on 18 February 2005
Anthony Sampson died just after updating "Who Runs This Place" to the end of 2004. The book itself is an update of his 1962 "Anatomy Of Britain".
Sampson's goal was ambitious - to draw a map of the institutions that really mattered in Britain and trace the threads of influence and power that flowed between them, and to try to understand how things really got done. As an analysis of parliament, the political machine, the civil service, and "the Establishment", his work has rarely been bettered - Jeremy Paxman provided a sort of more anecdotal and perhaps entertaining analysis of the Establishment as it stood in the early 90s in "Friends In High Places", but Sampson's revised work is a masterpiece.
Unlike the earlier versions of the book, Sampson has several axes to grind rather conspicuously in this edition. His own politics surface occasionally - he was a founder Social Democrat, and it's clear that his own sympathies are somewhere to the Left of the Blair government. His analysis of parliament and the political parties is sobering -- he sees politics as being fundamentally in decline, with the two major parties re-invented as essentially support machines for presidential-style Prime Ministers or leaders of the opposition; politics as a career is seen as a refuge for talentless, visionless machine politicians from all ends of the spectrum, and the Liberal Democrats are seen as a regional irrelevance.
Sampson believes that the standards of Parliamentary debate are at an all-time low; that Cabinet government is in abeyance; the Lords has lost its role as a chamber that can have significant effects upon legislation; that the Civil Service is politicised and de-professionalised; and that political power is now in the hands of a Presidential-style Prime Minister and his "kitchen cabinet" of PR people and unelected advisors. It's sobering stuff.
Sampson's analysis then broadens into the quangos and agencies, the military/intelligence complex, the City and big business, academia, and the media; and finds that all of these are ever-more-closely tied to the nexus of power in Downing Street.
In a sense, the message of the first edition of this book was quite simple - a bengin, "Butskellite" consensus Establishment that drew from both moderate Labour and "one nation" Toryism ran Britain. The message of this edition is equally simple - the Prime Minister runs Britain, with little reference to party, Parliament, or people.
Sampson finds one ray of hope in the Unions. For decades castigated as bringing ruin upon British industry they're shown in this book as being more active, more relevant, more organised and more competent than both the Labour and Liberal Democrat party machines; more forward-looking in terms of social and political policy, more analytical and more vibrant.
This is a fine epitaph and a book that anyone with an interest in modern Britain needs to read. It's beautifully written, crisply understated, and closely argued.
on 1 May 2004
Anthony Sampson has been writing about 'The Establishment' - or the 'Anti-Establishment' Establishment as he might now call it - for over 40 years.
Not only is he unbelievably well-informed - that one person is able to write in such depth about no less than 24 tentacles to the governance of Britain is in itself worthy of five stars - but he is also able to make very informative comparisons going back to 1962, to demonstrate both the changes that have occurred, and the costs to democracy that have been involved.
Having first voted in the 1959 election, which returned SuperMac with a majority of over 100, it is possible to share Sampson's dismay at the decline that has taken place.
During the course of that campaign I attended meetings in Birmingham addressed by both Harold Macmillan, and a few days later, Hugh Gaitskell.
Looking back, the then lack of security now beggars belief, coupled to the fact that, today, only loyal acolytes would get into the hall.
That election was, I believe, the first in which TV played a part. As Sampson now shows, the role of TV is now all-embracing, and offers party leaders much more control of the presentation of the message.
Of particular interest is the Venn diagram - inside the front and back covers - in which Sampson shows how the various components of the Establishment relate to each other. At either end are two huge circles, on the left Media, and on the right The Rich.
The Prime Minister looms large, Parliament and Cabinet have to be searched for, and Political Parties are of even smaller significance.
All this is fleshed-out in great detail in the book's 24 chapters, and Chapter 25 - Who Runs This Place - is a detailed and perceptive summary.
Finally, and this is the cherry on the icing on the cake, the book is bang up-to-date, including much on the subject of Hutton, the implications of Blair's adventure in Iraq, and the fact that Parliamentary Committees are such poor instruments in terms of the scrutiny and accountability of the Executive.
Sampson shows that the 'separation of powers', first mooted by John Locke at the end of the 17th Century, is still not effectively built into the British Constitution.
If you read one book this year on where we are up to in 2004, go for this one.
on 9 May 2004
I came to England in 1963, a year after the first Anatomy was published. At the Royal Military Academy we were showered with the book; a slight surprise as it wasnt exactly pro Establishment stuff. But everyone had it. Everyone read it. It was clearly a revelation, even to those, unlike me, who had been born, brought up and educated here in the UK. Being the stranger to England that I was, what I read in the first Anatomy
was a tale of strange and far off things of which I knew little or nothing,of Palaces and Princes,of Archbishops and Merchant Bankers, of MP's and Lords. They were like half mythical beings, hidden in distant mists.But over the years I became involved with each of the institutions described in Anthony Sampson's wonderful book. It and its subsequent updates have been an invaluable guide to me as I navigated the strange deeps and shallows of English institutional life.
Now, this elegent, eclectic reporter has come back with what amounts to a sociological masterpiece. It is the coolest, clearest history of the last 40 years in Britain yet published, written with a masterley touch, quite unchanged from the touch Anthony Sampson showed all those years ago. He is never uncritical, but his critique is logical, rational and above all non partisan. That is its grandeour. And what a perspective. The basics defined in a bestseller over 40 years ago, and now the linking of those basic discoveries with the current status quo. Probing, amusing, but always with that touch of the scalpel that discloses the weakness behind the PR and the, well, there is only one word for it, bull***t, so common in public life nowadays.
Perhaps the books strongest recommendation is it's readibility. It is simply unputdownable. It reads like a detective tale, at least in parts, and leaves you constantly wanting to know 'who dunit'. Anthony Sampson has written himself a monument more enduring than stone. His book, this one and its predecessors, will be essential reading on our period, so long as history is a subject of interest to men and women.
on 28 June 2004
A wonderful book! With every page turned I felt that I was in the company of an expert.
Some of Anthony Sampson's newspaper articles were known to me but I had not read his original "Anatomy of Britain" published 40 years ago. This revision is a masterpiece!! Both in terms of style and content it deserves the highest praise. He takes the reader on a journey through many of Britain's institutions exploring how they and the country have changed in the intervening years. From Banks to the Military, Pension Funds to Royalty the analysis is thorough and illuminating.
Anthony Sampson depicts the British establishment as a set of intersecting circles. The 1962 version argued that, of the thirty named circles, there was "no single dominating centre". There were many spheres of influence and looming largest were industry, the civil service and insurance. In the new 2004 version there are only 17 circles! Here the media, the rich and the Prime Minister dominate everything else. The church is nowhere to be seen but, in various guises, big business is everywhere.
In answering the question, "Who runs this place?" it appears that a new elite of money makers is at the top of the tree. Parliament and the cabinet trail well behind. A small group of corporate movers and shakers go from boardroom to boardroom running all of the big corporations and the question looms large, who are they accountable to? The answer appears to be nobody in particular, certainly not to their share holders!
Blair tramples his way through institutions and bounces into wars of his own making and government is left to like it or lump it! He changes everything but has little idea of of what happens next as we see with the House of Lords.
Sampson argues that "Many reforms were reversed over the decades. Whitehall departments were merged and unmerged, the Treasury split up and then reunited. Hospitals and schools were centralised, decentralised and recentralised. Counties like Flintshire and Rutland were abolished and reinstated. The steel industry was privatised, renationalised, reprivatised. Railways were denationalised and then effectively renationalised. The Royal Mail was turned into Consignia, and then back to the Royal Mail."
Is it any wonder that talk of change or Blair's constant jabbering about reform and modernisation falls on unwilling ears. The men and women who are lumbered with trying to make his half-baked schemes work are sick of change and targets and league tables, and nobody listens to them.
There is so much to enjoy, think about and worry about in this book. The very last paragraph of the book says it all,
"The abuses of power, whether in Whitehall or in corporate boardrooms, have become more exposed in the last few years, through the persistence of campaigning groups and courageous journalists who have resisted commercial and political pressures towards conformity. But the media can be effective only if they are connected up to the political process, for it is only parliament and the electoral system that can represent the real interests of ordinary people against the bastions of privilege, and call the ruling powers to account."
Buy this book! You will not be disappointed.
on 26 July 2005
This book is exactly what it states in the title, an anatomy of Britain. The author takes the reader through the core rungs in the establishment ladder by chapter, moving from politics and Tony Blair's government, through the monarchy, the military, banking, legal and corporate worlds going into enough detail in each chapter to leave the reader with a good understanding while never being bored.
Sampson's overall conclusions are quite scary; first that the power in the UK has become much more centralised than in the post-war decades and rests largely at Number 10, second that money plays a much more important a role in the establishment than in previous years with many of the brightest young minds being drawn into the corporate, banking, legal or accountancy professions rather than choosing politics, the civil service, trade unionism or academia.
Anyone with any interest in this country should read this book.
on 12 January 2014
The book is well-structured. The inside flaps show a venn diagram of the candidate groups in British society that could run the place; each group is represented with one chapter that is a line through each overlapping set in the diagram with the culminating 25th chapter to present the answer.
It provides a very good overview of the history of Britain in terms of politics and the influences on politics. Albeit, mostly from a liberal democrat's point of view.
At times the author goes into rant mode where the history around a group is shown from one particular angle with endless examples enumerated. Especially the rants around foreigners, which include Scots, taking over ruling power are quite disconcerting. It seems the author prefers Britain to be ran by English only. The ranting style of writing may put readers off as it becomes quite weary at times.
The ultimate answer in chapter 25 does not strike as particularly insightful, but distilling a clear answer from the many influencing powers may prove impossible. The strength of this book is in the well-sited overview and cross-correlation of events and their accompanying facts.
The politicians blame Europe, business blames the politicians, the newspapers blame trade unionists and, of course, immigrants, the conspiracy theorists blame the spooks and the spooks blame the trade unions- everyone claims its someone else running the show, and ITS ALL THEIR FAULT.
Sampson has been mapping the concentric circles of opinion, influence and decision making in the United Kingdom for forty years. His Anatomy of Britain serves as a frozen picture of the ebbs and flows of power in the UK. He looks in depth as the changing relationship between Parliament, the civil service and the government, the role of the parties, business and the defence industry, opinion formers and power brokers.
Anyone wanting to understand where to look to see who is pulling the strings and whos strings are being pulled should start here.
The late Anthony Sampson has attempted to provide an incisive slice through British institutions, hunting for where the power elite reside and make the decisions that effect all of our lives. Tracking this "will o' the wisp" of power leads Sampson to dissect political parties, treasury, Whitehall, secret services, the mainstream mass media, bankers and others. Covering such a wide range of topics in under 400 pages, the result is most certainly lacking in depth but Sampson's writing style is crisp and understated and he has conducted many first-hand interviews.
Written in 2004 (or rather, updated from his 1960s edition), Who Runs This Place? inevitably revolves back towards the most significant way in which a state can exercise its' ultimate power - the ability to wage war - and in this particular case, the illegal war against Iraq. Perhaps if Sampson were alive today, a revised version of the book might take more time to look at the financial power structures. Some may find this frequent reversion to the state's war powers and its' links with the mass media obtrusive (Hutton et cetera) but for this reviewer, the power to send the population off to fight and die, cannot be overstated and should not be glossed over.
Sampson's book also gives us a snapshot of who runs the various institutions and what their backgrounds are. Unsurprisingly, we do not find that Britain is a meritocracy; Oxbridge alumni are an Establishment fixture in many key areas, though Sampson does acknowledge that many at the top of Britain's industries were not born in this country.
As a whole, Who Runs This Place? is a book that has more breadth than depth, one that provides a snapshot, not a portrait of the power elite as they were in 2004. Anthony Sampson has an agreeable writing style that keeps the book alive with choice quotes and well-chosen historical details, though perhaps overall a book more for the general reader than the socio-political student.
on 31 May 2008
"Disappointing" is how I would describe this book. "Who runs this place?" reads like a synopsis of the Hutton Report, one of the inumerable royal enquiries which are of such interest to journalists at the time of publication but which are soon forgotten. Over half the book is devoted to the election of New Labour and the run-up to the Iraq War, and therefore the analysis is already dated. There is much more to the institutions which Sampson discusses. After all the State and large businesses impact day-to-day life in Britain in ways more immediate and farther reaching than the Iraq War... There is no discussion on the regulations which have become so pervasive in modern life. There is nothing on taxation and very little on housing or transport, surely the most obvious ways in which the State interacts with its subjects. At 30 pages the treatment of business - largely anecdotes about privatisation dating back to Thatcher - make evident that economics is not the author's forte. Here the "analysis" is largely a catalogue of scandals, from the collapse of Maxwell's publishing empire to pension mis-selling. Again there are no penetrating insights, no mention of how increased pay and productivity have come at the cost of diminishing job security and longer hours. What of the changing demographics in the workforce, of the arrival of big box stores, of outsourcing, and the impact of electronic media? Who benefits from these policies? Again silence. The author's indignant tone gets tiresome. A fascinating topic has not been given its due largely becaues of Sampson's political blinkers.
on 21 June 2013
So you think you know what's going on in Britain by reading your daily newspaper and watching the news ? Think on my friend, I was initially sceptical about reading yet another 'one sided political debate'. If you enjoy frightening horror stories try reading this one. And it is truly frightening.