The Establishment by Owen Jones / Friends In High Places by Jeremy Paxman

WIN_20151028_140723 ‘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.’

So says Owen Jones: reading The Establishment (subtitled And how they get away with it) it appears Jones believes he is living in a world akin to the simulacrum in The Matrix, a reality created by machines to mask their subjugation of the human population. Perhaps he is right. His book posits that an unaccountable elite from all areas of life is ‘bound together by common economic interests and a shared set of mentalities’, revolving round a neo-liberal, individualist view of the world from which they insist there is no alternative. We, the populace, believe them. Yet while the new Establishment abhors the state, it is utterly reliant on it. For instance, a weakened trade union movement is partly responsible for a decline in wages, which means low-paying employers and private landlords are in effect subsidised by the state through such means as tax credits and housing benefit. A quarter of a century ago, Jeremy Paxman examined the Great and the Good in his investigation Friends In High Places. His thesis was different: rather than being annoyed about the status quo, he wryly questions the right to existence of such institutions as the House of Lords and the monarchy. Jones doesn’t find much to laugh at. (I wasn’t expecting showtunes, but a few jokes wouldn’t have hurt). Henry Fairlie, credited with coining the term ‘the Establishment’ in 1959, pops up in both books but relatively few other names do. However, three are common to both: Keith Joseph, the Centre for Policy Studies and Margaret Thatcher. This is highly significant for Jones since Joseph’s think-tank was one of the main outriders for Thatcher’s radical view of the economy which – and it is hard to argue against this – has now been absorbed into the mainstream. For Paxman, writing the year Thatcher was deposed, it was by no means clear that this would be the case – after all, this was several years before Tony Blair even became leader of the Labour party, let alone won three successive general elections on an economic ticket of which Thatcher approved. Similarly, Paxo might be surprised that we have a Conservative prime minister from Eton since he believed that the old guard’s grip on the Tories had been weakened considerably. Jones’ book was published before Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, although we know what he thinks about this from his subsequent writings: essentially, Corbyn is a ‘dangerous threat to the post-Thatcher political consensus’. Much like Jones himself (he would like to think). However, for all the Dave Spart-ism, Jones is right to be angry – not least for the scandalous treatment of some people on benefits, which is movingly detailed here. He is not above making the odd specious connection of his own – for example, he doesn’t really address how the NHS is going to treat an ageing population without some form of private involvement. Where  he is particularly good, however, is in pointing out the massive government subsidies that private companies in many areas already enjoy – likewise, corporations’ apparently ceaseless fight against paying a reasonable amount of tax is a continuing disgrace. In this light, demonising those at the bottom of the pile as scroungers leaves a particularly sour taste – although as Jones points out, it has been an effective form of misdirection. The real scandals are happening at the top: perhaps the greatest Alice Through the Looking-Glass trick of my lifetime – in some ways eclipsing even Iraq’s WMD (or lack thereof) – has been the way the banking crisis of 2008 has been so effectively glossed over by the powers that be. The cold facts of the global financial meltdown have been in plain view from the start and John Lanchester – a much more elegant writer than Jones – and others have already made this case. Re-reading Paxman’s book after 25 years, I am struck by how quietly angry the writing sometimes is, especially about the way the 1980s have changed attitudes: ‘The sheer, naked selfishness which has been unleashed is a revolting thing to behold.’ I don’t agree with quite a lot of what Jones says. But that doesn’t mean he is wrong about everything. ‘There is a genuine need for a corrective,’ he insists. He is definitely onto something.


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