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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Triumph of the political class

Thunder has been reverbating around the valleys in the last couple of days, knocking out my electricity several times. But that is not the reason for my silence. I have been absorbed by one of the books in the latest Amazon package (which arrived within 2 days of my ordering them) – Peter Oborne’s The Triumph of the Political Class. Some months ago I said that noone seemed to be celebrating the anniversary of Robert Michels’ Political Parties which appeared a hundred years ago and which was one of the seminal books of my university years – suggesting that trade unions and social democratic parties were inevitably destined to betrayal by their leaders through the “iron law of oligarchy”. Havong tasted the perks of power, they don't easily let it go. Oborne’s book appeared in 2007 - but is a worthy successor and offers important perspectives to the various posts I’ve made about the collapse of our democracy -
Lewis Namier (1888-1960) argued in his masterwork The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III that talk of great battles of principle between the Whigs and Tories of Hanoverian England was nonsense. Ministers were in politics for the money and to advance the interests of their cliques. MPs who boasted of their independence were forever seeking favours from the public purse. Ideology mattered so little that 'the political life of the period could be fully described without ever using a party denomination'. You can do the same today, argues Peter Oborne in this thought-provoking polemic. Members of the 21st-century 'political class' are as isolated and self-interested as their Georgian predecessors. The political class is very different from the old establishment. It despises the values of traditional institutions that once acted as restraints on the power of the state - the independence of the judiciary, the neutrality of the Civil Service and the accountability of ministers to the Commons.
If you are young and ambitious and want to join, Oborne sketches out a career path. First, you must set yourself apart from your contemporaries at university by taking an interest in politics. You must join a think-tank or become researcher to an upwardly mobile MP on graduation. Before getting to the top, you will have eaten with, drunk with and slept with people exactly like you, not only in politics but in the media, PR and advertising - trades the old establishment despised, but you admire for their ability to manipulate the masses.
You will talk a language the vast majority of your fellow citizens can't understand and be obsessed with the marketing of politics rather than its content. You will notice that once in power, you can get away with behaviour that would have stunned your predecessors. You can use your position to profit from lecture tours and negotiate discounts, as the wife of PM Tony Blair uniquely did. Politics will be your career. You will have no experience of other trades and be a worse politician for it. Despite the strong language you may use against other political parties, you will develop a stronger loyalty to parliamentarians (regardless of political label) than others and will close ranks if their privileges are under threat.
I have only two quibbles with the book - first that he attributes the decline of parliament to the new political class - but its decline goes back several decades before that. He makes an interesting point, however, about the Whip's power being challenged in the past decade by the power of the Press Secretary (whipping the media into its place). And, although he mentions Mosca's famous book on the political class of a hundred years ago, he fails to place his critique in the wider critical literature. See tomorrow's post for more on this.

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