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Reviews

The Establishment: And how they get away with it

Paul Bickley

Owen Jones
Allen Lane, 368pp

I have three young sons. Like all parents, we've spent a lot of time encouraging them to take a view of the world which is moral at root. But like all parents, I'm sure, I find myself trying to complicate that moral view at the same time as affirming it. Yes - there really are right and wrong ways to relate to the world and to those around you. No - it's rarely as simple as goodies and baddies. I've found, though, that they tend to drift when I start quoting Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Owen Jones' book on the Establishment has a similar view of politics. There are goodies and there are baddies, people who are right and people who are wrong. On one side are the people, the workers and the poor and ethnic minorities. On the other side are the powerful, the wealthy, the bosses, the bankers, media barons, the police, and anyone who is sold on neo-liberalism. These groups' interests are inimically imposed, and politics is destined to be the eternal contest of one against the other. Right now, the Establishment is winning, and Jones sets out to illustrate how and why.

The term 'Establishment', now thoroughly part of the political lexicon, was popularised by Henry Fairlie, a Spectator journalist. He used it to describe the social network which circled wagons round the families of Soviet spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean. The word names a social, political and economic elite who use their positions to scratch each other's backs.

Jones, though, is using the term in a slightly different sense. He is indeed talking about "powerful groups that need to protect their position in a democracy" but what organises them is not social connection but adherence to the ideology of the free market. Early on, though, it's clear that the idea of the Establishment does almost no analytical heavy lifting for Jones. It's a sweeping normative category primarily describing those that have a neo-liberal view of the world, also collecting in anything else that he - thought often with good reason - takes issue with.

To Jones' credit, he acknowledges that 'the Establishment' can mean almost anything to almost anyone - recall Michael Gove's educational 'blob'? To his discredit, he pushes on anyway. At some point, what is merely useless becomes dead weight that has to be carried along in spite of the evidence. One of the book's strong points is that Jones has interviewed a broad cast of characters, many firmly part of what he thinks is the Establishment - from Paul Staines, to Mark Littlewood of the IEA, to Tim Bell, to Douglas Carswell. More often than not, he reports only a few words of what must have been much more comprehensive conversations. Author's prerogative, you might say, though I have an uneasy feeling that there might have been material which didn't confirm his thesis. He certainly interviews 'outriders', as he calls them, of the neo-liberal Establishment who share not a little of his own political analysis. This should have given him pause for thought - can the world really be so easily broken down into goodies and baddies? - but it didn't.

Religion - even that of the established church - isn't really in Jones' sights. He briefly alludes to Theos research which, he claims, shows that the majority of church goers are disproportionately Conservative supporters (it didn't, actually) - and the Church owns vast swathes of real estate and sit in the House of Lords (just like Iran, you know), and runs loads of schools. The Church of England has been 'a scourge' of the Establishment, but the fact that people pay them so much attention shows that it has influence. It doesn't scan easily onto his thesis, so he doesn't bother trying.

In fact Jones is at his most interesting where he works the concept of the Establishment the least. His chapters, for instance, where he illustrates just how dependent the 'free market' is on active state, not least in its recent support of the banking system on the verge of extreme crisis, are his strongest. He's rightly complicating the simplistic binaries of political discourse, but then he's insufficiently reflective about the corresponding ironies in his own political positions. He wants the state to be big in many ways, but smaller in others (less authoritarian). He wants to be in the European Union, but also thinks it's a source of Establishment thinking and legislation. He gleefully points to polling on public support for nationalisation, but thinks they've been hoodwinked when it comes to their views on immigration and the welfare state, or their habit of buying cheap goods from tax-avoiding, worker-rights abusing companies like Amazon.

Jones is right about a lot - the inherent contradiction, for example, is assuming the market will automatically secure public goods. Right too that large parts of the 'mee-ja' have gleefully presented poverty as a lifestyle choice, legitimating any attack made in the name of 'fairness' (this in the week that a more 'cuddly' chancellor promised to squeeze £3 billion more out of working age benefits). How do they get away with it?

There are many Christians who would be in sympathy, but for both the price of opposition is a coherent alternative. What Jones gives us, for the main part, is bromides. We need a democratic revolution. Social media provides 'fresh opportunities'. We should look to the example of UK Uncut, and so on.

After many a pleasing fulmination, the failure of this book is its lack of an alternative vision of politics to the one which prevails now. Instead of looking for solutions to urgent problems he rightly identifies, he's looking for candidates to play the baddy.