During his failed campaign to become the next Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Patrick Cormack reminded his fellow MPs that the contest coincided with the anniversary of the death of Niccolò Machiavelli. As his rivals sang paeans to a new era of virtuous politics, Cormack invoked Machiavelli to remind the House of the contempt in which the public now holds it. The invocation seemed even more apposite when it became clear that the winning candidate had been elected by one party just to antagonise the other. The inhabitants of the "rotten parliament", it would seem, are inveterately Machiavellian.
Machiavelli's name has become synonymous with duplicity, cunning and the exercise of bad faith in politics. This crude caricature, however, does little justice to the subtlety and democratic potential of his thinking. Indeed, Machiavelli is a, if not the, foundational figure for the current revival of civic republican political thought, spearheaded by the historian of ideas Quentin Skinner and the political philosopher Philip Pettit. Most recently, David Marquand has shown how democratic republicanism has been a crucial component of English political identity, and an animating force at important moments of radical democratic change in our history.
Although Machiavelli gained his satanic reputation for advising princes on how to hold on to power, the contemporary republicans inspired by him know that he saved his best advice for citizens seeking to maintain their liberty. To understand this "other", republican Machiavelli, we need to look not to his infamous tract The Prince, published by Penguin in a gripping new translation by the novelist Tim Parks, but to his less well-known, yet arguably more influential, Discourses on Livy.
Machiavelli wanted to show why his native Florence, hitherto a free republic, was descending into tyranny. He argued that ancient Rome preserved its freedom more effectively than Florence because of the way ordinary citizens there were able to constrain the power of the elite.
Given the unprecedented moral and practical failures of today's economic and political elites, Penguin has missed an opportunity by releasing a new translation of The Prince without doing the same for the Discourses. And Parks's opening essay makes no attempt to consider The Prince in the context of Machiavelli's other work. Readers are treated to the conventional caricature: Machiavelli's sole concern, Parks writes, was to show "generic men of power" how to hold on to it. The Discourses receive a single, cursory mention.
In The Prince, Machiavelli states: "I won't be considering republics since I've written about them at length elsewhere." He touches on the subject again in chapter five, entitled "How to Govern Cities and States that Were Previously Self-Governing". His advice is, in short, forget
it. Where people have a strong history of self-government and a love of liberty, the only way to "hold such places is to destroy them".
Parks does, however, give the merest of hints that Machiavelli's own conduct as a diplomat (during the Medici regime of 15th-century Florence) pointed towards a higher conception of public life. He notes that Machiavelli was a "state employee so scrupulously honest that when investigated for embezzlement he ended up being reimbursed monies that were due to him". Indeed, Machiavelli proudly remarked more than once that "my poverty is evidence of my honesty". He would have done well out of the Kelly inquiry into MPs' expenses.
Crucially, Machiavelli made a distinction between "fame" and "glory": to attain glory, one must be both brave and good. Caesar, for example, acquired fame as a brave rather than a good man; he missed "the path of glory because ambition perverted his judgement". On the conventional account of Machiavelli, this claim seems bizarre. What is there to judge beyond seizing and maintaining power for as long as possible?
For Machiavelli, however, good judgement relates to actions that help maintain a "free city", one in which citizens are free from the subjection of any particular individual or group, be it an external invader or a tyrant who emerges from within the community's own political system. If the city is not to fall into the hands of tyrannical individuals or groups, government must be organised in such a way that it remains in the hands of the citizen body as whole.
The biggest threat to a free life (uno vivere libero) comes from the ever-present threat of corruption. Corruption is understood here as the placing
of factional or private interest ahead of that of the public. For Machiavelli, the ultimate public interest that the mass of people share is to be
secure from the arbitrary interference of others. It follows that, as Skinner has pointed out, to gain maximum freedom, "we must turn ourselves into servants of the public interest".
Contemporary republicans have seized on these ideas to show that they offer a distinct concept of liberty, one more capacious than the kind provided by conventional liberal notions. To republicans, we are not free if there is a power that has the potential to interfere with us - even where that power is not, for the time being, interfering (think of an unregulated employer, in the case of an employee, or a party whip, in the case of a backbench MP). In short, those with less power will live in constant anxiety that those with more could interfere with them at any point - unless that power is removed or is held in check by a counter-power. For republicans, popular government under the rule of law is the best source of such a counterweight to arbitrary power.
While the main source of corruption for plebs (common citizens) is usually laziness, for the grandi (the nobility, plutocrats and the political elite), it is usually ambition and an insatiable appetite for power. The recent behaviour of bankers in the Square Mile and on Wall Street, and British MPs' abuse of the parliamentary expenses system, can be seen as instances of corruption in this wider, Machiavellian sense. Indeed, the twin crises of our political and economic life suggest that we need to pay much more attention to Machiavelli's most enduring insight: the resources of the grandi, along with the wide discretion enjoyed by political office holders, pose the principal threats to liberty in republics.
Why? Because ordinary citizens, unlike power-hungry plutocrats and ambitious elites, have no desire to rule over others. They want not to be ruled. More specifically, they want not to be dominated - that is, to be perpetually fearful of the interferences of arbitrary power. For Machiavelli, the key to the resilience of Rome was the way its institutions ensured that the mass of ordinary citizens, rather than the grandi, was the ultimate guardian of freedom. He reserved his most lavish praise for the "tribunes of the plebs" (an institution in which only the lower classes could sit), for restraining the power-grabbing insolence of the grandi.
Machiavelli singles out the tribunes' ability to accuse members of the senate and indict them for corruption, publicly, and to do the same with prominent private citizens for seeking to exert excessive influence over the politics of the republic. Public indictment offered a model of punishment that was both grounded in the rule of law and inclusive of common citizens. The entire citizenry was enlisted in appellate processes for dealing with political offences, in much the same way as they are today for criminal offences.
Machiavelli contrasted such accusations with "calumnies" - frivolous, anonymous and unconfirmed charges - stressing that those who made them were themselves vulnerable to counter-indictment. Calumnies, he argued, are "as injurious to republics as public indictments are useful". He believed the political disorder afflicting Florence stemmed from "the inability of the masses to find a normal outlet for the animus" aroused by the perceived misconduct of the elite. If politicians today want to save themselves from the calumnies launched by the grandi who own the press, not to mention "electoral disorder", characterised by the growth of extremist parties and mass voter abstention, perhaps they should ensure that there are more effective ways for citizens to vent their animus against them.
The UK is at a crucial moment in its political development. The twin peaks of the Establishment - the City and parliament - have been diminished in the eyes of the public. This is potentially a republican moment, in which bold reform to tame the powerful, once regarded as unfeasible, now seems urgently necessary. To realise this potential, we need fully to exploit the rich resources of republican thought. This is why Demos is bringing together a number of internationally renowned republican thinkers (Skinner, Marquand, Stuart White, Cécile Laborde and Melissa Lane) to develop a republican manifesto for our times.
Properly understood, Niccolò Machiavelli is a critical figure in the republican tradition. The problem with British politics is not that it is too Machiavellian, but that it is nowhere near Machiavellian enough.
Richard Reeves is director of Demos, and Dan Leighton runs the think tank's Republican Moment project. www.demos.co.uk