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.
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.
Today, in modern Britain, the main expertise required to be a leader is of the kind which helps one rise to the top. But those at the top do have some things that they are expert in. These relate to getting to the top. Increasingly, those who get there have obtained the skill-sets and abilities to keep moving up. They are greasy poll experts rather than experts. Whatever specialist knowledge leaders have when they get to the top it's almost impossible to maintain it once there. Those at the top of leadership hierarchies appear to move on ever quicker. This has consequences both for individuals and institutions. Elites have less time to understand their position, make decisions or develop a vision. Organisations lose institutional memory and cohesion. In the worlds of business and finance, creative entrepreneurs run up against financial short-term expediency.
Joining an elite of any kind means being immersed in the particular culture and ideas of that space. Entering an elite space usually means being confronted with both physical and social barriers. The national news media is supposed to be the means by which the elite ideas and practices are challenged. Journalists are meant to hold those in power to account, by making leadership more transparent and contestable. Just as with financial reporting, journalists come to interpret politics through politicians. Politicians are their main sources. They are the central characters in their stories. And they are key consumers and personal critics. Elite cultures produce elitethink (groupthink on a larger scale), which can easily spread across an entire establishment network. Leaders follow blind fashions like lemmings over cliffs. Among business leaders, there is a strong belief that free markets, deregulation and low taxes will benefit everyone.
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.
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.
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.