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
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