Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The Establishment

In the 1940s, George Orwell described Britain as ‘a family with the wrong members in control’. In the decades that followed, while the clan’s gnarled old patriarchs may have still spent more of the time with their hands on the family purse, those ambitious great-grandchildren could no longer claim to be entirely cut off from the levers of power. But far too many aspects of the family remain unchanged.

It still has rich relations that have to be kowtowed to and poor relations that are horribly sat upon, and there is still a conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income. Owen Jones’ difficult second album is an attempt to find out why that happened.

It is a whodunnit, albeit one where the identity of the culprit is never in question. It is all the fault of the titular ‘establishment’, a villainous coalition of fatcats, neoliberal politicians and media barons, who, through a variety of nefarious means, have rigged the family’s affairs so that, whoever is in charge, they come out on top. There was nothing wrong with the economic settlement in 1979 – it was wrecked by the right.

There is a problem here: has the left not done a fair old bit of rigging the system itself? Jones quotes the one-liner by libertarian blogger Paul Staines – aka Guido Fawkes – about capital finding ways to ‘protect itself from, y’know, the voters’. Labour – upper and lower case ‘L’ alike – has done a fair old bit of that, too. During the party’s last stint in office alone, it spent rather more on welfare at home and foreign aid abroad than most people would have liked, took Britain into the social chapter, and oversaw a booming level of immigration. Thank God, say I. But, nevertheless, it is difficult not to accept that there was not, on the part of the left as much as the right, an attempt to game the family’s arrangements so that even during a prolonged period of dominance by the tribe’s elders, the upstart youngsters could still have things their own way.

That is the problem that comes to undermine the whole of the book. I am perfectly willing to accept the existence of a rightwing establishment comprising, say, the TaxPayers’ Alliance, the Conservative party, Associated Newspapers and the Adam Smith Institute. What stretches credibility is the idea that, say, the New Economics Foundation, the Guardian Media Group, the Labour party, Oxfam and the Trades Union Congress do not form a rival establishment in themselves. (That holds even if you do as Jones does, and throw out a large number of parts of the left, including IPPR and Prospect magazine, on the grounds that they are insufficiently transformational.) Once you accept that, of course, Jones’ thesis – that our present discontents can be pinned solely on the left’s enemies – begins to look a little shaky. Not everything wrong with Britain today can be put down to the schemes of the right or the dangerous flexibility of the moderate left. Jones refuses to accept this, and, as a result, the central question – of where the left should go next – remains unresolved.


Stephen Bush is a contributing editor to Progress


The Establishment

Owen Jones

Allen Lane | 368pp | £16.99

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Stephen Bush

is a contributing editor to Progress, formerly wrote a weekly column for Progress, the Tuesday review, and tweets @stephenkb


  • The self-elected Establishment know who they are. They are thankful to be ‘shot’ of Hong Kong, 1st October/today especially. The Establishment are also thanking their lucky stars not to be the PRC People’s Person on sociology issues in Beijing today. And what does our other pillar of the Establishment the deputy UK PM, senhor Clegg, do? … orders His Excellency the PRC Chinese Ambassador for Tea and Tiffin and lectures him on social etiquette? All that hard work patching up UK-Sino-GB relations over the last 17years -post 1997 “Adieu Kong Kong”- goes down the drain in one afternoon after Clegg’s post colonial hand-slap — that goes down really well with communist party in China -not! Cleggie should know by now he needs Daddies permission to smack an Ambassador publicly in the chops – especially one from PRC who are ‘big’ on face-saving and honour and who have long [very long] memories. What a bunch of idiots these establishment Bozos and buffoons are. Its mortifying to think how many jobs have been lost by this last bit of brainless top establishment misadventure. Or is it part of the “Grand Plan” for the Peasants
    as in Divide and Rule?

  • Owen Jones is a good thing and anyone watching him debate with establishment figures (BBC and C4 presenters) recognise that this person will go places. The establishment he is referring too is not the ordinary member of the Tax Payers Alliance, who are mere cannon fodder for the people who benefit from their ability to manipulate tax and so avoid most of it. The “villainous coalition of fatcats, neoliberal politicians and media barons” have been getting away with it for far too long and Cameron and Osborne are their cheerleaders. It is time to roll out the tumbrels and start taxing these people at rates they are seen to pay. I suggest that all tax allowances are limited to the first 33% of taxable pay or £150,000, whichever is the lower figure. All MP’s and Members of the House of Lords, all Directors of FTSE and Top 250 Companies and anyone earning over £150,000 be required to publish their tax returns on a Government Website. All registered tax advisers (mainly chartered accountants) be prohibited from advising members of the public on tax avoidance schemes, etc. etc. I know it will take forever to get these people to recognise their obligations to the country that nurtures them, but we have to start somewhere.

  • “Jones refuses to accept this, and, as a result, the central question – of where the left should go next – remains unresolved.” The aim of a book is up to the author. Write your own if you ant to address this issue. Sheesh

  • The Tax Payer Alliance has “ordinary members”? Keep that quiet – they might have them shot.

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