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May 16, 2006

Have the British been taken over by new elites controlling both power and money? Richard D. North is unpersuaded: Britain's Power Elites - Hywel Williams; Rich Britain - Stewart Lansley

Posted by Richard D. North

Britain's Power Elites: The rebirth of a ruling class
by Hywel Williams
Pp. 256. London: Constable, 2006
Paperback, 12.99

Rich Britain: The rise and rise of the new super-wealthy
by Stewart Lansley
Pp. 265. London: Politico's, 2006
Hardback, 18.99

Richard D. North - the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world - reviews Hywel Williams' Britain's Power Elites: The rebirth of a ruling class and Stewart Lansley's Rich Britain: The rise and rise of the new super-wealthy.

We are bound to hope for great things from Williams' book. Don't we feel that something odd has happened to power and to elites in the UK? We look about for them in places where they used to be flaunted - in Westminster and Whitehall, in town halls and the professions, even in Pall Mall, and they don't seem to be there any more. Have they migrated to the EU, the web, the market? Worse: have they vanished and left a mess or the mob behind?

Hywel Williams gives us a breathy and at times even a giddy and lofty canter around the very different sorts of groups and person which he thinks make up the country's many locations of power or at least influence, but that's it. There is no serious attempt to describe them in terms of elitism, and still less to address the "rebirth of a ruling class".

Even where Williams is quite useful, his work is bettered elsewhere. Take politics, that world of what he calls "high definition entertainment". He says, in a typically ringing sentence, that political operators need to be:

mentally agile, intellectually incurious, and physically robust.
Well, that has always been true and often remarked. But Williams rightly believes that there are new sorts of operator around, both in those who seek election and those who seek to get and keep them elected. These are the people who thrive in a post-ideological age in which class politics is dead. It does indeed feel as though political parties now exist as business units for this new pseudo-profession. But Peter Oborne, in his books and (until he left the magazine) articles in The Spectator, has been far sharper on the power vacuum in politics, and the new trade of message specialists. (And it looks as though Joe Klein's account of "campaign professionals" in Politics Lost: How American democracy was trivialised by people who think you're stupid is doing the same sort of work for the US case.) But are the new political hacks - reminiscent of the pamphleteers and influence-mongers of the age of Defoe - a cadre? Do they have power? Aren't they apparatchiks and cyphers?

Williams is shameless in his failure to reconcile his competing ideas. At one point he defines parliamentarians and the parties as the political elite, then he says all power has migrated to Downing Street. At another, he says privatisation suited ministers by providing for their post-political business careers, but is soon detecting a

paradoxical situation in which governments do all they can for business but the number of politicians rewarded directly by business falls.
That's presumably all the more likely with politics being plied as a life-long trade or profession, but conferring too little behind-the-scenes clout to produce many improper uses of power. The point is, half of Williams' statements can't be true if the other half are. He doesn't even have the wit to make a merit of his being conflicted.

This is argument by wind, a fantastic, exhausting loquacity which very nearly becomes articulacy. But the mass of quotations and snippets of information mostly don't even seriously purport to make his case.

Williams doesn't risk being too precise about what he means by an "elite". Even as he admits (in the dying pages of his book) that it has to do with being good at something difficult, he declares - bizarrely - that the elite wraps itself in that idea the better to disguise its power-grab. To which one replies: he hasn't given us evidence of a power-grab by anyone much, still less a self-confessed one, and even less a putsch that goes to the lengths of conducting a PR campaign on its own behalf.

From his general chippiness, one suspects Williams of being ordinarily and fashionably dissident. His opening words are:

This is a book without heroes for it deals with the degradation and subjection of a country.
That would at least allow for the possibility that he understands that we were once free (under the older elites which once governed us) and are now less so under the elites he has identified. He sometimes mourns the passing of a bloody-minded, intuitive flexing of a liberty muscle in an England now dead.

As Williams in passing notes, whilst it is commonly believed that this country used to be run by The Establishment, which was an extended "Old Boy Network", there is an elite view which says that this is nonsense. Williams at times seems rather to accept that such a power system has always been less evident in Britain than most other European countries. But at others, he decries such thinking as typically subtle and self-interested self-deprecation from an elite determined to hang on to power by pretending not to have it anyway.

The British elites of the 20th century and before were admirable, but they weren't an Establishment (still less, a "ruling class"). Andrew Neil, Rupert Murdoch, Jeremy Paxman, Anthony Sampson and plenty of others have followed A. J. P. Taylor (credited with inventing the term) in being been wrong about that. Our bankers, aristocrats, industrialists, clergy, judges, lawyers, journalists, academics and politicians did not connive with one another for the public good, or their own. Often, they regarded each other with disdain. The paradox is that it was probably the tensions in Britain which allowed it from the start to spawn and develop democracy and capitalism.

There's no sign that Williams agrees with the constitutional proposition, mainstream until recently, that representative democracy has as its sole purpose the production, maintenance and control of government by at least one and probably several interlocking elites.

Williams does give us the standard rant about social mobility having slowed down in the UK and even more in the US in recent years. Like much of what he throws at us in a blizzard of facts and factoids, this isn't core to his argument and might even tend against it. After all, if the older "elites" are hanging on to their advantage, doesn't that rather militate against the idea that they are being elbowed aside by the new elites Williams claims to spot?

But Williams can't escape his subtitle: it's the bit we would have been interested in. If the various power elites, old or new, were in some way conspiring, conferring or communing, then we'd be interested, even if we didn't believe they could transmit power to their offspring along with their DNA. But Williams only succeeds in showing us a splintered, incoherent series of people who have got lucky.

As we seek the locations of power in the UK, there is no sign whatever of a new monolith of authority, or even of a clearly discernible apex of power - no sign that power is accreting in some definable and small set of hands. Even Tony Blair's concentration of power in Number 10 seems to have produced (as Williams notes) a world in which "initiatives" have replaced policy and seldom take root. So Number 10 dispenses not so much power as bustling and noisy inertia.

At times, Williams seems to be on the money, as when he discusses the professions. He thinks the word has fallen into disrepute: that quite often the people who call themselves professionals are merely educated or at least trained guns for hire and that the new professions (of management, say) don't deserve the word. There is something in this. But this is an absence of elitism, and a pity - not a useful plank in Williams' case.

And sure, making, say, doctors business-like is indeed adding a complication to their role, and arguably putting a new tension into it. But so what? Doctors had to be commercial long before they were seriously professional. Indeed, professions and professionalism developed precisely to mediate between the pro bono or disinterested decency of the skilled and licensed person and the commercial arena in which he or she plied their trade.

Williams makes a lot of the managerialism of the modern world, but he doesn't persuade that this creates a new location of power. The swarms of people who now operate the Archipelago State - the Quangos, agencies and state-funded Civil Society - are very like the people in corporations: they are slaves to networking and their need to give great CV. I get no feeling that they are our masters, except when they briefly get what they constantly crave, the ear of someone with power - the ear of someone temporarily mandated by our democracy to exercise power.

Is Williams right when he describes a talentless, feckless, unprincipled bunch of apparatchiks stealing democracy, business, welfare provision and administration from us? Reading about the latest Home Office fiasco whilst stuck in a stopped train on the way to visit a relative lying on the floor of an over- or under-managed hospital, one might think so. More often, and more rationally, I am inclined to suppose that we are on the low slopes of a long climb out of class warfare and state corporatism and that it is hardly surprising if things look and sometimes are peculiar.

It doesn't seem likely that our engineers, doctors, judges, accountants (the actual professionals) are less good at their more complicated jobs than their forebears. I'm not even sure that our politicians, policemen and soldiers are. Indeed, I am inclined to think that all of them will do their difficult jobs better when there is less Williams-style cynicism chucked at them. They will probably perform better when they are allowed rather more pride and even arrogance than is currently permitted them.

It seems incredibly unlikely that there will ever again be a ruling class, but we can hope that we will once again proudly produce proud elites in every field of activity.

In one longish chapter, Williams gives us his view of the elite money-makers. It isn't surprising that he cites Paul Foot a good deal. His view of money - of enterprises such as Private Finance Initiatives - could have come from any radical writing between the ages of William Cobbett and George Monbiot.

In much the same vein is the jeremiad from Stewart Lansley. Here, the technique is to chuck cases of egregious extravagance or corruption and malfeasance at us. He does so whenever he finds it hard to maintain his own (let alone our) excitement about the argument that there is something horrible about the UK's increasing similarity to the US in its inequality and the slightly increased concentration of wealth in the highest percentiles of income distribution. Lansley doesn't, until his concluding pages, make much of a case at all. That's to say: he can prove readily enough that there are some very new and rich nouveaux riches about, but he can't or won't nail the moral badness of that circumstance. He has a further profound problem: a big part of his beef is that old money remains powerful and successful in transmitting itself across the generations. That militates against his subtitle.

His case, when we get there, seems to be that whilst the UK super-rich are getting more like those in the States in most things, they are surprisingly unphilanthropic. To which one replies: give them time and an encouraging tax regime and that will be fixed. They are also allowed myriad legal tax dodges (and that, as he notes, is because they and their capital are mobile, and on the whole we'd rather have them and a little tax, than send them overseas and get none).

Lansley would like to be able to say the new super-wealthy are idle, useless, undeserving and nasty. He would like to make them unpopular. But he suspects he'll fail. The facts he retails are widely known, and the rebellion against them most surprising in being absent. He says the public has been:

mesmerised by individual members of the super-rich club.
But, he goes on to argue, we are "lukewarm" about the growing gaps in wealth, and may yet force a government intervention. However, he adds:
Nevertheless, the broad sign is that higher degrees of wealth concentration are proving more acceptable than in the past.
Books like Williams' and Lansley's may signal or produce a reaction against the elites they claim to identify. The difference between them, though, is that Williams falsely identifies an invisible take-over of the entire state, whilst Lansley rightly notes that voters have been offered and could ordain his soft-left liberal ordering of things at any time. They can, and they might. But there's little sign of their wanting to yet.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world.


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Hang on! Privatisation gives more power to the politicians? More power than when politicians and their ministries owned and ran parastatal enterprises including Britain's utilities? Somebody pull the other one!

I am unimpressed by (elsewhere) Mr North's attempted defense of Lucullan greed, but he wins this one by default. We might (and do) have a corruption problem in the modern British (Labour) government, but if anybody wants a degree course in endemic corruption, take a look at state-owned enterprises in Britain's past or currently around the world.

Posted by: s masty at May 16, 2006 09:26 PM
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