Peter Oborne: The Triumph Of The Political Class (Simon & Schuster)
Peter Oborne is a columnist on the Right Wing Daily Mail, the organ of conservative Middle England. He has nevertheless written a revolutionary tract, which is essential reading for anyone who wants to overthrow Britain's ruling class.
In The Triumph Of The Political Class, he shows how that class has been transformed, largely by stealth, within the space of a generation.
Britain used to be governed by the Establishment, a network of people who knew each other (often through family) and largely shared the same social background, education and values. These values were pre-eminently Victorian: their best qualities were public service and incorruptibility, their worst were amateurism and snobbery. Their values were very strongly enforced - the monarch who rejected them, Edward VIII, was dethroned at the Establishment's behest. For about a hundred years this Establishment and its values dominated the governance of Britain through its grip on its major institutions, the home and overseas civil service, the armed forces, the judiciary and the City of London (before deregulation). They were buttressed by the monarchy, the state churches, and most of the media, especially the BBC. Although they dominated the political system, they regarded politics as a duty, rather than a career: indeed for most of the twentieth century it was almost impossible to make a living out of politics alone. People went into politics to represent their class or their locality, and they kept strong personal links with the interests in civil society which they represented.
This Establishment was remarkably adaptive. It survived two World Wars (when it successfully enlisted new talent to make good its shortcomings), the rise of organized labour, the emancipation of women and other gigantic upheavals. But it did not survive the arrival of a new elite who elbowed it ruthlessly aside and destroyed its powerbases. This is Oborne's Political Class - and a deeply unlovely bunch they are.
They live in a sealed world - like astronauts on an alien planet, moving along airlocked passages between a series of domes: party machines: "think-tanks"; Parliament; government; EU bureaucracy; lobbying; consultancies; media, all within the giant dome of politics. They form a self-admiring, self-promoting coterie and although they can plot viciously against each other they protect each other equally fiercely from any attack or criticism from the outside world. In their hands the political parties have melted their political differences and simply become vehicles for personal ambitions. Ironically, the political parties have never been so well organized and managed at precisely the moment when they no longer represent the interests and values of wider society and when they are all being deserted en masse by their former members.
Like all inhabitants of a sealed world, the Political Class behave very oddly. As a gentleman himself, Oborne spends a fair amount of time analysing their speech - a weird and depressing mix of managerial gobbledygook and fake populism - and their dress. More pertinently, he exposes their standards of conduct. On the whole, the old Establishment behaved better than the people they governed. The Political Class behaves much worse - although it does not stop them preaching endlessly at other people about "responsibility" and good citizenship.
With a wealth of examples, Oborne shows that our new rulers are parasites, who enrich themselves constantly at the taxpayers' expense. They routinely abuse power, lie and suppress and manipulate the truth. They never admit error or failure, they always shuffle responsibility onto someone else. In daily life, unlike the old Establishment, they are graceless and self-obsessed. In sum, they have no standards whatever except their own advancement. Yet they are indignant when anyone exposes their behaviour and turn savagely on those who call them to account (Oborne tells chilling tales of the treatment of Elizabeth Filkin, libelled and dismissed as Parliamentary Commissioner of Standards, and of John Yates, the policemen who investigated cash-for-peerages).
Oborne unearths a wonderful remark from former Blair adviser Geoff Mulgan (a prime specimen of the Political Class, who has glided from "think tank" to Number 10 and back with no contact with the outside world): "we expect leaders to abide by far more demanding rules than the rest of us. So, for example, we expect them to suspend personal considerations when exercising impersonal power; not to give special favours; not to treat people well just because they like them. We don't let them use their power to enrich themselves or gain sexual favours." Wrong, Geoff - those are precisely the standards which everyone is expected to live by - drudges, doctors, directors - and it is our rulers who repeatedly flout them.
On one point, however, Oborne has misread the new Political Class. He suggests that unlike the old Establishment they have no religious values. In fact, many of the new Political Class, especially in New Labour, are ostentatiously religious (the latest being Gordon Brown, parading his preacher father to his Party Conference). Moreover, all the Political Class have found it expedient to form an alliance with religious leaders and self-selected representatives of "faith communities". In consequence, a third of Britain's state schools are now under religious control - although fewer than 20 per cent of Britons make any kind of religious observance.
Oborne likens the new Political Class to the grasping, corrupt coterie of politicians who governed Georgian England, dissected by the great historian Sir Louis Namier. But he is unfair to Namier's politicians. For all their failings, they had some great successes in government. They presided over an agricultural revolution and an industrial revolution, they defeated Napoleon and they secured Britain's role as a global power. (At least they did not get in the way).
By contrast, although the new Political Class boasts constantly about its professionalism and surrounds itself with armies of expensive consultants and experts it has proved spectacularly incompetent in matters great and small. Apart from Iraq they have given us the ERM debacle, railway privatization, endless botched reorganizations of the NHS, a string of IT disasters (and ID cards in waiting), farm payments, the prison crisis, inadequate armed forces equipment, housing and medical care, incoherent and failed policies on drink, drugs and gambling, the Millennium Dome, school meals... Almost nothing these people touch works properly. They could not even replace the Lord Chancellorship.
How did so many corrupt, charmless and incompetent people get away with it? Oborne gives a large part of the answer. They suborned, subordinated and supplanted all the institutions which might otherwise have resisted them - often with the assistance of willing collaborators within. In particular, the home civil service and the diplomatic service were humiliated repeatedly - their advice rejected and their normal command structures replaced by political appointees, expensive outside consultants and (most sinisterly) by intelligence services which were captured by the Political Class. To give only one of copious examples of this process of humiliation, Alastair Campbell's understrapper, a nonentity by the name of Danny Pruce, had more influence on the infamous September dossier on Iraq than the whole of the Foreign Office.
Oborne is equally penetrating about the Political Class's attacks on the Monarchy (no match for Blair's calculated emotive response to the death of Princess Diana), the judiciary (still intact but repeatedly threatened by political appeals to populist feelings) and above all, the media. The Political Class, notably Tony Blair, would have us believe that their behaviour was a necessary response to a vicious, voracious media. Garbage. The Political Class have recruited large sections of the media to print or broadcast its propaganda as fact. That is what spin doctoring means and it requires willing collaborators in the media. Some of the media have done even worse, and propagated deliberate lies or character assassination at the behest of the Political Class. More and more of the media, and its members, are becoming indistinguishable from the Political Class. They routinely trade jobs and careers - politicians become expensively paid columnists, journalists join the government machine and give orders to civil servants. The Political Class gets angry with journalists only when they break ranks and refuse to play the game. In spite of their shrill complaints, both the Thatcher and the Blair governments had a remarkably easy ride from the media. Nearly all of their biggest decisions were endorsed and promoted by the media and their propaganda was rarely, if ever, dissected or challenged.
The Political Class has thrived because of the collapse of the institutions which might have resisted it. But that is not the whole story, and there is a vital factor which Oborne fails to discuss: political apathy. All the parties fret publicly about public apathy and disengagement from the political process - but the Political Class actually depend on it. They do not want people to become engaged in politics. Read more ›