Book review: The Establishment, by Owen Jones

OWEN Jones was born to become a young tyro of the post-Blair British Left. He was raised in Sheffield, Stockport and Falkirk.

The Establishment

by Owen Jones

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Allen Lane, 368pp, £16.99

His parents met at a Militant Tendency meeting and his grandfather was a communist. At the age of 27 he published his first book, Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class.

Passionate, angry and articulate, Chavs railed against the cynical slandering, by politicians and the media, of working people. The lower, labouring classes who had once been portrayed as the salt of the earth had been transformed into shirkers, strikers and scroungers, and Owen Jones wasn’t having it.

The book won enormous acclaim. It also elevated Jones from a post as a Labour Party researcher into the world of national newspaper columns, television, radio and the lecture circuit.

Three years later he has turned his attention to the other end of the social scale. His new book is devoted to his class enemies, an analysis of that nebulous band of clubbable men and (lately) women who steer society in their preferred direction.

The book is what Owen Jones’s grandfather would have known as agitprop. Jones had no more intention of producing a mildly interrogative study of his elders and betters, such as Anthony Sampson’s seminal Anatomy of Britain 50 years ago, than he had of voting UKIP.

The Establishment’s first task after the Second World War was to overturn the achievements of Attlee’s government. It only took three decades, from the establishment of the National Health Service in 1948 to the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, to swing the public will against a socialist democracy and back in favour of a neo-liberal free market.

Jones is very good on the influence of what he calls the “outriders”, intellectuals who, from behind the walls of some self-styled “institute” or “foundation”, act as the Establishment’s hired guns. In the 1960s, when they first appeared, they advocated the privatisation of such publicly-owned services as the coalmines, the railways and Royal Mail.

They were dismissed as mad but they would not relent or relax. When, 20 or 30 years later, those aims had been adopted by the political mainstream, they began to advocate the privatisation of everything else, from prisons to the police service and the NHS. Now they are suggesting that democracy is not a very efficient system of government.

This onslaught has of course been advertised daily by 80 per cent of the print media, putting the frighteners on such supposedly objective outlets as the BBC, by the perfectly logical suggestion that it too should be carved up and sold off to Rupert Murdoch. Its agenda, the Establishment and its foghorn Murdoch’s agenda has been to remove power, wealth and control from the many and deliver it back to the few.

Even the last Labour government gave up on confronting rampant capitalism and attempted instead to harness some of its preposterous profits to the public good. In a single lifetime we have gone from a prime minister, Attlee, who correctly dismissed charity as “a cold grey loveless thing”, to a prime minister, Cameron, who wants society to run on charity rather than on progressive taxation.

In Jones’s analysis we have been robbed of true political representation. In the absence of clear class politics, crude nationalism has seized the stage in England and Scotland, exploiting on behalf of the Establishment the absence of a fair and redistributive agenda.

Older socialists might blink at some of Jones’s historical analysis. We might remember that the reckless trade unions and the Labour-hating SNP ushered in Margaret Thatcher’s government. We might bleat that we did our best in difficult times.

But Owen Jones’s The Establishment, And How They Get Away With It confirms that our best was not good enough. We lost most of our battles. He is right to hope that a new generation of idealists can renew the battle against that little band of clubbable men and women, and, fighting as ever from the bottom, regain lost ground. Thanks to Jones’s latest book, at least they know what they’re up against.