New spin on a political prince

May 22, 1998

Many political commentators affect to see in Peter Mandelson, minister without portfolio, the consummate modern political Machiavellian, a "prince of darkness".

It was a description that found little favour at the "Machiavelli at 500" conference, staged by Manchester Metropolitan University to mark the quincentenary of Niccolo Machiavelli's appointment as secretary of the Republic of Florence. Several contributors noted that one of the marks of Machiavellianism was achieving objectives unobtrusively - and whatever else might be said of Mandelson's contribution to British politics, it is hardly unobtrusive.

Others demolished Machiavelli's diabolic image - his descendant Beatrice Rangoni Machiavelli blaming "stupid pupils of his", French 18th-century commentators and Frederick the Great of Prussia for an image totally at odds with the reality of his civic republicanism.

Dominic Wring, lecturer in communicationas and media at Loughborough University, whose doctoral thesis looked at Labour communications strategy, suggested that analysts of Mr Mandelson's career might look much closer to home in time and space for critical influences - at his grandfather Herbert, later Lord, Morrison (1888-1965). "You might say that spinning is in the blood," said Dr Wring.

There are, he recognises, limits to the comparison. Mr Mandelson's career has so far been dependant on the patronage of Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair, and it is unclear whether he can develop independent political standing of his own. For conference dinner speaker Gerald Kaufman MP, Mr Mandelson's test for developing such standing was a further blow to claims of Machiavellianism. "How can you call anyone who ends up in charge of the Millennium Dome a Machiavellian?" Lord Morrison was a major political figure - leader of Hackney Council and the London County Council and a minister in both the wartime coalition and postwar Labour governments.

But Dr Wring pointed to striking parallels in approach, particularly in the period before Lord Morrison joined the coalition cabinet in 1940. "Morrison was one of the Labour movement's earliest PR strategists. He regarded press relations and PR as an integral part of the political process.

"He worked in the circulation department of the Daily Citizen newspaper from 1912 and developed an understanding of the workings of the press, which he applied when he first took office in Hackney, developing sympathetic press contacts and ensuring they were supplied with good stories about himself and the council."

As early as 1920, Lord Morrison argued: "Discretion is always desirable, but generally speaking it is best to assume that all newspapermen are your friends, and to send party publications to the press, treating all papers equally." This was, said Dr Wring, "a radical view in the context of the time".

As leader of the LCC from 1934, he expanded the publicity department and devised photo-opportunities. "One occasion when the LCC's auxiliary fire service was appealing for volunteers, Lord Morrison called in an advertising agency and organised a press conference at which he climbed out a window onto a fire appliance, from which he addressed the crowd."

Lord Morrison also anticipated New Labour's preoccupation with the middle-class voter.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments