29 Aug 2022

Old-style Realpolitik

Image: 'The Plumb-pudding in Danger' by James Gillray, depicting British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger and Emperor Napoleon of France

In an era of political upheaval, we find ourselves forced to witness a daily drama where questions of loyalty, probity, trust, populism, integrity and wisdom are played out on the political stage.

We have decided to take a leaf rom the book of Rev Dr John Trusler, who speculates on all these questions in his A System of Etiquette (1805), which is so much more than a mere guide to etiquette and manners, providing a detailed speculation on how to behave in all walks of life. He turns to Advice to a Son by Sir Francis Osborne, a statesman under Charles I, in providing his invaluable guidance.

Dr Trusler sees public life as an arena in which a gentleman can display upstanding values, such as loyalty and integrity. He execrates broken promises, and believes that a gentleman’s word is his bond and his good reputation is priceless. However, his elevated sense of morality does not prevent him from being very cautious about the notions of friendship and trust, and he firmly believes that to be over-confiding or foolishly credulous is very hazardous. It is, in his view, safer to look at friendships with a cynical eye and to operate with the utmost discretion. Finally, he strongly exhorts his readers to ‘call wisdom to the helm’ when they find that their own errors have trapped them – they should never let their resistance to admitting they were wrong lead them towards disaster.

Broken Promises

“Promise cautiously, but keep it inviolably. Make not your promises too cheap, nor promise to the full extent of desire, lest tiring in performance or becoming a bankrupt in power, you forfeit repute and purchase certain enemies for uncertain friends.”

It is all too easy to promise the earth, on the lazy assumption that – further down the line – promises can be forgotten and broken, and you will not be held to account. This is very rarely the case, especially in public life, and leaving a trail of broken promises will ultimately harm your reputation, ensuring that people see you as unreliable and untrustworthy.

Whom to Trust?

“It is easy to keep an enemy at arm’s length, the difficulty is how to guard against a friend. This is done by communicating no more to him than discretion or necessity shall warrant you to reveal. Trust a friend therefore no further than the line of reciprocal interest doth extend.”

Close friendship can easily lead to a tendency to trust too much and to confide more than you should – these acts of trust may come back to bite you, especially if it is in your friend’s best interests to betray you. You are much more likely to behave with discretion and caution if you are surrounded by people who clearly prioritising their own interests.

Calling in Favours

“Do not imagine those more capable of trust, whom you have formerly obliged. Charity seldom goes to the gate but it meets with ingratitude. Those proving for the most part the greatest enemies, that have been bought at the dearest rates of friendship…”

Favours given are frequently believed to create reciprocal bonds of gratitude and obligation, but it is a mistake to believe that these acts of charity will ultimately be paid with interest. In many cases, the feeling of indebtedness that benevolence engenders can create feelings of enmity.

Populist Aspirations

“Covet not fame, for experience has taught us that she carries a trumpet which gathers round her generally more enemies than friends. Let your conscience be your sole applauder; popularity is but a public breath, and like air rushes most forcibly into a vacuum – wise men slight it.”

Seeking fame and celebrity at any cost is a dangerous game, which is likely to win you enemies. It is therefore advisable not to make popularity your main goal, but instead to focus on doing the best job you can, while remaining firmly constrained by your own conscience.

Party Loyalties

“Before you join any party, consult all the objections that can be made against it, but once resolved, desert not your party on any account: if you perceive the post you are in to totter, you may procure your preservation by all honest endeavours, but never change sides. If you cannot with prudence continue where you are, retire.”

Thoroughly investigate and research any group or party before you declare your allegiance to it, but from this point on remain loyal to your choice. Even if it is clear that your position is in jeopardy, or that the edifice to which you have pledged your loyalty is in danger of collapse, you must not switch sides. If all else fails, you should simply resign.

Taking Expert Advice

“Should you find yourself strike upon the rock of danger, or be moored in an inconvenience, cast obstinacy over-board, and call wisdom to the helm, which with the aid of moderation and compliance, will always keep an error from growing worse, if not expunge it quite.”

Allowing yourself to become ensnared in erroneous thinking, which you then compound by adhering to your opinion no matter what, is a dangerous policy. Enlist wise advice, accept that you have been wrong and re-group. Your ability to follow advice and switch direction will be much more impressive than a dogged belief that you are right.


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