The choice of Santa Maria Novella in Florence as the location for Theresa May’s second set-piece speech on Brexit is symbolic, we have been told. Less than a mile away, in the Basilica of Santa Croce, is buried Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), author of The Prince, the handbook for ruling that has guided princes and prime ministers since the Renaissance.
Machiavelli would have understood the bind in which May finds herself over Brexit. As he wrote in 1513:
There is nothing more difficult to handle, more doubtful of success, and more dangerous to carry through than initiating changes in a state’s constitution.
Yet all is not lost. Were the prime minister to seek counsel from Machiavelli in The Prince, she would find the following advice on how to negotiate the UK’s exit from the European Union.
Be realistic, not idealistic
Machiavelli strove to represent things as they were in a “real truth, rather than as they are imagined”. In an ideal world, the UK would be able to leave the European Union swiftly and painlessly. This will probably not be the case, so the prime minister must be realistic in both her approach to, and presentation of, Brexit. If a transitional deal has to be struck to facilitate the UK’s eventual exit, then the prime minister should accept this and make the EU a serious offer. She cannot expect to receive the whole cake while offering to pay for only a slice of it.
Do not try to win favour through gifts of money
For Machiavelli, the most dangerous threat to a prince’s power was the hatred of the people. It is better to be feared than loved, but best of all not to be hated. Generosity, in the form of gifts of money, leads to a prince being both despised and hated.
Machiavelli’s logic was clear: a prince’s funds are soon exhausted, which forces him to take from others to sustain his generosity, thereby earning their hatred. Even the friendship the prince buys is worthless, for “it does not last and it yields nothing”. In other words, do not try to win the people over with promises of financial bounties after Brexit.
Be flexible, especially in negotiations
Machiavelli declared that “a prudent ruler cannot, and must not, honour his word when it places him at a disadvantage,” and especially “when the reasons for which he made his promise no longer exist”.
He was not advocating that the ends always justify the means; rather, his experience as the Florentine envoy to courts across Europe had taught him that “men are wretched creatures” who break their word when it suits them, and so a prince should not feel duty-bound to keep promises. He might therefore counsel the prime minister against intransigently remaining within certain negotiating red lines, because events will often render them invalid. Pledges made before the EU referendum need no longer apply.
Do not prioritise appearances over results
Even though Machiavelli acknowledged that appearances are arguably more important than actions, because “everyone sees what you appear to be,” but “few experience what you really are,” in the end “the common people are always impressed by appearances and results”. The concrete outcome of the negotiations will matter more than any posturing before or during them.
Take counsel but make the final decision yourself
May should surround herself with wise advisers, in both the Cabinet and her private office, who will speak the truth to her when asked for their opinion. Once she has consulted with them over an issue, however, she should “put the policy agreed upon into effect straight away … and adhere to it rigidly,” ignoring all other opinions. This way, she will not be deceived by flatterers or tempted to change her mind repeatedly, both of which will lose her the respect of the people.
If this advice proves difficult to follow, the prime minister should not lose heart, because Machiavelli conceded that fortune plays just as important a part in political careers as free will. Events may change the backdrop, and even foreground, of the Brexit negotiations between now and the 2019 deadline.
The best defence against the vagaries of fortune is to study history and imitate the outstanding leaders of the past, for even if a prince’s “own prowess fails to compare with theirs, at least it has an air of greatness about it”.
The prime minister should also read the accounts of previous successes and failures, to see where others went wrong. Machiavelli’s The Prince would be a good place to start.