‘Britain’s New Power Elites’, Hywel Williams (Constable, £12.99)
by Mark Simpson (Independent on Sunday, 14 May 2006)
‘Among the most significant achievements of the modern British elite,” argues Hywel Williams, limbering up in the early pages of his polemic against Britain’s rulers in the form of an incompetent executive class, a meaningless political class and a degraded professional class, “is the promulgation of the essentially ideological idea that Britain is an anti-ideological place. Criticism of its fundamental features can therefore be dismissed as the ravings of the marginalised – those whose temperaments fail to show the kind of finesse required in order to understand Britain and the British – and who need not therefore be admitted into the contest and the debate.”
Mr Williams, I hope, will take it as a compliment that I found his temperament singularly failing in finesse. I don’t know whether the author of the classic text of the 1990s implosion of Toryism, Guilty Men: Conservative Decline and Fall, 1992-1997, world historian, and contributor to the Guardian’s Op-Ed pages is a marginal figure or not, but I certainly enjoyed his ravings.
Less of a book than a steel-toe-capped kicking of the great and the good, Britain’s Power Elites is an invigorating volume of spleen and informed invective of the kind that is in short supply in this enervated, “ironic” age. A donnish punk, Williams argues that the problem with our contemporary political culture, the biggest symptom of its deathly monopolisation by careerists, capitalists and creeps, is precisely its deadening politeness. The fact that Williams is so learned only makes his aphoristic assault all the more enjoyable.
“… a good profession for people who are mentally agile, intellectually incurious and physically robust. The political elites’ conformist agreement that it is the drama of personal jealousy which explains the very foundation of politics is a conventional judgment which suits all those personal traits.”
On lobby correspondents:
“Worker bees, if fed on royal jelly, may become queen bees, and so the point of this journalistic class is not so much to expose as to honour the greater power it observes and tries to decipher.”
“The perverse, but almost universally accepted, practice within elite banking circles sanctifies the position of those who are in power while also protecting them from those market shocks that they are otherwise so eager to elevate as the justification for capitalism.”
Even when his malicious metaphors over-reach themselves it’s still enjoyable, in a scatological fashion:
“If Churchill finally made it to No 10 at 65, then there’s always hope for the rest who, all greased-up, can slide their way up and down the back-passages of elite ambition while waiting for recognition to wind its way towards them.”
Maybe it’s his refusal to hide his braininess and reading, maybe it’s his chippiness, but I suspect that Williams is one of that dying breed, a grammar-school boy: “The dominant tone of the new legal elite is that of a clever philistinism,” he complains, “which is not that different from the dominant tone of British broadcasting.”
He contrasts previous generations of grammar-school elites such as Roy Jenkins, Harold Wilson, Denis Healey, and Edward Heath who openly displayed their intellectual prowess, their meritocratic certainty, with modern power elites “who have to play the game of ostentatious anti-elitism in order to maintain, covertly, their elite power”. Discretion, like talking about democracy all the time (“press your red buttons now!”) but making sure that it never happens, is a very British way of doing business.
Williams is particularly scathing about the egghead collaborators:
“What typifies the British intellectual class… is its successful absorption within the power elites to a point at which its thoughts and stances are reified and appear to be simply the neutral observation of questions of fact.”
Conservative intellectuals come in for a special drubbing:
“All have failed to observe, or chosen not to see, how powerful is the thrust of monopoly in capital’s command of the world, and how the urge to create larger and larger units is the true lifeblood of its existence and its motive for being.”
Well, of course. That would be the ultimately ideological and therefore ultimately un-British impoliteness. Dear boy, it would be practically Marxist!
Although he hardly mentions the German curmudgeon, Williams’ central thesis is rather Marxoid. He identifies the problem with our eviscerated political and professional culture as being caused by the total dominance of international finance capital in the form of The City. Capital has swallowed everything, but, he argues, this is hardly acknowledged. In the 1980s, the money men conducted a quiet and stunningly successful coup d’etat, moving smartly into the power vacuum created by the collapse of ideological politics and faith in the State. This revolution was so successful that most aren’t aware of it; those that are, the political, professional and legal elites, are largely at their beck and call – and in their pay. The financial elites are out of control and in control.
There are no other elites to stand in their way because all other institutions are now effectively their servants. The old political elites are “front of house” flunkeys, while the money men themselves, with their “offshore” interests and allegiances, get on with the global business of making billions.
It’s why an actor and failed rock star is our Prime Minister. It’s why the first thing the first Labour Chancellor in 18 years did was abandon his main economic lever, the setting of interest rates, to the Bank of England, when he started work in 1997. It’s also why Labour ministers marry dodgy international financiers; after all, this is no more nor less than what New Labour has done.
This, above all, is the reason for the stultification of British politics which so enrages Williams. It is polite, mediocre and tedious because it doesn’t matter. “Britain has allowed its power elites to effect a transformation which amounts to the degradation of an entire country,” he explains; a statement that should shock people into recognition, but which will probably be interpreted merely as proof of his shocking faux pas.