The Establishment

Book notes for "The Establishment", And how they get away with it by Owen Jones


Benefit fraud - costing an annual £1.2 billion, or 0.7 per cent of
social security spending - is treated as a despicable crime, while tax
avoidance - worth an estimated £25 billion a year - is even facilitated
by the state, with accountancy firms that promote such tax avoidance
seconded to government to draw up tax laws. loc 129

Here, it's worth reiterating that the book is an explicit rejection of
the idea that the Establishment represents a conscious, organized
conspiracy. Sure, there are undoubtedly specific conspiracies, from
police cover-ups to tax avoidance on an industrial scale. Yet the whole
premise of the book is that the Establishment is bound by shared
economic interests and common mentalities. There is no need for any
overarching planned conspiracy against democracy. loc 166

As far as changing both system and behaviour are concerned, some
right-wing and liberal critics have suggested that actually my solutions
are pretty timid. This, I have to say, is the point. In the book, I
express my deep attraction to the idea of the 'Overton Window', a
concept invented by US conservatives to describe what is deemed
politically possible at any given time. This 'window' is relentlessly
policed.So, when Labour's Ed Miliband proposes a temporary energy price
freeze - a welcome, albeit pretty unremarkable, policy - it is portrayed
by media and right-wing politicians as crypto-Marxism, even though most
voters support a far more radical option: renationalizing the energy
industry lock, stock and barrel. But policing the 'window' helps ensure
that neo-liberal ideas generally favoured by the Establishment are
deemed moderate and commonsense; anything that even slightly deviates is
written off as beyond the pale. loc 181

In some areas Labour has, it is true, made some tentative steps away
from Establishment sensibilities. It proposes to restore the top rate of
tax to 50 per cent, which the Conservative-led government has reduced to
45 per cent, and to introduce a 'mansion tax' on properties worth more
than £2 million. (It is worth bearing in mind that the top rate of tax
was 60 per cent for most of Thatcher's time in office, demonstrating how
far the Overton Window has shifted.) loc 226

You could boil down the prevailing views of the Establishment as
follows. Right-wingers tend to see it as the national purveyor of a
rampant, morally corrupting social liberalism; for the left, it is more
likely to mean a network of public-school and Oxbridge boys dominating
the key institutions of British political life. The 'Establishment'
remains an inkblot. loc 356

Today's Establishment is made up - as it has always been - of powerful
groups that need to protect their position in a democracy in which
almost the entire adult population has the right to vote. The
Establishment represents an attempt on behalf of these groups to
'manage' democracy, to make sure that it does not threaten their own
interests. In this respect, it might be seen as a firewall that
insulates them from the wider population. loc 359

Yet there is a logical flaw at the heart of Establishment thinking. It
may abhor the state - but it is completely dependent on the state to
flourish. Bailed-out banks; state-funded infrastructure; the state's
protection of property; research and development; a workforce educated
at great public expense; the topping up of wages too low to live on;
numerous subsidies - all are examples of what could be described as a
'socialism for the rich' that marks today's Establishment. loc 402

more than a third of English and Welsh land is owned by the aristocracy,
and over 50 per cent of rural land remains in the hands of just 36,000
landowners. loc 474

The Church's most senior official, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is
appointed by the Prime Minister on behalf of the monarch. Even though
Britain is one of the most irreligious countries on Earth, with just one
in ten attending church each week and a quarter of Britons having no
religious beliefs, the Church of England retains significant powers. It
runs one in four primary and secondary schools, while its bishops sit in
the House of Lords, making Britain the only country - other than Iran -
to have unelected clerics automatically sitting in the legislature. loc

What Miliband had proposed was in fact less radical than what most
people wanted: one YouGov poll in November 2013 showed that while
three-quarters of voters backed Miliband's proposals to give government
the powers to set gas and electricity prices, nearly seven out of ten
Britons wanted energy renationalized, which was not something the
cautious Miliband was prepared to offer. Even Tory voters advocated
state takeovers. Two-thirds of the British electorate wanted the
railways and Royal Mail back in public ownership; a plurality of voters
were in favour of government powers to set private-sector rents, and
more than a third of the population even went as far as backing state
controls on food and grocery prices.12 An earlier YouGov poll revealed
that nearly six out of ten Britons advocated a new 75 per cent tax band
for those earning £1 million or more, a position even four out of ten
Tory voters supported. loc 1385

Parties are no longer thriving political movements, full of grassroots
activists who can hold politicians to account. In the early 1950s, 3
million people were Conservative Party members; more than a million
belonged to the Labour Party. These days, Labour has fewer than 200,000
members, while Conservative membership has collapsed to as low as
130,000, with an average age of sixty-eight.19 Rather than thriving
democratic movements rooted in communities, these hollowed-out parties
are husks. loc 1467

This widespread contempt for elected politicians is surely an indictment
of the state of British democracy, but such widespread cynicism largely
expresses itself as passive resignation, like lower levels of voter
turnout - down to 65.1 per cent in 2010 from 77.6 per cent in 1992 - and
declining membership of political parties. loc 1734

Britain's political life remains under a suffocating ideological grip.
Slashing taxes on the wealthy; selling off public assets; rolling back
the state; cutting back social security; weakening trade unions: all
this is relentlessly passed off as the mainstream, the 'centre-ground'
from which only the unelectable and the extreme deviate. Those who are
deemed to have gone even slightly 'off message', to have diverged even
modestly from Establishment thinking, are stigmatized and smeared,
portrayed as being outside the boundaries of legitimate political
debate. The upholders of this consensus have personal stakes in its
continuation. The political and the wealthy elites are not separate
entities: there is a profound overlap between them. loc 1736

Such coverage leaves the electorate completely in the dark about the
reality of the situation. A YouGov poll published in January 2013 found
that, on average, people estimate that 27 per cent of social security is
claimed fraudulently, as opposed to the true figure of 0.7 per cent;
that 41 per cent of social security goes to unemployed people (just 3
per cent is spent on Jobseeker's Allowance); that benefits are more
generous than they actually are; and that people claim them for longer
than they do.1 Another poll found that 29 per cent of people think more
taxpayers' money goes on Jobseeker's Allowance than on pensions: in
fact, the government spends fifteen times more on pensions than it does
on benefits. Yet those who were best informed about the true figures are
far less likely to support cuts to social security - which in turn shows
just how much political capital can be gained by promoting ignorance and
by airbrushing out reality. loc 1791

There is not a free press in Britain: there is a press free of direct
government interference, which is a different thing altogether. Instead,
most of the mainstream media is controlled by a very small number of
politically motivated owners, whose grip on the media is one of the most
devastatingly effective forms of political power and influence in modern
Britain. loc 1828

The problem with Brogan's concession is that anyone rich enough to own a
newspaper has a vested interest in an order that protects wealth and
power. If it is inevitable that the newspapers' opinions reflect, to
some degree, those of their owners, then that ensures Britain's media
operate as the mouthpieces of wealthy interests. loc 1972

The BBC is a perfect vehicle for the Establishment, for it allows the
free-market status quo to be portrayed as a neutral, apolitical stance.
Only those who deviate from it are seen as biased and needing to be
countered to preserve objectivity. '99 per cent of business coverage on
the BBC has the subtext that "business is good",' says the former BBC
journalist speaking off the record. 'They say "capitalism is good,
capitalism is dynamic, the free market is delivering, it is making
better lives for the people of the Global South." If you say,
"capitalism is bad, capitalism is not delivering, capitalism is ruining
the lives of the Global South", that's seen as ideological. For balance,
you should be able to hold both ideas equally, but the BBC don't,
because these are the views of the elite.' loc 2351

Another study by the Cardiff University media experts found that
journalists were suffering from a dramatic increase in workload. Between
1988 and 2006, the amount of copy they had to produce had trebled. More
copy to write meant less time to work on each story, leaving journalists
ever more dependent on so-called 'pre-packaged news', such as PR
material and wire copy. Some 60 per cent of press articles and over 30
per cent of broadcasting stories came 'wholly or mainly' from one of
these sources. Just one in five press articles derived from information
that was not provided from pre-packaged sources, and a mere 12 per cent
was completely free of such unoriginal material.15 The report was
published in 2008; the situation has surely only deteriorated since.
This is so-called 'churnalism', meaning that an ever-declining amount of
news involves journalists actually using their critical faculties.
Instead, much of British news copy is effectively being written by the
public-relations world. This further compromises the independence of the
media, meaning much of its copy is written by those hired by wealthy
private interests. loc 2391

Since 1990, nearly 1,500 people have died following police contact, but
not a single officer has been convicted as a result. loc 2713

The new authoritarianism stretched to drug offences, and again had huge
implications for race. In 1986 the police conducted 32,500
stop-and-searches for drugs; but by 2008 the figure had exploded to
405,000 stop-and-searches.24 A study by the drugs charity Release in
2013 found that London's police stop only 7 out of every 1,000 white
people to check for possession of drugs; the proportion rises to 14 for
every 1,000 mixed-race people, 18 for every 1,000 Asian people, and 45
for every 1,000 black people. A black person is six times more likely to
be stopped on suspicion of possession of drugs than a white person. It
is a ratio that cannot be justified on the basis of likeliness to use
drugs: as the charity pointed out, black people are nearly half as
likely to use drugs as white people. loc 2858

A black person found to be in possession of cannabis is five times more
likely to be charged than a white person. Whereas just 44 per cent of
white people found in possession of cocaine are charged, in cases
involving black people the proportion rises to 78 per cent. loc 2865

And yet the whole ideology of free-market capitalism is based on a con:
British capitalism is completely dependent on the largesse of the state.
What's more, the Establishment's free-market ideology is often little
more than a front for placing public assets in private hands at the
expense of society. loc 3213

The taxpayer-subsidized privatized rail network is a striking example of
how state dependent the private sector can be. In 2013 a
TUC-commissioned report on the railways by the Centre for Research on
Socio-Cultural Change found that state spending on the railways was an
eyebrow-raising six times higher in real terms than when they were
privatized in the mid-1990s. The train operating companies had, it
concluded, benefited 'from an explosion in state spending from 2001
onwards as the state bit the bullet and started paying for new
infrastructure to make up for the failure of privatised infrastructure
provision'. The private companies who ran the rail network had failed to
invest: it was up to the state to step in instead. With privatization
failing to bring in the promised private investment to trains and track,
rolling stock was replaced less frequently, and there was not enough
carriage space for the growing numbers of rail passengers, meaning ever
more crowded trains. As the report put it, privatization meant 'risk and
investment averse private companies positioned themselves as value
extractors, thanks to high public subsidies'. Once again, the taxpayer
shouldered the risk, while the profit was privatized - or, as the report
put it, 'heads they win and tails we lose'. Between 2007 and 2011 alone,
the UK's five largest rail companies received nearly £3 billion in state
subsidies. Such dependence on the state has proved lucrative indeed.
These five companies enjoyed operating profits of more than half a
billion pounds in this four-year period, nearly all of which was paid
out in dividends to shareholders. loc 3267

The 'free market' cherished by the Establishment is, then, based on
fantasy. It might be argued that socialism flourishes in modern Britain,
but it is a socialism for the rich and for corporations. The state is
there to support them, to rescue them if needs be. Much of the rest of
the population, on the other hand, is increasingly expected to sink or
swim: their experience is capitalism, red in tooth and claw. loc 3390

In 2012, £4 billion of taxpayers' money was shovelled into the accounts
of the biggest private contractors: Serco, G4S, Atos and Capita. It led
to a damning assessment from the National Audit Office, which Margaret
Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, summed up: this
outsourcing, she concluded, had created 'quasi-monopolies' in the public
sector, the 'inhibiting of whistleblowers', the trapping of taxpayers
into lengthy contracts, and a 'number of contracts that are not subject
to proper competition'. loc 3601

David Cameron's government, keen as it is to finish what High
Thatcherism had begun. Even Margaret Thatcher baulked at selling off the
Royal Mail, making it clear she was 'not prepared to have the Queen's
head privatized'. But its eventual privatization in late 2013 was in
line with the ideology of Britain's Establishment: the selling off of
all public assets, and the nationalization of risk and privatization of
profit. While the pension fund - that is, the Royal Mail's debt -
remained in public hands, the profitable business was sold off. Yet the
company was drastically undervalued, leading it to be privatized at
hundreds of millions of pounds below its actual worth, depriving the
taxpayer of so much revenue. loc 4345

On the eve of Thatcherism, more than eight out of ten workers had their
wages and conditions set by a collective bargaining agreement; but this
figure has collapsed to less than three in ten. loc 4432

Of the advanced OECD countries, only the United States has a worse
record on employment protection than Britain. loc 4457

'Chatham House Rules' mean it is all off the record, and no one can be
directly quoted. It can certainly ensure that conversations are more
candid, but it also strips away transparency, meaning that statements,
promises and agreements made on behalf of the British people are kept
hidden from them. loc 4942

Around half of the donations to the Conservative Party come from the
City. loc 4969

The former Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, resigned from cabinet on the
eve of the conflict, making one of the finest House of Commons speeches
of modern times in the process; loc 5118

Ahsan and Ahmad were among those who faced being sent to the United
States under the terms of the Extradition Act of 2003, which allowed the
US to extradite people from Britain with no prima facie evidence. As the
House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee would put it in 2012, it
was 'easier to extradite a British citizen to the USA than vice versa'.
loc 5258

In the late 1980s the European Commission proposed a 'Community
Charter', which included protections for trade unions and collective
bargaining, gender equality, and health and safety standards. Thatcher
savaged it as a 'socialist charter', and Conservative British
governments secured the right of countries to opt out of its successor,
the Social Charter. After all, such proposals were direct challenges to
Establishment dogma. It was not until 1997, when New Labour came to
power, that Britain signed up. The EU's Working Time Directive granted
workers a minimum number of holidays each year and imposed a
forty-eight-hour-week maximum limit: New Labour opted out of the
requirement on hours. These and other measures - such as a 2011 EU
directive that granted temporary workers more rights, and the Human
Rights Act, which integrated the European Convention on Human Rights
into law - were also deeply resented by one wing of the Establishment.
Tory backbenchers and right-wing newspapers such as the Daily Telegraph
and Daily Mail passionately spoke of threats to sovereignty; loc 5306

The status quo may be treated as common sense now, but future
generations will surely look back with a mixture of astonishment and
contempt at how British society is currently organized: the richest
1,000 individuals worth £520 billion,1 while hundreds of thousands of
people have to queue to eat in food banks; a thriving financial elite
that helped plunge Britain into a vortex of economic collapse, which was
rescued by over £1 trillion of public money but continues to operate
much as before; a reigning dogma that treats the state as an obstacle to
be eradicated and shunned, even as the state serves as the backbone for
private interests; a corporate elite, dependent as it is on state
largesse, that refuses to contribute money to the state; a media that
does not exist to inform, educate, as well as challenge all those with
power, but which serves as a platform for the ambitions, prejudices and
naked self-interest of a small number of wealthy moguls. loc 5401

Change is not won through the goodwill and generosity of those above,
but through the struggle and sacrifice of those below. loc 5745