The complete title of this book is The Establishment and how they get away with it. In brief it offers a critical left wing analysis of the influence of right wing philosophers, the Westminster elite, the media, the police, big business and the stock exchange on the development of the neoliberal ideology which dominates current political and economic discourse in the UK.
The opening section looks at the right wing philosophers whose ideas now dominate economic and political thinking. Jones argues that these writers and ideas were marginalised during the years of the post war consensus, the longest economic boom in history, when state intervention and the Keynesian approach was favoured. He says that their ideas gained currency during the years of Thatcher and Reagan and have now become dominant. He mentions the Overton window, named after an American politician. Strong and widely held public attitudes and beliefs limit political debate and democratic change to a narrow window of possibility. Jones’ argument is that these philosophers managed to move the focus of debate further to the right, forming the consensus that gave rise to Thatcher, New Labour and the current hegemony.
There is nothing new in this argument – we have all witnessed the drift of labour towards the right wing, and read about right wing economics, but Jones’ has researched the history well and lays down the argument with clarity and detail.
Later sections deal with other branches of the new establishment. Firstly the Westminster elite which he sees as contaminated by nepotism and a cosy relationship with big business and the media. He mentions journalists – supposedly a neutral and critical voice – who write speeches for George Osborne, and politicians with newspaper columns on right wing papers, as well as the large number of MPs who take directorships or other roles in British industry. Jones’ claim, which seems reasonable, is that these MPs are not able to take an independent view because of the vested interests they have.
The role of the media is the focus of the next section. Jones comments on dominance of the Murdoch press, and the compliance of Thatcher in allowing Murdoch’s purchase of The Times. Murdoch’s role in the election of a Conservative government in 1992, and in the subsequent success of New Labour in 1997 is also covered. Once again Jones fleshes this out with interesting and convincing details and statistics. He’s not averse to the odd bit of sensationalism – picturing Blair dressed all in white as godfather to one of Murdoch’s children – and includes relevant statistics about press bias. Jones equates the press with big business interests, and comments on the easy access the Murdoch empire has had to a range of politicians including Cameron, Brown and Blair, as well as the way in which the press influences political debate by funding various think tanks and pressure groups.
Jones goes on to look at the role of the police. This was especially interesting for me as I lived in a Yorkshire mining village during the strike in 1984-5, and witnessed first hand the anger and deprivation of the striking miners. The idea that Thatcher bought the loyalty of the police is not new, but Jones gives a more detailed history going as far back as the First World War and shows the development of the relationship between the police and government. He links Orgreave – the notorious site of police violence and brutality during the miners’ strike – with the Hillsborough disaster and is particularly critical of the South Yorkshire police in this respect. In both these cases it seems the police falsified evidence, although with the former the IPCC regards the events as too far in the past to investigate fully. Unsurprisingly Jones is also very critical of the IPCC.
Perhaps the most dramatic chapter heading is Scrounging off the State. This phrase has been overused recently to criticise the low paid and unemployed as well as the disabled, but Jones turns this idea on its head, criticising big business for exploiting the infrastructure provided by a stable and well organised state whilst offering little in return. So health care, roads, and education are all assets which enable business to succeed and thrive, whilst business takes advantage of a range of accountancy practices to avoid paying the tax required to provide these services, and introduces iniquitous practices like zero hours contracts which exploit the workers. Jones goes on to look at the power of the big four accountancy firms who, Janus like, look both ways – helping the government write tax law and then being seconded to businesses to help them circumvent the very laws they have made.
A further chapter focuses on the banks and the stock exchange, and Jones is very clear that Labour has really failed to convince the public that in 2007-8 it was the banks, and the American subprime mortgage crisis, that caused financial chaos, and not the Labour party. In reality by underwriting the banks Brown saved the country from the further consequences of the banks’ own profligacy. Jones is very critical here of business, which he claims is willing to make profits, but reliant on the state to bail it out when losses are incurred. He regards this as inequitable, and criticises the importance within British law of the inviolability of property.
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Much of what Jones says in this book is not new; what he does is to gather all the information together in one place and present the whole as a coherent and persuasive argument, using facts, statistics, interviews and sometimes quite emotive language. I really like the power of the argument, though I don’t think it’s too good for my blood pressure!!
What Jones also does is take his ideas a little further – particularly questioning the generally held belief that if we don’t kowtow to the whims of big business, companies will pack up their bags and head for regimes with more favourable tax laws. His claim is that there are benefits to working within a stable state like Britain and that the new establishment is all too eager to give way to big business, as they stand to benefit from the links they have as individuals with companies, banks and the stock exchange.
Jones concludes by offering some pointers for the development of a more effective and equable democracy. Many of these may seem a little idealistic. Some involve institutional change, such as an independent commission to examine and forge a new role for the police. Others involve the possibilities offered by the new media. I suppose organisations like change.org or 38 degrees are included. Most involve rather more commitment to democracy than some of us are prepared to make, I suspect.