By Owen Jones
Allen Lane, £16.99
There is a compelling, intelligent and challenging book to be written about the British establishment. Unfortunately, The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It is not that book. Instead of delivering on his title, Owen Jones merely explains, again, his pre-existing and well-known prejudices. It is a shame, because Jones is a powerful and talented writer who is clearly earnest in his belief that the world must change. He could – with a little more effort and a dose of intellectual curiosity – have really got under the skin of the enigmatic beast that is “the establishment”.
The connections that he has made, and the doors that are open to him as an author, commentator and Guardian columnist, could have been put to good use. Instead, he chooses to use the numerous interviews and conversations he has conducted merely as colour, peppering a long and frankly quite boring account of what we all already know he thinks.
I’m getting used to this feeling of baffled disappointment when it comes to Jones. He is developing a knack for coming up with exciting ideas for books and then failing to deliver. I bought his debut, Chavs, in optimistic anticipation. I really do believe that the British working class has been unforgivably maligned, disparaged and ignored. At last, I thought, someone with the guts to speak out about the way this country has treated its poor, white underclass: about the way we rendered them infantile by marrying them to the state and cultivating their dependency; the way we forced relentless competition upon them by importing hordes of cheaper, better-skilled workers; and the way we mocked their traditional occupations and told their children that only graduates were really worth anything in the “global race”.
Jones didn’t get angry about any of that. He spent nearly 300 pages lambasting the Daily Mail for being mean to the parents of Shannon Matthews (who, hardly saintly, had abducted their own daughter in order to garner money and attention) and bemoaning the relative lack of northern comprehensive alumni at Oxford. It was dull and it was a let down.
Here, the pattern repeats itself. From the off, it is clear that there is a hugely problematic paradox at the heart of his argument. The British establishment is, in Jones’s view, an immovable object at the heart of our society. It “manages” democracy so as to protect its own interests. It attacks and abuses anyone who challenges it, and it is zealously and aggressively “neo-liberal”. Where did this establishment – so ubiquitous, all-powerful and ruthless – come from? According to Jones, it is the product of think tanks such as the Adam Smith Institute and the Centre for Policy Studies, which, during a period of agitation and argument spanning a decade or so, produced the intellectual framework that guided Thatcher to power and told her what to do with it.
The author admits that, prior to 1979, the establishment was of a different ideological order entirely – committed to a broad consensus around social democracy, the welfare state and Britain’s membership of the EU. If Jones recognises the silliness of claiming that a couple of think tanks managed to transform the shared assumptions and prejudices of the British state (oh, and hoodwink millions of his working-class heroes into voting for the new neo-liberal order in the process), he does not acknowledge it.
The rest of his thesis depends entirely on the reader accepting his implausible premise. This makes it all the more surprising that he does not make much of an effort to justify himself against the obvious questions and critiques.
Here’s a starter for 10: if the British establishment prior to 1979 cohered around social democratic presumption and then, after 1979, morphed to reflect Thatcherism, then in what way is it an “establishment” at all? Is it not actually a reflection of the democratic choices of British people? It certainly appears to be extraordinarily adaptive considering the almost Illuminati-like powers that the author ascribes to it.
Even in his best chapter, Jones is disappointingly blinkered. Writing about the appalling corruption and abuse that has come to characterise British policing, Jones is blistering and brilliant. He is right that politicians have for far too long kowtowed to the boys in blue and let them get away with murder. His description of the grief of Hillsborough families is harrowing. They, and many others, have been let down by the political class’s cowardice in facing down the police lobby. But at no point does he find the generosity to give praise where it is clearly due to Home Secretary Theresa May, who is working furiously to tackle the very issues he correctly identifies. Why does he dismiss her hard work on stop and search, corruption and the Police Federation? Because she is a Conservative.
Undoubtedly, there is such a thing as the establishment and it certainly has a great many flaws and weaknesses. But it also has strengths. This country’s elite is extraordinarily successful and difficult to dislodge precisely because it does not cling to ideologies. Self-preservation has always trumped intellectual purity.
The British establishment married into the new, wealthy middle class during the Industrial Revolution. It pushed broader suffrage to incorporate the working class into our civic life. It embraced welfarism when British soldiers returned from foreign lands demanding more from the state they had served. And yes, in the 1980s, it went along with Maggie’s immensely popular programme for change. We don’t have revolutions in Britain because we don’t need to. Our establishment has proven itself a Zelig, able to adapt to the times and the public mood, and willing to welcome new members into its fold where necessary.
But Jones doesn’t tackle any of that, even to refute the argument, because he is fixated on a pre-conceived and inflexible narrative. He doesn’t hate the establishment. He barely mentions parts of it: the judiciary, senior civil service, academia, science, the Church of England, the military and New Labour’s favourite establishment scene, the quangocracy, are all largely absent. He hates capitalism and he hates Conservatives. That is fine. But it is not an account of the establishment and neither is it a discussion of “how they get away with it”. If you want an account of the British elite, you’re still best off digging out Anthony Sampson’s 1962 Anatomy of Britain. At least he tried.
This is not an exercise in mapping the top of our society, it is just a very long-winded way of saying: “I, Owen Jones, am a socialist” – which makes for a very boring book.
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