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The Establishment

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

Highlights:

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 478

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