Owen Jones has been described by Russell Brand as ‘our generation’s Orwell’. It is hard to imagine Orwell opening paragraphs with sentences like ‘Other depths were plunged’ as Jones does in a chapter in The Establishment that investigates ‘the boys in blue’. Perhaps writing style is not what Brand had in mind.
‘The Establishment’ was first used by journalist Henry Fairlie in the 50s to explain how the families of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean were protected after the two spies defected to the Soviet Union. He identified a network of social relationships that controlled the way power was exercised in Britain. These types of relationships still exist – Cameron, Brooks and a horse spring to mind – but Jones’s modern Establishment is not primarily social. It ‘includes politicians who make laws; media barons who set the terms of the debate; business and financiers who run the economy; police forces that enforce a law that is rigged in favour of the powerful.’
All of this exists within an intellectual framework provided by ‘outriders’. They include Madsen Pirie’s Adam Smith Institute which underpinned Thatcherism and Matthew Elliott’s Taxpayers Alliance which led the charge against public spending. Weaker trade unions and diminished public services inevitably followed as the ‘social democratic consensus’ of the previous Establishment was ‘reverse ratcheted’. All the parts of Jones’s Establishment are connected by common interest. Politicians enter business, journalists become political advisers, taxmen are in ideological sympathy with tax dodgers and the police hold the fort having been bought off by Thatcher’s 45% pay rise.
Jones works his way through a series of familiar stories. MP’s expenses, fawning over Murdoch, the miners’ strike and Hillsborough, Iraq, the privatisation of the NHS in England and Wales, ATOS fit for work schemes, corporate tax arrangements, the banking crisis and the ways in which the privileged draw massive state subsidies and bailouts while the media rages against ‘welfare scroungers’. It’s all in here somewhere and each part contributes to a bottom line: this is how a wealthy Establishment ‘defends itself in a democracy’.
Many of these issues have been dealt with elsewhere and with deeper understanding. For the banking crisis one might look to Ian Fraser’s evisceration of RBS in Shredded; for the Establishment’s defence of its interests against the miners, Seamus Milne’s The Enemy Within. Jones doesn’t have much time for close analysis. He moves at a furious pace, fitting all to his original thesis and pausing only when he feels the need to explain apparent anomalies. Former Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell’s confrontation with the police is awkward and needs to be worked in. Ditto UKIP’s strange melding of anti-establishment rhetoric with a leader who is an ex-commodities broker and believes in lower taxes for the rich.
Jones’s best trick is that he is able to flesh out the well-worn stories with interviews. He is as London-centric as the Establishment he describes and is forever meeting members of it in ‘noisy London pubs’, parliamentary offices, top floor businesses and so on. Nobody seems particularly alarmed by his presence. People in charge speak freely to him. This suggests one of two things: either he is seen as a member of the Establishment himself or the actual members aren’t especially worried about any revelations he might be planning.
Jones claims that the Establishment is ‘about power and mentality’ and that that excludes him, Oxford education and high media profile notwithstanding. The ‘hail fellow well met’ attitude he encounters so often may owe something to the weakness of his proposed counterinsurgency. He envisages a ‘democratic revolution’ with a series of innovations and restorations – democracy in the workplace, public ownership of utilities etc. This sounds as attractive as it is unlikely and would certainly require Ed Miliband to get elected and support it. Though Jones is a fan, any mention of Ed’s name is usually accompanied by adjectives like ‘timid’ or ‘mild’. It is hard to imagine that this instils much fear into an Establishment that is currently ‘getting away with it’.
Scots feature here only in so far as they become players in the system. Jim Murphy gets a rap on the knuckles for his criticism of Unite during the Labour candidate selection process at Falkirk and is named as one of the shadow ministers offered free advice by PricewaterhouseCoopers. Gordon Brown was initially seen as a threat to the Establishment but ‘offered little meaningful political departure from Blair’s government – continuing to push ahead with privatization, for example – and simply raised questions about what the former Chancellor even stood for.’ ‘The governments of both Blair and Brown’, adds Jones in one of his more withering assessments, ‘were instrumental in transforming Thatcherism into a permanent settlement’.
Remarkably, he makes only one mention of Scottish independence and it is near the end of the book. ‘Whatever your views on the issue of Scottish independence’, he says, ‘there is no doubt that the pro independence ‘Yes’ campaign has tapped into a profound alienation with the Establishment, promising Scotland will be free of its domination and its mantras if only it left the United Kingdom.’ Unfortunately, Scotland is still stuck with it.
[This review first appeared in the Sunday Herald]