Cromwell, the fixers’ fixer: a role model for our times
Thomas Cromwell is the politician of the moment. We seem entranced by him. How cunning and deep he is. How clever and calculating. With what skill he acquires, husbands and uses his power. How precise he is in his judgment of when to speak and when to stay silent, when to watch and when to act, absolutely ruthlessly if need be.
We are a nation hooked on Cromwell, as a result of Hilary Mantel’s novels. And now perhaps in even greater numbers than before, thanks to the BBC’s dramatisation of Wolf Hall that began this week, whose centrepiece is Mark Rylance’s Cromwell: the outsider who mesmerisingly watches, plots and thinks his way into the heart of the English Tudor state.
On one level, the current national embrace of Cromwell is easy to explain. The Tudors are box office. And Cromwell was a big Tudor figure. Mantel’s books expertly draw the reader into Cromwell’s reflective world, where his words are the tip of an iceberg of unspoken feelings and thoughts. After just one episode, Rylance’s portrayal is already a masterpiece of suggestion, tempting us to overlook Shakespeare’s advice that there’s “no art to find the mind’s construction in the face”
It is sometimes implied that Mantel’s reimagining of Cromwell has overturned the way we see the reign of Henry VIII. But this shows what short memories we all have. This is not the first time in English history that Cromwell’s stock has been so high. After his death, many Elizabethans saw him as a heroic martyr to the English protestant cause. And after the second world war Professor GR Elton – uncle of Ben – placed him on a very different pedestal at the heart of what he called the Tudor revolution in government.
Elton’s Cromwell was the man who blew away the medieval system of government based on the king’s household. He replaced it with a departmental bureaucracy that was the forerunner of the modern constitutional state. In Elton’s judgment, Cromwell was “the most remarkable revolutionary in English history”, and his intellect “the most successfully radical instrument at any man’s disposal in the 16th century”. Mantel’s Cromwell owes much to Elton’s heroic reinvention.
Yet Cromwell, even in the Elton-Mantel version, is a very improbable hero for our times. Cromwell’s essential attraction is his mastery of statecraft, his ability to identify a political goal and achieve it unerringly but pragmatically. He is unsentimental, cold-blooded, secular, and ruthless. He is a master of detail and of small moves in the service of larger ones. It is not clear whether Cromwell ever read Machiavelli, but there have been few leaders in English or British political history who better embodied Machiavellian ideas. In short, he is the sum of much that the modern era dislikes, or affects to dislike, in its politicians.
What is even more unlikely about Cromwell’s place in the sun, as Mantel’s readers and viewers will know, is that he was an enemy of a man who in so many ways is the sum of everything that the modern era admires, or affects to admire. Thomas More remains the incarnation of individual conscience, of rising above the quotidian, and doing the morally right thing in difficult and dangerous times. It is no surprise that in postwar Britain, it was More, especially as embodied by Paul Scofield in A Man for All Seasons, who ruled the Tudor roost.
By rights, More ought to be the man for our season too. He is pre-emenintly the Tudor politician who embodies sticking to firm principles, upholding moral authority and obeying the dictates of conscience. He refuses to do the politically convenient thing because he believes it is wrong – and pays with his life. Not for him Cromwell’s cynical survive-the-day relativism. If anyone is the man for an age that feels tarnished by illegal wars, mistreated by the power of corporations and banks, betrayed by MPs’ expenses, demeaned by the banality of modern politics, it is surely More.
And yet our age has embraced not pious, high-minded More, but aspirational, crafty Cromwell, who stands for everything we say we dislike about modern politics and statecraft. It is a very odd disjunction. It could simply be that we all love a costume drama with great actors. But it could also suggest there is some hope for politics yet.
Politicians could hardly suffer from lower esteem than they do at the moment. A survey published this week by the Edelman PR company confirms the overwhelmingly negative picture of the past few years, with trust in the doldrums, and with the reputations of government, business and media all flatlining. “People are desperate for honesty and fair play,” the report concludes. This is one reason why support for the established political parties is so low and why a proportion of the electorate is now embracing parties that offer easy answers to complex and difficult real problems.
Cromwell stands against all that. He stands for the art of politics, not for fantasy politics. It has often been said, including by RA Butler, who chose the phrase for the title of his memoirs, that politics is the art of the possible. I prefer Robin Cook’s characterisation that politics is also the art of the impossible. Cromwell was the vindication of that view – and his distant and later relative Oliver wasn’t bad at the game either. Cromwell knew precisely where he was trying to get, and he was pretty effective about getting there.
There is no point requiring every politician to have Cromwell’s gifts. It would be a scary political scene if they did. But there is a great deal of point in valuing and celebrating the statecraft and the political calculation that Cromwell mastered so well. Honesty and fair play are all very well, but effectiveness and continued support count for more in the end.
I read somewhere that the late Caroline Benn, wife of Tony, thought that political leaders fell into three categories: , which she called pedestrians, fixers or madmen. Allocating British prime ministers to the three categories is an entertaining exercise, especially if you remember that no category has all the virtues or all the vices. Tony Benn, apparently, was confident that if he had become prime minister he would have been one of the madmen.
I like fixers. The pedestrians frustrate me. The madmen frighten me. True, fixers aren’t always the best politicians. But the best politicians are almost always good fixers. Think Lloyd George or Franklin Roosevelt. And Cromwell, a fixers’ fixer, is right up there too. As long as we understand that knowing what you want is utterly useless unless you also know how to get it, then politics will have a storied future as well as a storied past.