Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Friday 13 April 2018

Talking to the Establishment

Talking to the Establishment is what Aeron Davis, a Professor of Political Communication at Goldsmiths London, has been doing for twenty years. In this little gem of a book he tries to pull together his thoughts and reflections on these interviews and extensive research on how today’s establishment works.

When people talk about the Establishment, they often imagine a socially coherent body managing the country in ways that serve its own collective interests. An elite network who predominantly went to certain public schools, who make big decisions of state over dinner in their private clubs. Even if outsiders entered into the upper echelons of politics, the civil service, business or the media, they inevitably became part of the Establishment network. To radicals the Establishment was a brake on social change, but for conservatives it provided the comfort that the country was in sound collective hands.

Davis argues that with the advent of neoliberalism in the 1980s, that cosy world began to fall apart. He even speculates that we may now be seeing the end of what we think of as an Establishment. He suggests the elite have lost coherence: that rather than look after the interests of the network as a whole (and for a conservative therefore the country), they look after the interests of themselves. They have become the reckless opportunists of the book’s title, getting what they can from the chaos they helped create.

In politics this idea is personified by the man on the front cover, who threw the country into the destructive mess that is Brexit simply for the sake of his own personal ambition. Press barons turned their newspapers into propaganda vehicles for the same end. But he also argues that we can see the same opportunism in business leaders who put personal returns over the interests of the companies they run. He finds that in the civil service the key ingredient for success is how good an individual is at self promotion, and he argues the same applies elsewhere.

A lot of this rings true for me, but Davis backs it all up with research and interviews. While austerity was what I call deficit deceit (using the deficit to scare people into accepting a smaller state) which served neoliberal ends, in the UK it was I suspect also simple political opportunism: a way to embarrass the Labour government with little thought about what it might do to the economy. In budget after budget, Osborne seemed more focused on wrong-footing the opposition than doing anything to revive productivity growth. You could easily call that reckless opportunism. 

As well as this overriding theme, there is acute observation on other matters as well. For example on how journalism has become churnalism, and the accompanying growth of the PR industry. The only time I have met Aeron was at a conference where I was talking about how the media had distorted the austerity debate, and I remember how taken aback I was when some in the audience suggested academics just needed better PR. But this also connects with the main theme, where self promotion is the name of the game.

I found the book an enlightening and thought provoking read which was difficult to put down. It is both a fascinating insight about how individuals in the elite saw recent history, but also a provocative interpretation of how our idea of the Establishment may no longer be valid.


  1. I would say it's not just neoliberalism but globalization that has diminished the role of the establishment.

    So much of our industry and influence has disappeared in the last forty years and we have of course been submerged in the EU. The powerful influences in today's UK are far more foreign in origin than forty years ago and have no ultimate allegiance to this country so the idea of an establishment protecting and furthering the interests of this country have far less salience.

  2. "In budget after budget, Osborne seemed more focused on wrong-footing the opposition than doing anything to revive productivity growth"

    I finally have an explanation of something which has puzzled me for years.

  3. Short-term thinking played a large part in bringing it about I think. There was a post-WWII consensus which lasted a generation. Then the establishment wanted to break the unions and pushed the ideas that the market should be left to itself, greed is good, etc, ideas which were key to breaking the old consensus and building a new. The next generation of the establishment however grew up believing all this, that if each person looked only to themselves then this would bring about the best result for all, certainly in economic terms. So now, don't worry about the establishment as a whole, or the country, think only of what's good for you and the rest will take care of itself. The consequences of which we're seeing now.

    People often think it's acceptable to bend the truth in pursuit of their noble goals, but they rarely consider how the people who believe their words will react further down the line. For example, the US government which pushed the notion of the missile gap to boost support for greater funding was replaced by a government made up of people who had been on the outside and believed these lies. The result was that they were rather more confrontational and militaristic. Another example, a generation's worth of successive governments taking all the credit for EU policies and pushing any blame back on to them. I'm sure it seemed like it cost nothing at the time, but then one day they find they have to hastily construct a case for remaining in the EU after spending 20+ years inadvertently doing the opposite.

    On this scale action and reaction are often generational. It's most obvious in countries where a government tortures and tyrannises one generation into passive acceptance and then falls to the next generation. Or the Taliban, who grew up in refugee camps and then treated them as blueprints for all Afghanistan, because that life was all they knew.

    Personally I wonder where we will be a generation from now. The lies that have been told about Brexit, the blame the hard-line Brexiters will inevitably push onto others when they don't get what they long for; "We could have built a land of milk and honey if we hadn't been betrayed by..." Will the next generation see through all this as many do now or will they grow up believing it, not knowing any better? I suspect the latter, and wonder what the consequences will be.

  4. "how the media had distorted the austerity debate"

    As another comment in a previous blog noted, economists are useful idiots for politicians. They use your models to show deficit spending is bad because of crowding out, because your models assume money is necessarily limited. Your models accept neutrality of money and therefore deficits are in some sense bad. Politicians seize on that element of your models. If you want to stop being a useful idiot, challenge rational self-interest; question efficient price discovery because it requires rational agents. Assert that prices are administered, arbitrary, and therefore we can print money because inflation is not so much connected with the growth of the money supply as with arbitrary psychological choices. Simply print faster than prices rise, which the private sector already knows is happening (see a graph of base money increasing several thousand percent faster than the consumer price index: ).

    If you really want to challenge austerity you should go after rational expectations because that leads naturally to the idea that austerity is good as long as I don't suffer.

  5. «advent of neoliberalism in the 1980s, that cosy world began to fall apart.»

    Thatcherism! The guiding principle being "Blow you! I am allright Jack".
    This is how T Benn reports the culture of thatcherism in his diary, 1986-03-24:

    The Party's Campaign Strategy committee, where four men and a woman from something called the Shadow Agency made a presentation.
    They flashed onto a screen quotes which were supposed to be typical of Labour voters, for example: 'IT'S NICE TO HAVE A SOCIAL CONSCIENCE BUT IT'S YOUR FAMILY THAT COUNTS.'
    What we were being told, quite frankly, was what you can read every day in the Sun, the Mail, the Daily Express, and the Telegraph. It was an absolute waste of money.
    Labour was associated with the poor, the unemployed, the old the sick, the disabled, pacifists, immigrants, minorities and the unions, and this was deeply worrying. The Tories were seen to have the interests of everyone at heart including the rich. Labour was seen as yesterday's party.
    I came out feeling physically sick.

    «He even speculates that we may now be seeing the end of what we think of as an Establishment. He suggests the elite have lost coherence: that rather than look after the interests of the network as a whole»

    Ahem no, the (tory) Establishment is and has always been, in England, "dynastic", that is a network of *families*, not individuals, intermarriage being the glue, and "materfamilias" being the ruler, while the husband govern; same as the "ancien regime" pretty much. I have not noticed anything changing as to that. What has changed a bit is that the families have less influence because finance, which has a higher turnover, has become more prominent, but finance has its own (whig) dynastic side, to some extent.

    «(and for a conservative therefore the country)»

    Conservatives don't look after the interests of the country, but of family members and their properties. Collectively they own England, and they look after it as if they were looking after a farm, with their trusties in the role of farm pets, and "hoi polloi" as the farm livestock (and benefit claimants as the "vermin").

    «they look after the interests of themselves.»

    If they are true Establishment, their dynasty and associated dynasties. And that still happens -- sharp elbowed establishment matrons still rule where it matters.

  6. «They have become the reckless opportunists of the book’s title, getting what they can from the chaos they helped create. In politics this idea is personified by the man on the front cover,»

    Being a cad and a buccaneer is part of tory or at least whig tradition, and B Johnson is certainly the product of dynastic politics, like D Cameron and the other jolly bullers. We shall see whom his offspring end up marrying, but their social environment is definitely that of Establishment dynasties.

    «who threw the country into the destructive mess that is Brexit simply for the sake of his own personal ambition.»

    I agree that was his motivation, but for a large part of the (tory) Establishment leaving the EU was regardless a meritorious aim, and that's why they supported and still support him, whatever his motives. What I think outrages the (tory) "Leavers" is that the EU is not ruled by the same english families that the English Empire was, and the UK is, ruled by and they fear they would be reduced to the role of sidelined provincial gentry, like the scottish Establishment have been, instead of remaining ruling gentry. For the (tory) establishment globalisation is the enemy, when they are not the rulers. Consider the usual JM Keynes description of edwardian globalisation:
    What an extraordinary episode in the economic progress of man that age was which came to an end in August, 1914! ...
    The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep; he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share, without exertion or even trouble, in their prospective fruits and advantages; or he could decide to couple the security of his fortunes with the good faith of the townspeople of any substantial municipality in any continent that fancy or information might recommend.
    He could secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate without passport or other formality, could despatch his servant to the neighboring office of a bank for such supply of the precious metals as might seem convenient, and could then proceed abroad to foreign quarters, without knowledge of their religion, language, or customs, bearing coined wealth upon his person, and would consider himself greatly aggrieved and much surprised at the least interference.
    But, most important of all, he regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement, and any deviation

    That “inhabitant of London” obviously refers only to the a member of the english Establishment (the servant classes being "invisible" as pets or livestock), and that “this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent” was based in practice on the assumption that the English Empire as ruled by the class of that “inhabitant of London” as “normal, certain, and permanent”; it is significant that JM Keynes gives for granted these details not only for himself, but also for his readers, who belonged like him to that Establishment.


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