In France during the first part of the seventeenth century, Cardinal Armand Jean du Plessis – better known as Cardinal Richelieu – held enormous power as the king’s ‘Chief Minister.’ In addition to his many titles, Richelieu also had the sobriquet ‘Red Eminence’ [Éminence rouge]. Though often regarded as the power behind the throne, behind him stood another. A ‘Grey Eminence’ [Éminence grise].
François Leclerc du Tremblay was the right-hand man of Cardinal Richelieu and gained his own sobriquet for the beige, termed grey in that period, robes he wore. du Tremblay was styled Eminence, though only a friar, because of the sway he held over Cardinal Richelieu.
Every age has had it’s grey eminence, and there have always been concerns about the power behind the throne. In democratic times, calls for these individuals to be brought forth into the public gaze are always to be heard. The reason frequently cited is that unless the advice and advisors are known, power cannot be properly held to account.
The challenge in the modern media cycle is that it becomes hard to define the notion of ‘account.’ For proponents of a plan, ‘account’ is acceptance for the course of action. For opponents, ‘account’ is when the plan is stopped or, at the least, modified in their favour. What adds a further level of complexity is the court of ‘public’ opinion has shifted from those with responsibility for public office to mean every man Jack and every woman Jill who has a social media account. A process which seldom makes for relevant, let alone rational discourse.
Sadly, for our attempts to hold power to account, the ‘what’ is lost to the political ‘how.’ In that whether specific advice or an advisor is known ceases to be at issue, instead, which side wins becomes the benchmark for ‘account.’ As a result, be it red or grey, the eminence disappears into the shadows to hold sway for another day.