February 6, 2017 Leave a comment
Blog written by Dr Jacqueline Rose
Is it true that behind every successful ruler there is an exhausted adviser? It has certainly often been the case that ‘evil counsellors’ have been blamed for bad government. But if grumbling about special advisers looks like a distinctly modern phenomenon, think again. Such figures have often operated in the shadowy world of political manoeuvring, whether characterised as benign mentors or cunning manipulators—or both.
For much of history, the role of the adviser was idealised. This was the case in much of the period covered by the contributors to the recent volume on The Politics of Counsel in England and Scotland, 1286–1707. This was an era in which good counsel was seen as the way to foster good rule; that is, where a monarch governed for the common interest and common good, and not tyrannically, for their own private benefit or wilful pleasure. Counsel evolved to meet the needs of this age of Anglo-Scottish warfare and unions, dynastic and religious upheavals, and developments in local, national, and colonial government—not forgetting the adaptations in advisory practices required to fit each new monarch’s personality.
Using the poetry, drama, government records, and political treatises of the period, contributors to the volume examine ideas about advice and the role it played. Some instances of political failure come up—James III of Scotland, killed during a rebellion in 1488, and Charles I, executed in 1649—are the most prominent. But there are also signs that rulers could be open to advice, at least on some points, some of the time.
Appropriately, contributors to this volume benefited from each other’s counsel through a workshop held in St Andrews in May 2014, which was made possible by the British Academy’s award of a grant from the Browning Fund and a British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grant; and by support from the School of History and the Institutes of Scottish Historical Research, Intellectual History, and Reformation Studies. Alongside the editor, the volume features chapters by St Andrews-based authors Michael Brown and Roger Mason, and one by Claire Hawes, at the time a PhD student here and now based in Aberdeen. This reflects how suitable a base St Andrews is for the larger Politics of Counsel research project from which the workshop and volume derived.
While substantial in its own right, the volume aims to create a framework for future research on political advice—past, present, and future. It provocatively suggests ways in which even ‘failed’ advice might actually contribute to political life. So the next time you hear on the news that the power and influence of ‘spads’ has been criticised, don’t assume it’s a symptom of the decline of modern politics. Bad advice may just be an age-old excuse: easy to make, but deserving of sharper analysis.