The Establishment by Owen Jones: A review
Jones’ hypothesis – and the book’s unique selling point – is that all these factions are wedded to the ‘dogma’ of free-market economics, as promoted by the Establishment’s ‘outriders’ in think tanks, which they use to feather their nests while collaborating with each other to shield themselves from the electorate. It will be an attractive theory to many readers, but his claim that these players are united by a shared passion for neoliberalism, rather than being driven by often competing self-interests, is difficult to sustain. When the facts don’t fit the theory, Jones is forced to either take a flight of fancy or make his Establishment so inclusive that it involves almost everybody but himself.
For example, a perfectly good chapter about police corruption is marred by Jones’ attempt to link the skirmishes between the National Union of Miners and the police in the 1980s with the Hillsborough cover up, the shambles of the first Stephen Lawrence prosecution, the death of Ian Tomlinson, the phone hacking scandal and the Plebgate affair, along with the suspicious deaths of various black men in police custody. He ties this all together with the theory that Margaret Thatcher bought the loyalty of the police force with a pay rise in the early 1980s, leading to the boys in blue showing their appreciation by beating up miners during the strike. This, he argues, was the police’s first act as enforcers of the Establishment before going completely off the rails, hassling potheads when they should be hunting down bankers and tax-dodgers.
Jones’ examples of police brutality and corruption are certainly troubling, but they do not easily lend themselves to a unifying theory. He provides no evidence that the police were better behaved before Thatcher came to power, or are better behaved in other countries, and there is certainly no evidence that they have ever been interested in Hayekian economics which is, Jones claims, the ‘shared mentality of the modern Establishment’. For the bankers, media barons and politicians that make up the rest of the elite, motives are hard to find. A defeat for the miners may have been welcome in 1985, but it is hard to see what they had to gain from seeing the killers of Ian Tomlinson or Stephen Lawrence go free. In the case of the latter, as Jones fails to note, it was an Establishment voice – the Daily Mail – that pursued the perpetrators with the greatest zeal.
By the time Jones reaches the Plebgate affair, he is forced to grapple with the internal inconsistencies of his argument. When Andrew Mitchell, an establishment figure by any criteria, was stitched up by the police, the newspapers – and particularly The Sun – hounded him for weeks. Faced with the fact that two key elements of the Establishment had suddenly turned on one of their own, Jones concocts ad hoc justifications for the media and the enforcers jumping ship. He puts it down to The Sun being upset by the Leveson Inquiry while the Metropolitan Police were angry about £500 million of services being privatised. Neither explanation is convincing, and his claim that the Establishment felt able to dispense with the police in 2012 because it was ‘no longer facing any organised movements that posed any perceived threat its existence’ is risible. A simpler, more realistic interpretation is that newspapers want to sell copies, the police look after their own, and Mitchell was the victim of a personal or political vendetta. If political, the Plebgate cover up suggests an anti-Tory (and therefore, in Jones’ terms, anti-Establishment) bias in the Met.
The chapter on the police force is a microcosm of the book as a whole. Just as its examples of corruption and violence have nothing in common except that they involved the police, so the rest of the book describes various events which have nothing in common except that they involved people of whom Jones disapproves and who have money or power. He spends half a chapter treading the well worn ground of the Iraq war without adequately explaining its relationship to the bailing out of the banks, phone hacking, public sector cuts, the expenses scandal (which, incidentally, was exposed by the ‘Establishment’ Telegraph) or any of his other bête noires. Yes, powerful people were involved, but it could hardly be otherwise.
Jones’ definition of the Establishment essentially comes down to anybody with influence, power or wealth who does not believe in Jones’ antediluvian version of state socialism. It includes all politicians (except Caroline Lucas and a handful of Labour backbenchers), all media (except the Guardian and the New Statesman) and all think tanks (except the New Economics Foundation). From Jones’ perspective on the fringes of the hard-left, almost everybody is a right-winger. Everyone to the right of John Prescott (who Jones describes as a centrist) is a neoliberal and so everybody from Boris Johnson to Alistair Campbell is part of the Establishment. But whilst the traditional, mid-twentieth century establishment was made up of aristocrats and fusty old judges who had never heard of the Beatles, Jones’ Establishment is dominated by people who are at least accountable to market forces or the electorate. Tellingly, his Establishment does not include unelected supra-national bodies (except the IMF), the third sector, the public sector, trade unions, the House of Lords, the European Commission, the judiciary or the universities (except economics departments). It does, however, include the Church of England (it owns a lot of land), but not Rowan Williams (he’s quite left-wing).
If you only had Jones’ book as a guide, you would think that opponents of free markets could fit in a phone booth. The influence of left-wing think tanks is dismissed as being negligible, but Jones’ ‘no true socialist’ approach means that he doesn’t recognise most of them as being left-wing in the first place. The centre-left IPPR, he says, is too Thatcherite and receives funding from some corporations (he does not mention the six figure sums it receives from statutory sources, including the European Commission). Demos also gets two black marks for being run by an Old Etonian who is too sceptical about immigration for Jones’ liking. The influence of the undeniably socialist Fabian Society is ignored altogether, as is that of the Resolution Foundation, the Equality Trust and Jones’ own Class think tank. The leftist agitation of large charities, often state-funded and staffed with Labour activists, also fails to warrant a mention.
Even the BBC is portrayed as a neoliberal mouthpiece. In Jones’ eyes, the corporation is ‘staunchly pro-business, biased towards right-wing voices, and acts as a consistent platform for Establishment perspectives.’ Its news coverage even has ‘a strong pro-Israeli bias’, he claims. As evidence for this surprising assertion – which goes against the recollection of former BBC employees such as Robert Aitken and Peter Sissons, as well as those who have ever listened to Radio 4 – he lists a handful of BBC staff who have conservative tendencies, such as Andrew Neil and Nick Robinson, but fails to balance this with the (longer) list of Labour supporters and ex-Guardian journalists who work at the corporation. Since Jones believes that virtually the entire Labour Party is bewitched by free-market ‘dogma’, such a list would probably do nothing to change his mind; at one point he cites the appointment of the former Labour cabinet minister James Purnell as further evidence of the BBC’s right-wing agenda.
Once it becomes clear that Jones’ definition of the Establishment is so broad as to be meaningless, the book can be read for what it is – a collection of extended Guardian columns about Jones’ favourite themes. His complaints about so-called ‘austerity’ will be familiar to anyone who has read the Guardian or Independent in recent years. Suffice it to say that the ‘austerity’ programme is not designed to cut the ‘debt’, as Jones claims, but to cut the deficit, which is the amount that is added to the debt every year. The deficit has been rising since 2001, despite the economy booming until 2008, and last year stood at £108 billion. The national debt is in the region of £1.3 trillion and is in no danger of being cut for several years, if then. British taxpayers currently spend £50 billion per year just to pay the interest on it. The idea that any government could continue borrowing at this rate indefinitely is as delusional as the belief that a clamp-down on tax evasion would be enough to make the country live within its means.
More interesting is Jones’ claim that Britain practises ‘socialism for the rich’. He ignores the fact that there is plenty of socialism for the poor – and for the affluent, for that matter – in a country where the government spends nearly half of GDP and subsidises the incomes of the majority of the population, and yet ‘subsidies’ for the rich remain worthy of discussion. Some of his arguments are contrived, such as his attempt to portray state education, road building and railways as perks for the wealthy on the basis that they provide trained employees and infrastructure for business. Aside from the fact that businesses frequently complain that state-educated job applicants lack basic skills and that universities are churning out graduates with useless degrees, the primary beneficiary of education is surely the child. Moreover, roads and railways are used by – and paid for – individuals and businesses alike. Even those who use neither road nor rail for personal transport benefit from goods being delivered by train and lorry rather than, say, barge and mule.
But Jones is on stronger ground when talking about tax credits and housing benefit, the first of which is, he says, a subsidy for employers to pay ‘poverty wages’ while the second is a subsidy for landlords to charge exorbitant rents. Jones overstates his case (a third of those who receive tax credits do not work at all and many others receive a reasonable hourly wage but do not work enough hours), and yet he has a point. These benefits are bound to distort the labour and housing markets to some extent. And he is certainly correct when he says that the 2008 bail out of the banking system was an act of socialism.
As an employee of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) – and therefore what Jones calls an ‘outrider’ of the Establishment – I am happy to agree with Owen Jones on this. The IEA has been arguing for an end to subsidies and bail outs for many years. Within days of the US government bailing out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in 2008, my colleague Philip Booth wrote a blog post with a headline – ‘A welfare state for bankers’ – of which Jones would be proud. In it he called for failing banks to be allowed to collapse. The title of other IEA articles are self-explanatory, including ‘Thumbs down for Bush’s bailout’, ‘Banking on corporatism’ and ‘Sort out mechanisms to wind down banks’. Plenty of like-minded think tanks, economists and journalists have argued the same. We were in the minority at the time and remain so.
Jones accepts that there are some ‘libertarian right-wingers’ who criticise ‘socialism for the rich’, but this understates the scale of opposition in the free-market movement. Bail outs, tariffs and subsidies have virtually no support in the mainstream economics that Jones claims is the dogma of the Establishment.
The IEA was formed in 1955. Since then, public spending per person has more than trebled in real terms and taxation has risen by almost as much. Government has become more bloated, regulation has spread like a virus and there has been an increasing micromanagement of people’s lifestyles. You would think that after 59 years of developing ‘a cohesive ideology to bind the Establishment together’, as Jones puts it, we would have made more headway by now. Alas, the truth is that the only people in Jones’ imaginary web of power who actually believe in free markets and individualism are a few think tanks. The police don’t. The media don’t. Businesses don’t and, judging by how governments have behaved over the years, most politicians don’t. They are all self-interested actors who have largely, and quite understandably, rejected out-and-out socialism without adopting economic liberalism. What we are left with is form of crony capitalism in which private interests can extract favours, such as monopoly power and subsidies, from powerful ‘public servants’. This is not new. Adam Smith wrote about it in 1776. More government is never the answer.
Owen Jones doesn’t believe in free markets and individualism either, of course, which is a shame because the policies of the IEA would be far more effective in achieving his ends than the list of paleo-socialist recommendations that bring his book to a conclusion, many of which would increase the power of the state, stifle growth and create new opportunities for powerful rent seekers and crony capitalists to enrich themselves at the expense of the working taxpayer. 280 pages after he complains that people see him as a 1970s throwback, he ends his tome with ‘a modest attempt to reassert democracy’ (actual democracy having let him down all his life) which explicitly includes a huge hike in the minimum wage, relaxing trade union law, a return to ‘full employment’, nationalisation of ‘key utilities’, an industrial policy, restrictions on foreign ownership of housing, a 50 per cent top rate of income tax ‘as a start’, a renegotiation with the EU to get rid of the free market elements, and free Slade records and space hoppers for school children.
Okay, I made the last one up but, for a history graduate, Owen Jones is strangely incapable of learning from the past.
See also What Owen Jones gets wrong, by Ryan Bourne.