Cromwell the fixers’ fixer: a role model for our times

Martin Kettle in The Guardian's Comment is free:

CromwellThomas 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…

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.

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