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March 03, 2008

A silly and irritating book - which occasionally manages to be touching: Who Runs Britain? How the super-rich are changing our lives - Robert Peston

Posted by Richard D. North

Who Runs Britain? How the super-rich are changing our lives
by Robert Peston
London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2008
Hardback, £20

This is a silly book, and irritating too. You will of course have guessed that it doesn't deliver on its title. Anyone who pretends to tell us who's running our country is pretty well bound to be wrong. As we have seen with other similar books this is because such writers usually long to have something dramatic and accusatory to say, and therefore stray toward to the conspiratorial or the scandalous. For better or worse, the way power and money work - perhaps especially in Britain - is much less obvious or awful than they hope.

Robert Peston is of some interest because he is credited with having been first on the scene of the Northern Rock crash. Certainly, as the BBC's business editor, we have been listening to his explanations of that disaster and are bound to wonder whether he's any better at explaining it all than anyone else. Along the way, we have had to wrestle with his unique mangling of the usual rhythms of English usage. He's beginning to normalise his diction, and on longer acquaintance seems quite a good interpreter.

It is just possible that Mr Peston could have written a wonderful plain man's guide to hedge funds, private equity, and all that. Lord knows, we could have done with it. In the pages of Who Runs Britain?, we do get some of that simplicity of purpose, but much too little. He seems to believe that most of our troubles, such as they are, stem from there being too much money about, and the desire of central bankers to keep credit cheap. Standard fare, then.

Robert Peston might have written a decent account of the way modern businesses work, and we do get accounts of events at Marks & Spencer and Royal Mail which are useful in a small way. We get a fairly decent account of how state and private pensions have been bungled. We might also have had a decent account from him of how money speaks in the UK, and we do get a bit about the funding of modern political parties by rich men.

It is also possible, but less likely, that Robert Peston might have explained why it matters that Britain is becoming less equal. He certainly puts that concern front and foremost in his opening and closing pages. He waxes briefly eloquent on the tax-aversion of the very rich. He says that many of them "may" need facilities provided by the state and that:

… my strong conviction is that no-one should use a club’s facilities who is not prepared to pay the subscription fee.
He goes on to say that it is very hard to tell whether this tax aversion actually matters. His difficulty here is that he is quite keen on Thatcher's revolution, on greed, and on rich people doing their thing. He is intermittently sympathetic to Gordon Brown's pandering to the ultra-rich.

It is of course useful to note than insofar as Mr Peston blames Mr Brown for Britain's inequality, and that is quite often, he reminds us who runs the country. It is Mr Brown, which is as it should be and not very surprising.

This book does not attempt an Oliver James disquisition on the psychological perils of capitalist society. Nor yet does it twitter on about pernicious elites. Peston seems to understand that London is a global capital in a globalised world and that it is deeply moot the degree to which it would have been wise to make ourselves unattractive to footloose capitalists and capitalism.

But then he blows it. My complaint is not that he neither firmly condemns nor firmly endorses inequality. No, what matters is that he doesn't really map out the arguments - as best we can marshal them - either way. A richly equivocal book on modern inequality would have been worth having.

There are one or two moments when the book comes alive, but they are a bit peculiar. They concern his father and his east and north London Jewish background. At the beginning of the book, Mr Peston tells us that he was brought up in the kind of household where Labour loyalty was important. He went to one of the good London comprehensive schools. He assumed equality mattered, and it came as a surprise to find that Mrs Thatcher was much more right than wrong.

At the very back of the book, we find out that his father is Maurice, now Lord Peston of Mile End, an important economics academic who had been at Hackney Downs School in the good old days when it was still associated with the Worshipful Company of Grocers, who had founded it. Lord Peston was there with Harold Pinter. Later pupils included Michael, Lord Levy (whose find-raising for Labour is a major story in this book).

Under comprehensivisation Hackney Downs became a byword of lousy socialist schooling. Mr Peston seems tacitly to accept that this was at least in part a consequence of the kind of leftiness espoused by his father. It seems to be something of a mystery to Robert Peston how his father so despises the City Academy system which has now seen Hackney Downs become admired again, and because of the involvement of another local boy made good. I say this is peculiar. It certainly seems like intruding on a private grief. Naturally, one enjoys these paradoxical passages. They are colourful and human. But they go nowhere.

So there we are. A hotchpotch of a book, which tells us a few small useful and even very occasionally rather touching things but doesn't connect them up into the kind of picture which the author advertises and we hope for.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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