May 8, 2015

“One rule for us, one rule for everybody else”: An excerpt from Owen Jones’s The Establishment



A couple of weeks ago, Melville House published the activist and journalist Owen Jones’s The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It. Jones’s account of power and politics is a timely and important book; that’s doubly true after last night’s UK election returns. In The Establishment, Jones interviews the politicians, business leaders, journalists, and lobbyists whose influence on decision-making is as dominant as it is invisible. Jones’s nuanced but damning critique has transformed my understanding of British politics—and, indeed, of politics generally. Below is an excerpt from The Establishment that places a hugely consequential election in crucial context.
—Mark Krotov, senior editor


Britain’s Establishment is stripped naked and, with no warning, shoved onto a stage. The audience gasps: someone familiar stands before them, but now, under the unforgiving glare of the spotlights, the character is finally exposed for who it really is. Yet, as suddenly as the figure appears, it is covered up again and taken back to where it belongs: offstage.

Or so it has seemed in each of the major crises that have rocked the pillars of power in Britain over recent years. In 2008, as the greed of an unregulated City helped to unleash an economic firestorm, the prevailing mood was summed up by a joke that went the rounds: “What do you call twelve bankers at the bottom of the ocean? A start.” In the years that followed, the powerful were beset by scandal after scandal. Although never loved, MPs became hate figures after being caught pocketing taxpayers’ money to pay for their parliamentary expenses: widescreen television sets, second homes, duck houses, moats and pornographic movies. The British police, meanwhile, were embroiled in an apparently endless series of crises, ranging from the deaths of innocent people to the stitching up of Conservative cabinet ministers, exposing a culture of conspiracy and cover-up. And then, with revelations of systematic phone-hacking by the Murdoch-owned News of the World, the power of the media became a topic of popular debate. Light began to fall on the murky connections between the political elite, media barons and the police, not least with revelations of Murdoch-run newspapers indulging officers with dinner parties, dodgy job appointments, secret meetings and bribes.

With this deluge of scandal, the whole question of who really rules, and what they are up to, has become more pressing than ever. British citizens are taught that they live in a thriving democracy, in a nation whose affairs are freely determined by the will of the people. “There is much that we in this country can be proud of,” British Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons with no little gusto in 2012. “The oldest democracy in the world; the freedom of speech; a free press; frank and healthy public debate.” We certainly enjoy hard-fought rights and freedoms that, throughout this country’s history, have been won—often with great sacrifice—at the expense of the powerful. But our democracy is a precarious thing, constantly colliding with the vested interests of those with power—those, in other words, who form the Establishment. And yet, despite this being a familiar term that is often bandied around, we don’t really know who or what “the Establishment” is, or what it looks like—which suits its members rather well.

Stare at a blank sheet of paper smeared with ink, and you might be able to detect the outlines of an image. But somebody else looking at the same piece of paper may see something very different. What we see reveals more about ourselves than it does about the smear of ink. This exercise, of course, is known as the “Rorschach test”—and the same principle applies when it comes to looking at the Establishment. You don’t have to go far to find strongly held and wildly differing opinions about what the “Establishment” is: what it represents, who constitutes it—and who is excluded from it.

Despite being the second most widely read newspaper in Britain and enjoying a powerful role in shaping political debate, the right-wing Daily Mail regularly rails against what it sees as “the Establishment.” For the former Mail columnist Melanie Phillips—a journalist who during her career underwent a startling but not uncommon metamorphosis from liberal to fiery conservative—it is the hippie youngsters of the sixties who are now in charge. “But the odd thing was that these revolutionaries never grew up,” she proclaimed in one column. “As this generation of post-war baby boomers grew older, they still clung to the infantilism of their youth. But now they have become the country’s establishment. Across the professions—the universities, police, civil service, judiciary—the people at the top came from that generation.” Meanwhile Peter Hitchens, a one-time Trotskyist revolutionary turned conservative Mail on Sunday polemicist, believes that the Establishment is a halfway house for the morally debauched. “Drug abuse, you see, isn’t just a minor fringe activity,” he wrote. “It is the secret vice of the whole British Establishment.” Imagining the great and the good hunched over kitchen tables, chopping up cocaine with credit cards, is a striking image, one as arresting as it is evidence-free. But with the Establishment proving so elusive a concept, these sorts of conspiracy theories are inevitable.

Even those who began their careers as political firebrands but who ended up in positions of real power found themselves at loggerheads with the Establishment. John Prescott was once a waiter in the Merchant Navy and a member of the radical left. In 1966 he helped organize a seamen’s strike, which was denounced by the then Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson as the work of a “tightly knit group of politically motivated men.” Thirty years later, Prescott completed his journey from left to centre when, as a key figure in Tony Blair’s New Labour project, he became the nation’s Deputy Prime Minister; after stepping down as an MP in 2010, he became a member of the House of Lords, an institution he had long campaigned to abolish. “Britain is still ruled by the elite,” he wrote in his Daily Mirror column in 2013. “Those who are born into wealth and can afford to buy into privileged networks will continue to dominate the establishment.” Prescott’s implication is that anyone from a humble background—like himself—is automatically precluded from being a member of the Establishment; that only those who were born with the odds stacked in their favour qualify for such a label. It is a perception that allows some members of the Establishment to convince themselves that they’re not part of it at all.

These various definitions of the Establishment nevertheless share one thing in common: they are always pejorative. With this in mind, you might think that few would be willing to admit to membership of such a reviled club. But some powerful figures have no qualms about doing so. On being greeted with a firm handshake by the patrician Lord Butler in his central London pied-à-terre, it was difficult for me to escape the sense that he was born to rule. When he was a student at Oxford, it was rumoured—presumably only half-jokingly—that anyone tackling him on the rugby pitches risked kicking their future career prospects into touch. Private Secretary to a succession of Prime Ministers, including Edward Heath, Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher, Butler became the country’s most senior civil servant before stepping down under Tony Blair. He has the intimidating, lightly worn self-assurance common to the powerful. As his maid busied herself in the kitchen, I asked him whether he considered himself to be part of the Establishment. He replied without blinking: “Yes.” But even as he expanded on his answer, his definition of what it meant to be in the Establishment started to blur. “Well, I mean, in that I’ve had a privileged background, which has introduced me to a lot of people, I’ve been fortunate in being in the right place at the right time. So yes, I think I am part of a group including many of whom have or have had power.”

You could boil down the prevailing views of the Establishment as follows. Right-wingers tend to see it as the national purveyor of a rampant, morally corrupting social liberalism; for the left, it is more likely to mean a network of public-school and Oxbridge boys dominating the key institutions of British political life. The “Establishment” remains an inkblot.

Here is what I understand the “Establishment” to mean.

Today’s Establishment is made up—as it has always been—of powerful groups that need to protect their position in a democracy in which almost the entire adult population has the right to vote. The Establishment represents an attempt on behalf of these groups to “manage” democracy, to make sure that it does not threaten their own interests. In this respect, it might be seen as a firewall that insulates them from the wider population. As the well-connected right-wing blogger and columnist Paul Staines puts it approvingly: “We’ve had nearly a century of universal suffrage now, and what happens is capital finds ways to protect itself from—you know—the voters.”

Back in the nineteenth century, as calls for universal suffrage gathered strength, there were fears in privileged circles that extending the vote to the poor would pose a mortal threat to their own position—that the lower rungs of society would use their new-found voice to take away power and wealth from those at the top and redistribute it throughout the electorate. “I have heard much on the subject of the working-classes in this House which, I confess, has filled me with feelings of some apprehension,” Conservative statesman Lord Salisbury told Parliament in 1866, in response to plans to extend the suffrage. Giving working-class people the vote would, he stated, tempt them to pass “laws with respect to taxation and property especially favourable to them, and therefore dangerous to all other classes.” He elaborated on his theme: “In proportion as the property is small, the danger of misusing the franchise will be great.” In other words, the poorer the citizen, the more dangerous it would be for him to have the vote. But the ruling elites were transfixed by an even greater fear—that continuing to deny the vote would result in social revolution—and by 1918 all men, and some women, had been given the franchise.

But the worries of those nineteenth-century opponents of universal suffrage were not entirely without foundation. In the decades that followed World War II, several constraints were imposed on Britain’s powerful interests, including higher taxes and the regulation of private business. This was, after all, the will of the recently enfranchised masses. But today, many of those constraints have been removed or are in the process of being dismantled—and now the Establishment is characterized by institutions and ideas that legitimize and protect the concentration of wealth and power in very few hands.

The interests of those who dominate British society are disparate; indeed, they often conflict with each other. The Establishment includes politicians who make laws; media barons who set the terms of debate; businesses and financiers who run the economy; police forces that enforce a law which is rigged in favour of the powerful. The Establishment is where these interests and worlds intersect with each other, either consciously or unconsciously. It is unified by a common mentality, which holds that those at the top deserve their power and their ever-growing fortunes, and which might be summed up by the advertising slogan of cosmetics giant L’Oréal: “Because I’m worth it.” This is the mentality that has driven politicians to pilfer expenses, businesses to avoid tax, and City bankers to demand ever greater bonuses while plunging the world into economic disaster. All of these things are facilitated—even encouraged—by laws that are geared to cracking down on the smallest of misdemeanours committed by those at the bottom of the pecking order, for example, benefit fraud. “One rule for us, one rule for everybody else” might be another way to sum up Establishment thinking.

These mentalities owe everything to the shared ideology of the modern Establishment, a set of ideas that helps it to rationalize and justify its position and behaviour. Often described as “neoliberalism,” this ideology is based around a belief in so-called “free markets”: in transferring public assets to profit-driven businesses as far as possible; in a degree of opposition—if not hostility—to a formal role for the state in the economy; in support for reducing the tax burden on private interests; and in the driving back of any form of collective organization that might challenge the status quo. This ideology is often rationalized as “freedom”—particularly “economic freedom”—and wraps itself in the language of individualism. These are beliefs that the Establishment treats as common sense, as being a fact of life, just like the weather.

Not to subscribe to these beliefs is to be outside today’s Establishment, to be dismissed by it as an eccentric at best, or even as an extremist fringe element. Members of the Establishment genuinely believe in this ideology—but it is a set of beliefs and policies that, rather conveniently, guarantees them ever-growing personal riches and power.

As well as a shared mentality, the Establishment is cemented by financial links and a “revolving door” culture: that is, powerful individuals gliding between the political, corporate and media worlds—or who manage to inhabit these various worlds at the same time. The terms of political debate are in large part dictated by a media controlled by a small number of exceptionally rich owners, while think tanks and political parties are funded by wealthy individuals and corporate interests. Many politicians are on the payroll of private businesses; along with civil servants, they end up working for companies operating in their policy areas, allowing them to profit from their public service—something which gives them a vested interest in an ideology that furthers corporate interests. The business world benefits from the politicians’ and civil servants’ contacts, an understanding of government structures and experience, allowing private firms to navigate their way to the very heart of power.

Yet there is a logical flaw at the heart of Establishment thinking. It may abhor the state—but it is completely dependent on the state to flourish. Bailed-out banks; state-funded infrastructure; the state’s protection of property; research and development; a workforce educated at great public expense; the topping up of wages too low to live on; numerous subsidies—all are examples of what could be described as a ‘socialism for the rich’ that marks today’s Establishment.

This Establishment does not receive the scrutiny it deserves. After all, it is the job of the media to shed light on the behaviour of those with power. But the British media is an integral part of the British Establishment; its owners share the same underlying assumptions and mantras. Instead, journalists and politicians alike obsessively critique and attack the behaviour of those at the bottom of society. Unemployed people and other benefit claimants; immigrants; public-sector workers—these are groups who have faced critical exposure or even outright vilification. This focus on the relatively powerless is all too convenient in deflecting anger away from those who actually wield power in British society.

The Establishment is a shape-shifter, evolving and adapting as needs must. Yet one thing that distinguishes today’s Establishment from earlier incarnations is its sense of triumphalism. The powerful once faced significant threats that kept them in check. But the opponents of our current Establishment have, apparently, ceased to exist in any meaningful, organized way. Politicians largely conform to a similar script; once-mighty trade unions are now treated as if they have no legitimate place in political or even public life; and economists and academics who reject Establishment ideology have been largely driven out of the intellectual mainstream. The end of the Cold War was spun by politicians, intellectuals and the media to signal the death of any alternative to the status quo: “the end of history,” as US political scientist Francis Fukuyama put it. All this has left the Establishment pushing at an open door. Whereas the position of the powerful was once undermined by the advent of democracy, an opposite process is now underway. The Establishment is amassing wealth and aggressively annexing power in a way that has no precedent in modern times. After all, there is nothing to stop it.

There is a predictable objection to this portrait. When we think of the Establishment of the 1950s, we generally think of upper-middle-class white men in suits, ironed kerchiefs in their breast pockets, an umbrella in one hand and a briefcase in the other. Today’s Establishment is less overtly sexist, homophobic and racist—despite a tolerance for often inflammatory anti-immigrant rhetoric which, conveniently, helps to deflect attention away from the powerful. The sacrifices made by those who struggled against bigotry have succeeded in partly overcoming what were once officially sanctioned prejudices. A large chunk of today’s Establishment is now socially liberal. Key business figures will even, say, financially support campaigns against homophobia. This represents a quantum leap from the early 1950s when, for example, the pioneering British mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing was chemically castrated because he was gay.

Nonetheless the Establishment remains chronically unrepresentative of British society, even though some parts of it have—from a very low base—become more diverse. In 1945 there were just twenty-four female MPs; currently there are 143. But while this may sound an impressive increase, it still means that nearly four out of every five parliamentarians are men. This is a worse ratio than, for example, Sudan, a country not renowned for its equality of opportunity. In 2010 the number of black and minority ethnic Members of Parliament nearly doubled—but to just twenty-seven MPs. (In order to reflect Britain’s current demographic, the number would need to be over ninety.) Meanwhile only 20.8 per cent of top company directors are women; among executive directors, the proportion is merely 6.9 per cent. Only one in sixteen top company board members is from a black or minority ethnic background, and many of those are international appointments. The higher echelons of the civil service are still dominated by men, though just over a third are now women. There are more women at the top of newspaper corporations than there used to be, though of course they remain outnumbered by men, and there are preposterously few black and minority ethnic journalists.

But the Establishment could be a diverse cross section of British society and still be a threat to democracy. There could be fewer men or white faces among those who wield unaccountable, destructive power, but that power would still remain unaccountable and destructive.

The Establishment is a system and a set of mentalities that cannot be reduced to a politician here or a media magnate there. Little can be understood simply by castigating individuals for being greedy or lacking in compassion. That is not to absolve people of personal responsibility or agency, to argue that individuals are just cogs in a machine or robots, blindly following a pre-written script. But it is to argue against any notion that Britain is ruled by “bad” people, and that if they were replaced by “good” people, then the problems facing democracy would be solved. Many Establishment figures are, in person, full of generosity and empathy for others, including for those in far less privileged circumstances than themselves. Personal decency can happily coexist with the most inimical of systems. On the other hand, other figures are selfish, determined to gain wealth and power whatever the cost to others; as journalist Jon Ronson discovered, an estimated 4 per cent of CEO s are psychopaths, a proportion around four times higher than the rest of the population. It is the behaviour that a system tends towards and encourages that needs to be understood.


Owen Jones's first book, the international bestseller Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, was long-listed for the Guardian First Book Award and chosen by Dwight Garner as one of the New York Times's top 10 non-fiction books of 2011. In 2013, he received the Young Writer of the Year prize at the Political Book Award. He is a columnist for the Guardian and a regular contributor to BBC radio and television. He is also the author of The Establishment, out now from Melville House.