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on 5 May 2012
Those familiar with Ferdinand Mount's more literary works will know already that he writes beautiful, clear English. Those familiar with his 'social' works and his autobiography will be aware of his insight and perception. Those familiar with the history of his career -- columnist for the Daily Telegraph, The Spectator and Standpoint and chief of Mrs Thatcher's Downing Street policy Unit -- may be surprised at the anger that boils off the pages of this book.

Mount is no friend of the chancers and spivs who populate the boardrooms of some of the larger UK companies. He writes prose about Fred Goodwin and his behaviour that would strip rust off old iron and has little more time for any of his colleagues in folly in other boardrooms. He is excoriatingly critical of facile, toadying politicians who lie and wriggle while steadily eroding public trust, and the slick chancers who surround them.

Taken together with Dial M For Murdoch this is an excellent summary of what has gone wrong with the value structure of society over the last thirty years. Mount and Watson/Hickman come from very different backgrounds but on the basis of their arguments share similar sets of core values. We should listen and heed what they have tried to show us.
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An oligarchy historically is a society where political and economic life is dominated by a small number of very rich individuals, the oligarchs. The thesis put forward by Ferdinand Mount in this book is that Britain is an oligarchy, which has arisen because politicians and others have successfully put across the view that only by concentrating power can the nation/company/organization achieve its goals. Inherent laziness of the bulk of the population has resulted in failure to challenge this unproven assumption. There are many consequences: politicians have come to believe they always know what is best, despite evidence of their many catastrophic failures; the powers of local councils have been drastically reduced, because 90% of their funds now come from central government; senior people in the financial sector have been allowed to set up structures that pay themselves vast salaries, often independent of the performance of the company they manage. Above all, the influence of Parliament has been drastically reduced, and even Cabinet under Tony Blair ceased to be a serious policy-making body. This in particular has contributed hugely to the disillusionment with the political process of the bulk of the population, resulting in dismally low turnouts at elections. All these aspects, and many others, of the British oligarchy are discussed in detail by Mount in a beautiful crystal-clear style that is devastating in its exposure of the failures, both ethical and practical, of so many powerful people.

Many books on modern social problems make a good analysis of the problems, but fizzle out with a few unrealistic suggestions for a solution. This is not a criticism that can be leveled against Mount. In the concluding chapters he succinctly summaries the main areas where problems have be tackled: the City, political parties, Parliament and the civil service, local government, and the EU. He then gives persuasive arguments how these might be solved, with examples, including: increasing the power of shareholders (which very recently has had some successes in curbing bankers bonuses); restoring local democracy; capping the ratio of salaries of the highest to lowest paid in an organization; and adopting some practices from mainland Europe. He also judges the actions of the Coalition government in this area. Overall, this is an excellent explanation of how our society has arrived at its present state and what can realistically be done to improve the situation. We all ultimately bear some responsibility for its failings, and so there can be no excuse for not reading this book.
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on 22 May 2012
This book deserves credit for being (I think) the first to diagnose the British decline from representative democracy to oligarchy. It's a civilized book written by an experienced, knowledgeable, and moderate man, who carefully documents his facts, compares the situation with other nations, and offers sharp personal insights.

But ultimately I found its proposed treatment of the disease to be lacking in balance and highly implausible.

The book spends a lot of space on the iniquities of greedy bankers, and how these might be moderated. This is a worthy topic, but the solutions proposed can be easily avoided. And, ultimately, so what? Greedy companies go bust. They only become a danger when governments support them, for example by bailing them out, or granting them monopolies. But that's a problem of government, not of the greedy managers who will be always with us.

So it's much more important to understand why the once universally-respected British system of government has fallen so low and why the nation is now rated as being mildly corrupt. In particular, how it has morphed from a democracy into a classic oligarchy, in which all 'respectable' political parties have the same policies on essential issues, the media supports them by de-legitimizing upstart parties, and where this consensus contradicts the majority views of the citizens - on the EU, immigration, crime and punishment, welfare, and the economy.

The author argues that the ConLib Coalition is restoring democracy, but it is not, since its actions (as opposed to words) in all of the disputed areas continue those of is predecessors.

This is the true disaster since it confronts the British people with either accepting stasis and poverty (the Chinese oligarchy lasted 1,000 years), or a violent convulsion some now fictionalize The Correction, or simply drain away by emigration.

Still, this book has the potential to open many people's eyes, and it seems unfair to damn it for lacking solutions that have evaded the rest of the nation. And so I give it 4 stars.
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on 12 May 2012
Ferdinand Mount's "The New Few" is destined to be an important book, contributing to the national debate despite its superficial analyses and anemic prescriptions.

"Few" is an important book because its headline topics of income inequality and the alienation of the masses have visceral appeal in today's disgruntled society and because its author is not a bleeding heart liberal but a well credentialed Tory whose book will receive prominent reviews in the national press. Mount's fluent and confident prose doesn't hurt either.

In terms of diagnosis, Mount's almost impassioned analysis is thin soup compared to the FT `s Washington correspondent, Ed Luce's, recent "Time to Start Thinking" which addresses more of the same issues in US society and is all the more alarming for its comprehensiveness.

Mount's book provides food for thought and almost a call to action but its diagnosis focuses on two only loosely (one might say, sloppily) related themes: growing income inequality in Britain and the relentless centralization of power and disengagement of constituents in our political society.Mount mentions global competition but fails to reflect on its consequences for the prosperity of skilled blue collar and many white collar workers. He spends little time examining other root causes such as how decades of misguided social, educational and industrial policy have hollowed out society and left the country almost devoid of both skills and values.

Given the incompleteness of "The New Few's" diagnosis, it is not surprising that its prescriptions for a cure are unconvincing. Shareholder restraint on compensation (Mount cites JP Morgan -the man not the bank's - rule of thumb that a CEO should earn no more than 20 times the average worker. I doubt if the robber baron came any closer to living by this rule than Mao did to his own benchmark of 4:1), stricter regulation of banks, and devolution of political power are all on the Coalition's agenda; no one expects them to make any difference. Mount diagnoses brain cancer and prescribes vinegar and brown paper.

Mount may add fuel to the call for a mansion tax (even though shareholder activism rather than taxation is his preferred solution), but all of his `oligarchs,' many of them foreigners who contribute enormously to tax revenue and consumer spending but do not place any demands on the National Health, state education or social services, could be rounded up and expelled (or worse) and Britain's reality TV generation would still not be able to compete in the world market against the education-hungry, hard working, savings junkies of Asia and their mercantile , long-game playing governments. The book may become important but it is also dangerous in that it feeds populist angst without addressing real solutions.

The book is almost worth reading alone for the term "Croupier's take" (which Mount quotes from Warren Buffet) referring to the £7.3 billion raked off the economy each year by financial middlemen who provide dubious or negative real value.
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on 8 June 2013
Mount has written a considered account of the rise of the British oligarchy. He looks at the way that the power and money has become concentrated in the hands of a few business leaders, non doms and and Whitehall mandarins. These groups have vested interests at heart, as can be seen in the way that the revolving doors between government and business work; the way that directors and non executive directors sit on each other's boards, and the fact that the nominated shareholders (pension funds) also now sit on the boards of these companies.

And yet he sees that there is change just starting, if not to reign in the excesses, but to temper them at least. Politicians are starting to make noises about the ratio between the top earners and the bottom earners in companies. JP Morgan said it should never exceed 20 to 1, but it can now be 400 to one in the worst cases. Politicians are starting to wrest power back from the government and mandarins through the select committees. The living wage organisation, supported even by Boris Johnson, is making an attempt to get large companies implementing it; this will life numerous people out of poverty and into jobs. He makes some good suggestions about the lack of training opportunities and that people who are not suitable for university cannot go to technical schools, as they do in Germany.

Well worth a read for those interested in the way that the political system works in this country.
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on 18 June 2012
A wealth of detailed research into the rise of exclusive groups in business, banking and politics makes this book an important must-read for anyone interested in solutions to the social problems this phenomenon creates. I was slightly disappointed not to find more radical conclusions but the author's background, wide range of reference points and vast political experience point to evolution rather than revolution which is more practical than utopian.
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on 14 January 2013
This is a ferocious critique of the current decayed state of capitalism from a right-wing viewpoint, and the result is extraordinarily stimulating and illuminating. It castigates the enormous growth of inequality of income that has grown up over the last thirty years or so, and cites George Orwell's warning in 1946 of the drift towards oligarchy, the New Few capitalists, who have sidelined the shareholders, the nominal owners of the companies they head, have avoided all personal financial risk, and paid themselves gigantic salaries. It is a book that those of all political parties, or of none, can and ought to read with profit and concern, as we try as a nation to determine the path ahead.
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on 27 July 2013
This book gives one an understanding of how a few wealthy people are controlling all the levers of power in the United Kingdom. They use this power for their own short-term benefit at the expense of the rest of the population and to the detriment of the country's long-term prosperity. It is an easy read because it is very entertainingly written and is punctuated with vivid examples.
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on 25 September 2013
A fine series of complaints, but when it comes to analysis there's not much there. If you give government to powerful political parties, if you give money-creation to the Bank of England and commercial banks, what can you expect except an oligarchy, growing worse and worse as their powers grow more entrenched?

The trouble is: two fine British inventions - electoral representation and bank-money - which fuelled the Empire and dazzled peoples everywhere, have now become the scourges of the world. Electoral representation, posing as democracy, gives power to hypocritical elites; central banks regulate money-creation for the benefit of governments and investors.

To restrain rampant war, economic growth and poverty, environmental destruction and armament proliferation, we need the introduction of some proper democracy and a modern system of money-creation which does not hand money direct to the destroyers of our world.
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on 6 August 2012
An interesting book that did make me think about some of my preconceptions. But ultimately he buys too much into the "Spirit Level"
critique that equality is a good in its own right, and there is too much hindsight about the mistakes of pre-2008. Not enough really new thought and ideas.
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