This book surveys the elite state of play in Britain as it is now. It argues that the Establishment, as it has been conceived, is coming to an end. The book looks at how elites, by trying to get ahead, have destabilised the very institutions on which their power is based. It also looks at how leaders have adapted to get to the top. Those most suited to pleasing their assessors get there first. The book reveals some of the ways elites use to stay at the top once they get there. It looks at the secrets and lies that underpin elite power and control. Some are systematic and organised, and some are simply the lies leaders tell themselves. The book shows how leadership has been transformed into a numbers game because numbers can be tallied up in a way that ideas cannot. And because elites co-create the game, they can also change the rules as and when they need to. The book focuses on exit strategies and how canny elites survive when it all goes wrong. It briefly explores what solutions there might be to the current problems of leadership.
Everyone's lives appear to be increasingly linked to numbers and targets. Once, they were just an essential element of private commerce: sales, clients, billable hours and deadlines all make good targets. The problem is, in the virtual reality game that leadership has become, elites are both game creators and game players. Political and civil service elites also have their own sense of precarity and their own array of masters, real and imaginary. Although numerical targets are more defined and measurable than general theories and grandiose rhetoric, they are also malleable. Elites are well-positioned to influence their construction for two obvious reasons. First, they increasingly possess the economics and accounting knowledge necessary to understand how they are devised and selected. Second, these same elites are often part of the negotiation and construction of auditable targets which are then used to evaluate their future selves.
Elites have become more vaguely linked by key ideas, norms and practices. The tenets of neoliberalism and globalisation, loosely defined, have been widely accepted in most British leadership sectors. Ideas and practices do not necessarily bring social cohesion across dissimilar sets of leaders. The basic contradictions of neoliberalism itself are further fragmenting elites. Large corporations, markets and the super-rich depend on states to function; but their crippling of national institutions, in order to free such 'wealth creators', jeopardises the very systems they rely on. So, in adapting and choosing systems that may produce more appropriate leaders, certain principles might be adopted and initiatives taken: transparency, conflicts of interest, checks and balances, self-policing, public information, social mobility, culture and ethics, intermediary professions, and ideas and innovation.
Herding not only increases the chances of survival; it means the trappings of leadership can be retained. It also means that leaders get to keep their professional legitimacy, networks and options open. Westminster is awash with fast followers and herds. This is particularly the case in political lobby journalism which has a lot in common with the financial world. It was the Tony Dye story that really showed me just how hard leaders run for the safety of the herd in times of crisis. Finally, Tony Dye gave me his own version of the Tony Dye story, while also predicting the 2007–8 crash to come. And that was the final bit of the Tony Dye morality tale. Those people who had done the wrong thing, in finance and politics, had not only survived, they had flourished.
Lying is an occupational hazard for those at the top. It's hard to both sell and tell the complete truth. Leaders need lies, not just to persuade people, but because they need to persuade themselves. If individuals operate with a certain degree of self-deception, then larger elite networks and professions appear almost entirely engineered towards keeping secrets. Denial and obfuscation are daily practices, learned and internalised. Over the years, a whole set of professions have evolved to help keep institutional secrets. In many accounts of power, those on top maintain their positions through forms of ideological domination. The predominant elite ideology of recent decades is neoliberalism. This is both a political project and a broader set of ideas and values such as individualism, laissez faire, free choice and free markets. A core component of neoliberalism is neoclassical economics.
Many of the sources of modern-day elite power have changed. Leaders don't all have exclusive educations, stockpiles of money, established old-boys' clubs and secure jobs. But they do possess alternative resources: secrecy and invisibility, access to expert knowledge, connections with new flexible networks and, above all, mobility. Mobility offers the possibility of leaders leveraging their assets, their contacts, knowledge and wealth. For leaders, can-kicking is a regular temptation. In classic studies of elites in the past, formal board networks were deemed to hold a key role in linking leaders across business. An 'inner circle', or elite of the business elite, sat on a number of executive boards and provided a powerful tool of influence. For some decades, globalisation has been promoted as a positive force by elites everywhere.
This introduction provides an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book surveys the elite state of play in Britain. It argues that the Establishment, as it has been conceived, is coming to an end. The book looks at how elites, by trying to get ahead, have destabilised the very institutions on which their power is based. It looks at how leaders have adapted to get to the top. The book looks at the secrets and lies that underpin elite power and control. It shows that leadership has been transformed into a numbers game because numbers can be tallied up in a way that ideas can't. The book focuses on exit strategies and how canny elites survive when it all goes wrong. It briefly explores what solutions there might be to the current problems of leadership.
In 2014, Owen Jones's The Establishment explained how and why Britain's unequal, class-ridden system would always prevail. It was written at a time when the elite seemed to be thriving in spite of recently writing off the global economy. If the current manifestation of the Establishment is no longer tied together by either shared class or collective interests, how does it maintain coherence? For Owen Jones, Anthony Sampson and other recent Establishment accounts, the answer is to be located in the ideas of neoliberalism: that is, everything to do with promoting the small state, the free market system, low taxes and low regulation, globalisation and so on. The logics of neoliberalism and unbounded self-interest are as potentially destructive to the Establishment as they are to the rest of society. After decades, their flaws and contradictions are becoming too large to deal with.
In the modern system of British elite rule, leaders have come to succeed almost by undermining the very institutions they manage. This chapter explores the national news media, the financial sector, big corporations, the Whitehall civil service and political parties at Westminster. Journalists no longer investigate stories and speak truth to power. They process 'churnalism' and speak the post-truths of elites. Politicians succeed by better managing big elite networks rather than by representing those who originally founded their parties. The EU referendum campaign of 2016 revealed just how willing politicians had become to sacrifice everything to achieve their personal ambitions. The campaigns were not about left and right, or even remain against leave, but about winning control of the Conservative Party itself. New political parties take the place of old ones.
For many leaders today, professional life is all about being a star salesperson. A large component of leadership seems to revolve around meetings. Meetings dominate the working lives of financiers and business leaders too. Many professional investors insist on seeing the management of the companies they invest in a few times a year. Successful leaders also need to sell to the larger audiences that the mass media can generate. The need to sell oneself through the Westminster mediasphere increases as one climbs the ladder because political leaders have become human brand logos for their parties. All this hard-selling has drawbacks for both leaders and led. The first problem is that this skill-set is becoming all important in many leadership sectors, even though an ability to sell does not necessarily make one a good leader.