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Powerful Brits . . . if there are any now

28 November 2014

Stephen Fay on two current views of who is the Establishment


Shocked and shocking: Owen Jones, seen here addressing the crowd at the TUC's Hard Up Festival in Victoria Square, Birmingham, in September

Shocked and shocking: Owen Jones, seen here addressing the crowd at the TUC's Hard Up Festival in Victoria Square, Birmingham, in September

The Establishment: And how they get away with it
Owen Jones
Allen Lane, £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30 (Use code CT292 )

Establishment and Meritocracy
Peter Hennessy
Haus Curiosities £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20 (Use code CT292 )

OWEN JONES is in no doubt that everything that is wrong with this country is because of the malign influence of the British Establishment. Peter Hennessy, who confesses that he has all the qualifications for membership of it himself, sees it as "kaleidoscopic, meritocratic, fluid phenomenon" of the great and good, exercising "soft power". He accepts it as a part of the British way of life. For Jones, it is a conspiracy that requires exposure.

Jones is an interesting new voice in the commentariat; after the succès d'estime of his first book, Chavs, he now has a column in The Guardian and is the voice of the alienated left on Newsnight. He is a feisty and uncompromising young man, focusing on what he describes as a "new establishment". He argues that it has its origins in right-wing think tanks that became a driving force in Margaret Thatcher's administration.

That makes the Establishment responsible for laying waste to the trade unions as organisers of working-class solidarity, and encouraging City bankers and entrepreneurs to get rich quick. This latest version, he says, is far more ideological than the ruling elites that formed earlier versions. (It apparently has no room for the Church of England's bishops, who graced the old one.)

Jones is on the side of Occupy, the Greens, and even Scotland's "Yes" campaign, which have tapped into a profound alienation with the Establishment.

Jones is at his best when contrasting examples of neo-liberalism at work, comparing ungenerous application of harsh rules to welfare recipients with the tolerance of capitalist excess and corruption in the City of London. He is shocked and shocking on the consequences of the Conservatives' determination to shrink the state by outsourcing to companies such as ASOS, A4E and G4S, which proved to be rotten apples in the barrel; and costly, too.

Like Russell Brand, Jones encourages the idea of a "democratic revolution". (Brand describes Jones as "our generation's Orwell", which suggests he has read neither Orwell nor Jones.) Jones's prospectus is far removed from Brand's mystical nonsense. It is, in fact, not much different from that of Tony Benn in the 1970s: public ownership, capital controls, higher taxes, trade-union freedom.

His problem is that the working class has so far proved deeply reluctant to rise up en masse and vote for this agenda. Jones admits that the conversion will take time, and counsels patience.

The urbane Hennessy is much stronger on the media than is Jones, who falls for the left-wing chestnut that owners of the media exploit it to meet their personal objectives. Unlike Jones, Hennessy does not underestimate the part played by the BBC in preserving the status quo. He argues more realistically that political editors in the press and on TV wield more real power than their proprietors.

Hennessy ends his lively and brief excursion with an intriguing provocation. He quotes Rory Stewart MP: "The secret of modern Britain is that there is no power anywhere." Hennessy observes that, if there is no power, there can be no Establishment.

Stephen Fay is a former member of the editorial staff of The Sunday Times.

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