New and note­wor­thy

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Heather Sav­i­gny is pro­fes­sor in gen­der, me­dia and pol­i­tics at De Mont­fort Uni­ver­sity.

By Aeron Davis Manch­ester Uni­ver­sity Press 160pp, £78.85 and £9.99 ISBN 9781526127273 and 9781526127280 Pub­lished 12 March 2018

Aeron Davis pro­vides an in­sight­ful, flu­ent and frank ac­count of the na­ture of the con­tem­po­rary Bri­tish Estab­lish­ment: in its own words. On one level, he con­firms what we al­ready know in­tu­itively. We know there is some­thing we can call “the Estab­lish­ment”, which works in the in­ter­ests of those who are in it. We know that the cur­rent Estab­lish­ment has changed (a bit), so that a public­school ed­u­ca­tion and Oxbridge are not now the only routes in. And we know that, de­spite this, a sys­tem of re­volv­ing doors be­tween me­dia, busi­ness, pol­i­tics and the City en­dures. But there have been a num­ber of other crit­i­cal ac­counts such as Owen Jones’ The Estab­lish­ment: And how they get away with it (2014), so why do we need to read Davis’ book?

In short, one of the main rea­sons is the com­plete and com­pelling can­dour of his in­ter­vie­wees. Davis has spo­ken to more than 350 mem­bers of the con­tem­po­rary Estab­lish­ment over a pe­riod of about 20 years and so is well placed to com­ment on how it has evolved. He of­fers a trans­par­ent ac­count of the elites’ views of what they are do­ing and the ways in which they think and op­er­ate.

It may well be that this hon­esty was based on the as­sump­tion that, to quote vet­eran Labour MP Den­nis Skin­ner (pic­tured in­set) on meet­ing the au­thor, they were merely con­tribut­ing to a piece of work by an­other “fuck­ing use­less aca­demic”. But that as­sump­tion has led to some strik­ing rev­e­la­tions.

There is the se­nior Trea­sury of­fi­cial who doesn’t quite know the full scale of an area of pub­lic debt, but for whom £300 bil­lion seems a neg­li­gi­ble amount. The ex-City fund man­ager who says that the pur­pose of the sys­tem is to take as much money as pos­si­ble from in­vestors, with­out them protest­ing. There is no need for th­ese elites to worry about ex­per­tise when, as Davis shows, they can al­ways move on to their next ven­ture. For them there is no ac­count­abil­ity.

It is not all gloomy. There are some hero­ines and he­roes to root for here – and we do read ac­counts from those who are seek­ing to en­gi­neer change from within.

In places, Reck­less Op­por­tunists al­most feels like a thriller. You find your­self yearn­ing for the happy end­ing where the good peo­ple win – and the book does end with a set of prin­ci­ples by which this could be achieved. But over­all Davis paints a pic­ture of a very white, al­pha-male world, where in­di­vid­ual self-in­ter­est pre­dom­i­nates, naked greed is good and suc­cess is mea­sured through “change”, which is pur­sued solely for profit. He shows us the peo­ple in­volved in the process, many of whom are ruth­less ne­olib­er­als.

For the au­thor, th­ese be­hav­iours con­tain the seeds of the Estab­lish­ment’s un­do­ing. But I am not so sure. The lack of re­flec­tion on their own roles, how they got there and what their ac­tions mean for so­ci­ety (the self­de­cep­tion of for­mer Tesco’s boss Ter­ence Leahy would be laugh­able if it wasn’t so aw­ful) mean that what is brought into fo­cus is the way in which the Estab­lish­ment has not only learned how to play the game, but is col­lec­tively rein­vent­ing the rules. Those rules are still largely be­ing writ­ten in white mas­culinised terms. And that is just a little bit de­press­ing.

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