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Fluently written, informative, but wrongly argued
on 11 September 2010
In The Triumph of the Political Classes, Peter Oborne makes a common error. He correctly diagnoses an important problem (that is, the worrisome state of politics in this country), and draws entirely the wrong conclusions from it (claiming that it is all the fault of New Labour). Oborne fluently outlines many of the problems facing our political sphere: the revolving door between politics and big business, venality and corruption (as in the recent expenses scandal), the bypassing of correct parliamentary procedure, the courting of the media and so on. No-one can disagree with much of this.
However, Oborne's argument is a sweeping one. He claims that from the Victorian reforms in the late 19th century, up until 1997, everything was fine. We had a grand old public-spirited Establishment who fought for King and Country, kept a stiff upper lip, and looked down on 'new money.' Unfortunately, a nasty cabal of greedy little upstarts took over in 1997, ripping up this splendid state of affairs. The more alert reader can't help but be suspicious here. Oborne does make clear that the Political Class (as he terms it) is a cross-party affair, and indeed, when one looks today at Nick Clegg, David Cameron and Tony Blair, it's obvious that one couldn't put a cigarette paper between them, and that many New Labour figures such as Peter Mandelson and Stephen Byers, would have been quite happy on the opposite benches of the House of Commons. Labour has moved to the right, and so have the Lib Dems, so that our country is now governed by a cross-party, centre-right consensus.
I don't doubt Oborne's sincerity, but one wonders why he is so cross with a system which largely coincides with his political leanings. Certainly this cross-party consensus is troublesome; New Labour's unpopularity largely derived from the Iraq war, deregulating the City of London, PFI schemes, and fuelling a property boom. However, all of these policies were supported by the Conservative opposition, who are now (with the helping hand of the Lib Dems) in power. But despite the cross-party nature of the Political Class, Oborne is never slow in pointing the finger at New Labour, who he clearly believes are wholly responsible for our current malaise. Clearly New Labour must take some of the blame, but in my view, they are part of a much wider, deeper problem which Oborne doesn't pursue. Largely, the problem is that Oborne conceives of the 'political class' as an autonomous entity. In contrast, it is becoming more and more apparent that politics has been colonised by big business and high finance. Oborne never really touches on this, since he assumes that the private sector has higher ethical standards than those in politics. Given the recent financial crisis, I find this hard to believe.
There are many other criticisms that one could make: Oborne's chapter on the monarchy is particularly unconvincing. I don't think that it's terribly important that Cherie Blair asked Princess Margaret to call her by her first name, nor should it be considered shocking that the Labour party weren't fervent monarchists. He also throws mud at Charles Clarke and David Blunkett, ascribing their irresponsible courting of the tabloid media to the fact that they were once student Marxists, 'dedicated to the overthrow of the democratic British state (!)' (p.165). Undermining his tirade against New labour mendacity, Oborne occasionally mentions in passing that Margaret Thatcher wasn't terribly public spirited, that she disliked the civil service too, and that she manipulated the media. But such remarks are given short shrift.
Overall, the book is informative and well-written: I was particularly interested by the issue of Elizabeth Firkin, who was hounded from her job for her investigation into MPs expenses in the early 2000s (she trod on the toes of certain cabinet ministers). But this can't compensate for the wrong-headedness of the argument. I would recommend it to anyone interested in current affairs, but more informed readers are likely to take Oborne's claims with a pinch of salt.