the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern (all young, highly intelligent, self-confident, sensitive women), to promote a “well-being” agenda?

Why would Jakobsdottir have said this month in London that focusing on economic performance, as so many governments are wont to do (they love talking about growth rates and reserves and gross domestic product), tends to undervalue quality of life and the social damage caused by inequality? Why would Sturgeon have earlier urged more measures for mental health, childcare, parental leave, and green energy?

There is a second view of politics. It comes from Niccolo Machiavelli, the 16th century Italian whose political philosophy and surname have given the world a term that will remain a byword for cunning and deception. In his 1513 publication, The Prince, he wrote:

“A sagacious prince [for ‘prince’ read ‘leader’] cannot and should not fulfil his pledges when their observance is contrary to his interest, and when the causes that induced him to pledge his faith no longer exist. If men were all good, then indeed this precept would be bad, but as men are naturally bad, and will not observe their faith toward you, you must, in the same way, not observe yours toward them; and no prince ever yet lacked legitimate reasons with which to colour his want of good faith…(I)t could easily be shown how many treaties of peace, and how many engagements, have been made null and void by the faithlessness of princes; and he who has best known how to play the fox has ever been the most successful.”

Machiavelli couldn’t possibly have had Donald Trump and Boris Johnson in mind, but how much has changed in the 500-odd years since his assessment of human nature and power? Why the current protests in so many countries? Have the three heads of government tapped into a global mood of disenchantment with, and lack of trust in, contemporary princes?

Which path will TT follow?


"Marcus and Machiavelli"

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