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Prince Andrew or President Adams?

By Anthony O’Hear.

A public life.

PRINCE ANDREW’S FRIENDSHIP WITH the billionaire sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and his Kazakhstani connexions; the resignation of Sir Howard Davies over the LSE’s involvement with the Gaddafi regime in Libya; Peter Mandelson’s meetings with Saif Gaddafi and the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska; Tony Blair’s earlier cultivation of Colonel Gaddafi followed by his more recent promotion of Rwanda’s controversial president Paul Kagame…Just a few more moments in British politics and public life, with a delicious intertwining of the official and personal, of partying and diplomacy, something which will all be forgotten soon enough. Or is there something more worrying here?

It is significant that, as far as we know, there is nothing here for which any of our public figures could or should be prosecuted; they have done nothing illegal. Defenders of each of them (and there are plenty who will leap to their defence in each case) will point out that in most of these cases British interests were being served (even if in the case of Libya this now looks a little thin). So maybe the public unease, which undoubtedly exists, is itself irrational, based on a kind of self-righteous envy over the perfectly legal behaviour anyone rich and powerful.

OR MAYBE THERE IS something less ignoble than envy here. Maybe the rich and the powerful, with whom our leaders are consorting, are particularly open to corruption, and to dragging others into their orbit.  The novelist Scott Fitzgerald, as bedazzled by celebrity and wealth as any teenage girl of to-day, once remarked to his friend Ernest Hemingway, ’You know, Ernest, the rich are different from the rest of us.’ ‘Yes, Scott’, came the gravelly reply, ’They’ve got more money’.

There is no doubt that people with more money have the ability to behave differently from the rest of us, and often more spectacularly badly, if only because they are more insulated from the effects of their actions than the rest of us. Being insulated in this way includes being insulated from the very presence of lesser and less wealthy mortals. So the rich and, by extension the powerful, can afford (literally) to fly in the face of much which the rest of us would regard as common decency, to say nothing of common morality.

We should not pretend to be surprised by any of this. But what rightly sticks in the gullet of ordinary, decent people is when they see public figures, who are their representatives, getting too close to those who behave offensively. This is true whether the public figures are politicians, royalty or leading academics, and the disgust is compounded when those our representatives are close to are notorious tyrants.

THE WORLD WEARY WILL tell us to wise up. We can hardly be surprised that the current management of the LSE, including some of the very great and good, got into bed with Gaddafi and his son, particularly when funding was at stake; after all, that very institution was founded by the ghastly Webbs, who unapologetically endorsed Stalin at the height of the purges. British foreign policy, Blair and Robin Cook notwithstanding, has never exactly been ‘ethical’ (remember that?): examples over the centuries are too numerous to mention, save to say that, following appeasement, which everyone remembers, the Webbs were not the only British apologists for Stalin in the 1940s, which is far less mentioned to-day.

In a mental bubble.

In 1513 in words which might have been addressed to Colonel Gaddafi to-day (or to Stalin in the 1930s, come to that), Niccolo Machiavelli wrote that in order to maintain his state a prince is often ‘under a necessity of acting against faith, against charity, against humanity, against religion’, though he added that he must appear to be doing the opposite. (So Machiavelli would have approved of an ‘ethical’ foreign policy – as public relations and providing it wasn’t actually ethical in any inconvenient way.)

In 2011 we are so inured to Machiavelli that his words have all but lost their power to shock. But at the time they were shocking and were intended to shock. What Machiavelli was denying was that there was a natural law (of God, of morality) by which princes would or should be judged. Henceforth there would be no higher law in statecraft than the necessity of survival.

We might think that public figures in democracies are not subject to Machiavellian strictures. But long before Machiavelli, in Ancient Athens (where they knew something about the workings of democracy) Plato and Aristotle both observed that even in a democracy rulers tend ultimately to their own interests. They may begin by appealing to the needs of the majority, and even serve those needs for a time. But bit by bit, as they get more embedded in ruling and more insulated from the rest, they start promoting the interests of their own factions at the expense of the whole. Democrats thus become oligarchs, a class of their own, looking out for themselves, and insensitive to the feelings of ordinary citizens.

That there is truth in this picture is amply borne out by the MPs’ expenses scandals and also by the revelations from Wikileaks. Collectively what we see here are groups of people, operating in their own mental bubbles, who no longer get what ordinary people think and feel. They behave as if they are lords of the universe, untouched by normal standards and untouchable by the disapproval of their inferiors (as they would intuitively think.) The type of insensitive behaviour manifested by Prince Andrew and the rest should come as no surprise, because it fits all too well into the mindset of those raised by birth or election to dominate and rule. The present crisis, to the extent that it is not just a passing phase, may be a good thing to the extent that it shows that our public figures are not always untouchable by the disapproval of ordinary people.

THE MINDSET, THOUGH, WILL always be with us. Rulers and public figures will always be open to the very real temptations and to the flattery which they bring, whatever political system we have. The remedy is not improved regulation or a new political system, but rather to convince public figures that – contrary to Machiavellian pragmatism and the pleasures of swanning on the boats of oligarchs and consorting with tyrants – they remain subject to the natural law of God and the common decencies of mankind. ‘Love justice, you who rule the earth’, words from the Book of Wisdom, sung by the souls in Dante’s Paradise, making such a vision ineffably beautiful.

It is not a wholly impossible ideal, even on earth, far less an ignoble one. John Adams was the second president of the United States. He was central in forging the American constitution, and as President, he safely steered his country through critical times during the French revolutionary war. When he lost his second election, he simply left Washington to live on his farm in Massachusetts for the rest of his life. And during this time he also re-engaged in friendship with Thomas Jefferson, his old enemy and rival. We would be a better country were we to hear more of the modesty of our public figures, of their withdrawal to private life, rather than of their oligarchic connexions and earning power.


Anthony O’Hear is director of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, professor of philosophy at the University of Buckingham, and the co-editor of The Fortnightly Review. He is the author of Philosophy in the New Century and Plato’s Children, among others.

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