Friday, 24 October 2014

Britain's narrow elite


The recent controversy about Fiona Woolf's (above) appointment as the head of the UK's historical child abuse inquiry is extremely revealing about just how we're governed. For she didn't think to mention, until it was too late, that she had social links to Leon Brittan, Home Secretary when a lot of these allegations first surfaced. Many of the victims involved feel very upset indeed - as if they have been misled and cheated by an 'establishment' that little cares about what they think.

Mrs Woolf is a tough, experienced, respected lawyer who will no doubt do a good job at hearing and weighing up all the evidence. There is no suggestion of any impropriety on her part whatsoever, and indeed the witch-hunt against her is hardly the stuff of good governance in itself. But the fact that no-one even thought that her social connections to people already mentioned as linked to all those scandals might be a problem - the fact that the routine minglings and gatherings of the great and the good are seen as entirely natural and understandable in a certain kind of light - is just another good indication of how narrowly governed we are.

This idea of an 'establishment' is hardly new. Public inquiries and Royal Commissions have always been appointed from amidst the ranks of the great and the good. Lady Plowden was reputedly asked to look into the future of primary schools during the 1960s after sitting next to Education Secretary Edward Boyle at a dinner party. There are so many of these dinner parties when you're well-heeled, aren't there? It's a wonder that our governors ever manage to do any work.

Anyway, back to that 'establishment'. It's heavily interconnected, highly intermarried, starkly different from the rest of the population - and very, very small. Just a few thousand people constitute the movers and shakers of the British policy-making community across Whitehall, in management consultancy and accountancy firms, inside some big corporations, among the staffs of large banks (and their regulators) and across the law and the top 'old' professions. Many of them went to Oxford or Cambridge Universities (over a quarter of our MPs did so), and to private schools (just over a third of the same group). Many of the parties' front bench spokesmen and women studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford - a general degree in governing, perhaps, but also one delivered by a small coterie of academics in and of itself. It's a qualification that also validates quick thinking, clever briefing, rapid drafting and the speedy collation of arguments - just right for a civil servant, or a politician in a hole. But not very likely to produce original thinking. Or - just perhaps - an empathetic sense of your decisions' impact and images out beyond the groupthink of an administrative cadre the boundaries of which are just far, far too selectively drawn. We should point out that Mrs Woolf herself went took her undergraduate degree at less-glamorous Keele, but the point about her appointment and Whitehall's reaction to the subsequent criticism still holds.

Now this is not an organised group in any real sense of the word, still less an ordered conspiracy that owes its power to the (undoubtedly powerful) naked greed of the City of London or such clapped-out ex-constitutional powerhouses as monarchy or aristocracy. Owen Jones' recent (and much argued-over) book, The Establishment, probably overplays that part of its influence and its meaning. It's not a system that's keeping a single party in power. Far from it. Both the Conservatives and Labour are to some extent tight-knit groupings of clans - networks of friendship and connection - rather than the like-minded: for every Conservative who went to Eton, there are many, many Labour officials who met each other at Oxford. One can't move among the memoirs of New Labour's days in power (spin doctor Damian McBride's fascinating Power Trip, for instance) without reading 'so and did their degree with this person', or 'this staffer went to this college with this civil servant'. The like-minded will always flock together. And in some ways such people represent where Britain is going - socially liberal, well-travelled, relaxed about cultural transfer and migration, confident, IT savvy and able to keep what Peter Hennessy has termed the 'hidden wiring' of the UK constitution on the road. To mix our metaphors.

But this is also a self-reinforcing, self-referential, overlapping set of over-confident, over-propertied cliques that has now become dangerously distant from great big tracts of what one might call 'real', gritty, workaday Britain - the east coast towns where the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) are enjoying such success, among those young, educated urban workers struggling for make ends meet to whom the Greens are currently appealing, or with those ex-Labour voters in the central belt of Scotland who feel that no party has done them any favours for decades. Wages have now pretty much fallen every single year since the beginning of the financial crisis. The intermarried and the intereducated might be acceptable as your leaders in the good times. But what if incomes continue to decline for another two years? Five? Ten? The anger of the average voter will go on mounting.

That's why charlatans such as the Scottish independence campaigner Tommy Sheridan, the Respect MP George Galloway and even the entertainer-turned-moral-philosopher Russell Brand can attract support. It's why the Scottish National Party and UKIP are enjoying such success.

Because what they can both witheringly call 'Westminster' now represents more of a governing outlook and a set of shared prejudices, than a site of contestation across class and ideological lines. The three biggest parties are now more gathering points of graduate governors than they are vehicles for the expression of class, geographical or ideological views. Yes, they live in the policy-making world of marginal and hard choices (unlike Brand or UKIP), but also have more in common with each other than they do with the people that they are supposed to govern.

And that's a real problem.

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