Who runs this place? The anatomy of Britain in the 21st century by Anthony Sampson (John Murray, £20)
Reviewed by Iain Macwhirter
Anthony Sampson first dissected the anatomy of Britain in 1962. His book of the same name became an instant best-seller. It identified the networks of overlapping power and influence that connected the elites of business, politics, civil service, academia – what we used collectively to call the Establishment.
Now Sampson has returned to the body politic in the new millennium, but he’s found that the anatomy has changed out of all recognition. ‘Who Runs This Place?’ he asks in bewilderment. ‘Revisiting some of the seats of power after 40 years, I felt like Rip Van Winkle waking up after a revolution.’
This post-revolutionary Britain is not a very pleasant place to be, for anyone not obsessed with celebrity or wealth. The age of deference may have passed along with the class divisions of the 1960s. But Sampson finds a nation that has gained affluence and lost its soul. Britain is portrayed as a moral wasteland, in which power is over-centralised in the hands of cynical politicians; where an unelected and unaccountable media has elbowed aside parliament; and where everyone has learned to speak one language – the language of money. ‘The respect now shown for wealth and money-making, rather than for professional conduct and moral values, has been the most fundamental change in Britain over four decades.’ The UK has become a playground for plutocrats, for a new rich elite who increasingly dominate and debase national culture – even as they cease to participate in the national community.
Forty years ago, society had values, according to Sampson. There was social democracy, the arts, the pursuit of learning, parliamentary democracy, trades unionism, the law. There was civic idealism and common purpose. All have been ground down and subordinated to the pursuit of hard cash.
The universities are impoverished and academics paid derisory salaries. The civil service has been forced to adapt to the prevailing commercial ethos and ape business practice. Trades unions and nationalised industries, which featured prominently on the 1962 map of power, have largely disappeared. Once great corporations like GEC/ Marconi and financial institutions like Equitable Life have been destroyed by short-termism and greed. The dotcom bubble and pensions scandals have come and gone without anyone accepting responsibility. No-one trusts anyone or any thing any more. Institutions like the Royal Family have turned into soap operas.
Sampson is particularly critical of the media. Its short attention span and intellectual laziness rendered it vulnerable to manipulation by spin-doctors and their political masters. ‘Journalists and politicians locked in their mutual bear-hug became so engrossed in their own love-hate relationships, their excitable leaks, spin and counter spin, that they forgot about the public’s real interests.’
Rampant egos stalk TV studios. Journalists sell themselves to their sources or to PR agencies. Great newspapers have been turned into the personal megaphones of self-made men. However, it isn’t all bad news. Sampson congratulates the BBC for exposing the government’s attempts to bounce Britain into the war in Iraq. He says the Hutton inquiry told us more about how Britain works than 40 years of journalistic inquiry. But he doesn’t buy Hutton’s verdict on the Kelly affair.
‘While the BBC had exaggerated and distorted some allegations,’ says Sampson, ‘it played an indispensable role in revealing the truth behind the misleading dossiers which the government had used to justify the war’. Perhaps the former DG, Greg Dyke, will find some consolation in that. I suspect Sampson’s verdict will also be history’s.
Sampson is appalled by the constitutional implications of Iraq. The war was not only Britain’s greatest foreign policy disaster since Suez, it also showed that the intelligence services and the civil service were capable of being politicised to a dangerous degree.
His only consolation is that, at the height of the crisis, people turned again to parliament, which staged momentous debates on the eve of the war. However, even after two of the greatest backbench rebellions ever suffered by any government, the war still went ahead on Tony Blair’s authority. ‘That overriding power not only led to basic distortions of the truth, it represented a threat to the democratic process itself.’
So, who does run this place? A handful of politicians who have become handmaidens of the new rich, it seems. This book paints a pretty bleak picture of life under New Labour. Perhaps it is a touch too gloomy. Perhaps there is a hint of nostalgia in Samp- son’s account; a hint of the metropolitan curmudgeon too. A lot of things have gone wrong in the last 40 years, but not everything.
Since 1962, Britain has become a genuine multicultural society; women have almost gained entry to the elite networks; the suffocating amateurism that defined public life in the 1960s has been replaced by greater efficiency, transparency and accountability. New Labour may have capitulated to capitalism, but the constitution has undergone radical reforms, from Scottish devolution to the abolition of the hereditary principle in the House of Lords. Ordinary families are vastly better off materially than they were 40 years ago, even if society has become more unequal overall. Life-expectancy may be a ‘demographic time-bomb’, but it is also a testament to huge advances in health care and the quality of people’s lives.
However, it is hard not to agree with Sampson’s indictment of the money-making monomania that has consumed our political culture. Prime ministers and chancellors are far too uncritical of the ‘wealth-creators’. Bankers and fund man-agers earn scandalous salaries while ordinary people are cheated out of their pensions. The rich, feted and cosseted by obsequious politicians, are allowed to opt out of society while the poor are given lectures on duties and responsibilities. New Labour politicians are centralising power and turning government into a PR agency for the Prime Minister.
But what is to be done? Sampson hopes that eventually parliament will reassert itself and exercise democratic control over the executive. Such is its historic purpose. But he doesn’t sound as if he really believes it will happen. And with voters increasingly failing to exercise their franchise, it is hard to see what can halt the rise of this new Leviathan. The next 40 years could be a bumpy ride.
Source: Sunday Herald, www.sundayherald.com