Cameron’s EU Speech: What Would Machiavelli Say?

By Ben Worthy and Mark Bennister

David Cameron made his long awaited speech about Europe this week, a speech that will decisively shape both his premiership and Britain’s relationship with the EU. It has been welcomed by parts of the press and Eurosceptic Tory MPs. It has been criticised by various other members of the EU.

The big question is what happens next-will the speech save or sink Cameron, Britain and the EU? In reaching for an assessment one way to go is backwards to 1513 to get the views of that most straight talking of theorists, Niccolo Machiavelli. Machiavelli, author of The Prince, spent time as ambassador to the court of Louis XII and travelled with Cesare Borgia so may know more than most about the twists and turns of foreign policy. He has already been used to dispense advice on the Brown vs. Blair feud and to proffer tips to Ed Miliband.

So what would Machiavelli say about Cameron’s speech and its consequences? He would welcome the clarity (though some feel the superficial clarity hides much fudging).  Machiavelli advised that a leader needs to come down on one side or the other of an argument. A leader must give ‘striking demonstrations’ and reveal himself in favour of ‘one side or another’ without an attempt to hedge or be neutral.  Cameron’s speech was striking and welcomed as defining. Machiavelli may have had some reservations about some of the ‘ifs’ contained in the speech-the clarity of the position could unravel under pressure and no amount of ‘sunny’ optimism could hide this.

Machiavelli warns, however, to ‘shun flatterers’. A leader must always ask and question but too much praise from flatterers will lead to ‘changes and indecision’. He should ‘make up his own mind by himself’. Cameron must beware potentially transient poll ratings or cheering headlines. ‘Prosperity’ in all senses, he warns, ‘is ephemeral’.

Another point Machiavelli may make, rather unexpectedly, would be to go with what the populace want. Machiavelli may or may not have been a democrat but he had a keen sense that any successful leader needed the ‘people’ with him.

In this case discovering precisely what the people want is difficult. It seems that, as of this weekend just over 50% of the public wish to leave the EU, there is support for renegotiation and most people asked would like a referendum (though apparently referendums on any subject are always popular). However, other polls indicate that the EU as a political issue remains a low priority for most voters.

Machiavelli’s final point is the most important. While supporting clarity, Machiavelli was also a supreme realist in terms of the need to adapt- Margaret Thatcher’s famous advice to ‘always leave yourself a way out’. Machiavelli believed most of the politicians he had known had displayed ‘a fatal inflexibility in the face of changing circumstances’.

So Cameron needs to be able to move with events. The difficulty is that, while the ‘ifs’ may bring wriggle room, the promise of a referendum does not. In the short to medium term the question is whether the speech and referendum promise strengthens his hand in Europe or hobbles his negotiating power. In the longer term Cameron has committed to a referendum in 2017 that may take place in be in a very different political landscape. Machiavelli may well point out that if Cameron wins the next election (on his own-another big if) and if his negotiations are successful the EU, the world economy and Britain may all be very different in five years. Could Cameron adapt his cast-iron pledge to this new world?

Dr Ben Worthy is a lecturer in the Department of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London. Dr Mark Bennister is a Lecturer in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University. He was previously a Teaching Fellow in British Politics at UCL, based in the Constitution Unit.