Wednesday, 27 May 2020

The Unaccountables - Favourites, Advisers and Manipulators

History presents us with a long list of men and women who have become 'powers behind the throne'. They were strong characters who, without the benefit of official position, exercised influence over rulers by engaging their affections or admiration  and were, thus, able to overstep parliaments and councils and gain control of government policy. They make up a motley collection of Machiavellians. There were mistresses whose power emanated from the bedchamber, ambitious courtiers driven by personal ambition, idealists devoted to causes they were intent on promoting, men of energy and talent who took over the control of affairs from kings too indolent to shoulder unaided the heavy burden of office. And there were those whose motivation is difficult to define without recourse to psychological jargon - megalomaniacs who grasped greatness because they believed it was their due.

Throughout the centuries when crowns were passed from father to son or won in battle and kings were responsible only to God (always supposing that they actually believed in the existence of the divine) the only barrier to personal advancement was gaining access to the royal circle. In the early fourteenth century effective power fell into the hands of Piers Gaveston, solely because he was the
bosom boyhood companion of Edward II and had gained emotional control of the young monarch before his accession. The disastrous mishandling of the nation's affairs by Edward and his favourite provoked the leading magnates (whose support was vital to stable government) to, as they saw it,  protect the crown against the king. Edward wriggled and squirmed to protect, not only his friend, but his royal prerogative. As the realm nudged ever closer towards civil war, Gaveston was captured by his enemies and brutally murdered. Fifteen years later Edward shared his fate. Three centuries further on history repeated itself in the saga of George Villiers He caught the eye James I because he was a beautiful young man and a graceful dancer. Whether or not king and favourite were homosexual lovers is little to the point, What is important is that, by the time of James's death in 1525, Villiers, by now Duke of Buckingham, was in charge of England's foreign policy and was making  a pig's ear of it. Worse still, his influence over the new king, Charles I, was as strong as it had been over his father. Parliamentary protests did not deflect the king from support for Buckingham. Once again, the 'solution' was murder. Villiers was assassinated in 1628. Charles's conflict with parliament, which dominated his reign, repeatedly involved his choice of advisers he trusted to give him unquestioning support against his 'disloyal' critics. Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, was no prancing court fop but a convinced constitutionalist and a political sophisticate. Charles leaned heavily upon him in the escalating conflict with parliament and it was the minister's attempt to shore up his sovereign against a clamorous Commons, if necessary with the aid of the military, that brought him to the block in 1641. Eight years later the king trod the same path. It was not just political incompetence that royal critics found objectionable. They opposed policy and they suspected the motives behind policy. There had been a time when ruthless rulers had been able to make their agents take the fall for unpopular decisions. Almost exactly a century before the execution of Strafford,  Henry VIII's right-hand man, Thomas Cromwell, had been sacrificed to deflect attention from his tyrannical boss. Rulers of the ilk of Edward II and Charles I had, at least, remained loyal to their friends - and, ultimately, paid the price. For Henry loyalty was a one-way street. Cromwell, like Wolsey before him, had three advantages. He was hard working and relieved the king of the nitty-gritty of government. Secondly, Henry could take the credit when things went well. Thirdly, if things went badly, the minister could be blamed - and disposed of. 'Those were crude and cruel days and human flesh was cheap'.

In a modern democracy it is still hazardous for a leader to maintain a powerful, unelected adviser - perhaps more so than ever. Why? Because their actions fall under the scrutiny of the entire populace. Because we believe that we pay those in power and their minions to be accountable to us. Because the servant cannot be despatched to the world of shades. He will survive and, therefore, he will become an embarrassment. He knows too much and knowledge is power. That is why Cummings is secure. To put it crudely, he has the prime minister by the short and curlies.

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