[Marxism] Rebirth of the British ruling class

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Apr 6 08:19:12 MDT 2006


CONSTABLE & ROBINSON £12.99 (274pp) £11.99 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897
Britain's Power Elites: The rebirth of the ruling class By Hywel Williams
Lives of the rich and infamous
By John Campbell
Published: 31 March 2006

It is beginning to feel as if the Sixties never happened. With well-heeled 
public schoolboys back in control of the Tory party, Private Eye finds 
itself back where it started 40 years ago, lampooning the grouse-moor 
lifestyle of Alec Douglas-Home. A columnist suggested that Hugh Grant has 
paved the way for David Cameron by making toffs cuddly again; and suddenly 
they seem to be everywhere, from politics and business to TV and the arts, 
effortlessly reasserting their old dominance. Behind the casual informality 
that is now obligatory, the assumption of increasing classlessness has been 
decisively reversed.

It all began with Mrs Thatcher, but her quite deliberate widening of 
inequality - under the rhetoric of meritocracy - has been enthusiastically 
entrenched by New Labour's fawning subservience to the interests of the 
super-rich. We can all sense what is going on; there are the faint 
beginnings of a backlash. But we need an authoritative study which clearly 
lays bare the renewed concentration of power and wealth that has occurred 
over the last 25 years. Unfortunately, this book is not it.

Hywel Williams's model is the "heroic" American sociologist C Wright Mills, 
whose The Power Elite (1956) was a groundbreaking analysis of the 
stranglehold of corporate money in US politics. His first chapter is a 
solid introduction to the idea of a governing elite, taking in Plato, 
Calvin, postwar British mandarins and the French enarques. But then he 
slides into a scattergun polemic which is more angry than informative. 
Lengthy footnotes - one seventh of the book - suggest a great weight of 
erudition in reserve, but it is not deployed to make a coherent case.

Williams's central claim is that the political and professional elites 
which have always sought to perpetuate their own influence behind a façade 
of democratic accountability have been usurped by a new financial elite, 
whose power "is no longer seen as the remarkable and novel thing it truly 
is". He cannot make up his mind whether there ever was a golden age. 
Sometimes he suggests the vaunted integrity and pluralism of British 
democracy was always a myth cultivated by the elite. But, generally, his 
purpose is to assert that there has recently taken place an unprecedented 
"power grab" which "now separates Britain from any period in her history".

He is describing something real and important. The ever-widening gap 
between the huge salaries and even grosser bonuses creamed off by the new 
class of consultants, accountants and hedge-fund managers on one hand, and 
ordinary people doing useful jobs on the other, is not only obscene in 
itself. It has also corrupted the political process - as recent revelations 
have shown.

The cosy relationships between ministers and a succession of dodgy 
financiers reflect a political culture which has sold out to business, most 
wickedly in the ongoing scandal of PFI deals by which the public is 
systematically ripped off. Even party conferences are now sponsored by 
companies in pursuit of contracts. The new post-Thatcherite consensus 
politics has reverted to an 18th-century struggle for patronage and place.

The trouble is that Williams never attempts to establish who his elite, or 
elites, are. The word recurs as a catch-all smear on anyone with power. But 
there are always elites: the important thing is whether they are open or 
closed, permeable or self-perpetuating. Inequality alone is not the same as 
an elite, so long as there is social mobility.

Williams does assert that "social mobility is now lower in Britain than... 
in any other advanced country with the exception of the USA," and cites 
figures to prove it. But this aspect needs much more attention to make his 
case. To say that business and international finance have acquired too much 
power is one thing; to allege that this power is wielded by a new elite - 
though it may be true - is quite another. C Wright Mills would have called 
for more investigation and less rant.

John Campbell's 'If Love Were All: The Story of Frances Stevenson and David 
Lloyd George' will be published by Cape in June



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