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A review of Owen Jones, The Establishment

Published three years ago, Owen Jones’ first book Chavs: the demonization of the working class began with the phenomenon of middle-class contempt for working class people, the ChavScum and ChavTowns websites, the Daily Mail’s ‘A to Z’ guides to mocking the poor, the BBC’s White season and its creation of a new ethnic category, the white working class. He showed that this cultural war against the working class majority had not begun accidentally but came out of the policy consensus that underpinned the Tories and New Labour, from both parties’ subservience to the rich, from both parties’ contempt for the poor.

His second book The Establishment and how they get away with it starts where Chavs ended, with the narrowness of democratic politics and its exclusion of the great majority. Jones wants to show that there is a two-way relationship between our politicians’ focus on increasing the wealth of the super-rich and our attenuated democracy. He explores this relationship a series of chapters, each of about 10,000 words, examining successively the neoliberal think tanks, the MPs and the expenses scandal, phone-tapping and union-busting by the press, the racism of the police, business’ reliance on the state, tax-dodging by corporations, the rise of finance, and the problems of a pro-American foreign policy.

Reading the Establishment reminded me of a much older literature. Three quarters of a century ago, about five years after the end of the worst recession that modern Britain had then seen, the then Tribune journalist Michael Foot published under the pen-name Cato a pamphlet Guilty Men exposing the equivocal record of countless Tory MPs who had until recently been appeasers, i.e. opponents of a war against fascism. Foot’s pamphlet sold 200,000 copies. Almost as successful was another pamphlet by Gracchus (Tom Wintringham), Your MP exposing the business links and (again) fascist sympathies of the same MPs. Published with lists of Tory MP’s voting histories and diagrams of their company directorships, these books played a part in that decisive shift in public opinion which determined the 1945 election.

One thing that Owen Jones’ The Establishment shares with these older books is a fascination with the link between politics and business. Like Foot and Wintringham before him, he has a talent for remembering the small scandals which can otherwise drift so easily from memory – at one point, he captures former Bennite Patricia Hewitt’s journey after stepping down as Health Secretary, her reward with with plum posts at health privatisers Alliance Boots and Cinven, and her agreement, at the prompting of Sunday Times journalists, to lobby ministers in return for cash incentives.

The Hewitt story sticks out in part because the majority of the corrupt and venal MPs who Jones names are of course Tories: Nadhim Zahawi, member of the Number 10 Policy Unit and scourge of the feckless poor, who claimed thousands of pounds in expenses to heat the stables – the stables! – at his second home; George Osborne who earned £55,000 by redesignating his second house; David Cameron who claimed public funding for the costs of removing wisteria from his constituency home.

Jones’ disgust with these individuals is compelling, and his book deserves to be widely shared. Any reader of this blog will have friends for whom the Establishment is an ideal Christmas present: the occasional demonstrator, the friend who likes the left but has never been to our meetings, a person on the cusp of engaging for the first time with left-wing politics. But the book is not without flaws.

Jones employs a recurring series of framing device to place his readers at a recognisable point in the narrative. One is to signal a date or a place: “In 2008, as the greed of an unregulated City helped to unleash an economic firestorm” … “It was the autumn of 2002, and there was an air of expectation in Southampton’s Botleigh Grange hotel.” In a shorter piece, this kind of writing can be effective – it invites the reader to recall that particular year, to think of it in a sort of mentally re-enacted present. A problem comes though when your reader tries to read more than one or two of these passages in a row. Why, they may find themselves asking, are we suddenly in 2008? or 1947? Or the early 1970s? Or 1955? What is the history that connects these moments?

Jones has spoken to around 100 Peers, MPs, activists, bankers and businessmen. In a few cases, Jones takes from the interviews a detail which sheds bright light on a way of behaving – the lobbyist, for example, who is unable to compute Jones’ perfectly serious suggestion that MPs are overpaid and need a pay cut. But too few of the interviews are memorable, and rather than breaking up the text, in fact set in train a repeated description of the place where the interview was conducted (“We meet in Soho Theatre’s noisy bar” … “In a quiet, arty cafe near London’s Angel underground station I meet…”). Rather than hearing the distinct voices of the corrupt and their critics, the writing tends to mix them up.

An early passage defines the people that Jones is interested in, “Today’s Establishment is made up – as it always has been – of powerful groups that need to protect their position in a democracy in which almost the entire adult population has the right people.” While this sounds like one thing, it is in fact two distinct groups of people and a relationship. Jones’ establishment includes the powerful. It also includes the people who operate as the hirelings, the advocates and the court jesters of the rich. He writes at one point of the establishment as “guaranteeing” the status quo; he writes at another point of the establishment “ruling”. The book would be stronger if there was a greater sense that these are two quite different tasks.

Jones has interviewed members of every party in Parliament, and spoken to journalists from every newspaper and from the BBC. Almost all of his book is devoted to the people who propagandise on behalf of the powerful, and about the former there is a near silence. The genuinely powerful exist in the book, rather like the God of Genesis, moving over the waters, both omnipotent and invisible.

Of course, if you are Paul Staines (the blogger Guido Fawkes, the first interviewee quoted in the book), or Madsen Pirie of the Adam Smith Institute (the second) or Lord Bell the PR man (the third), it may be possible to persuade yourself that you are a person on whom the fate of governments depend. But the words of Caroline Lucas have greater force, “As an MP, in terms of having real power, I feel that I have very, very little. I feel like I’ve spent my career trying to find out where power is – wherever I am, it always feels like power is just somewhere else and I am constantly chasing this thing.”

The left did once prefer to speak about the ruling class rather than the Establishment. I have always found that alternative label more compelling:

As an errant child of the ruling class myself, the left’s language chimes surprisingly well with how the rich and genuinely privileged see themselves. They do use a language of rule, and they have notions of force and consent which are recognisably similar to, for example, Gramsci’s notions of hegemony and consent. The model is the same, even if the value judgments are reversed.

To think about ruling is to think about choices and their consequences. The political will to expropriate the rich must encompass the rejection of certain behaviour which the rich practice in an extreme form – their refusal to pay taxes, their looting of the welfare state, their tolerance of extreme forms of oppression (which can be ignored so long as they function to assist the propertied). In so far as each of us has opportunities to re-enact in small scale what the rich do to excess, we should not do so. Otherwise how can we say that we are any better than them?

In addition, despite what I have just written, to speak of rulers is to impart a sense of scale. It is to grasp that the rich do not have any greater passion for their publicists than they do about their solicitors or their accountants. Each group is necessary; each charges too much. What historian looking back on the middle ages would decry the words of the Court Jester, and miss the deeds of the King?

I am glad that Owen Jones has shone a light on the Establishment but the ruling class still awaits its proper, hostile biographer.

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