Our Editor, Phil Parry, reviews ‘Reckless Opportunists – Elites at the End of the Establishment’ by Aeron Davis, published by Manchester University Press.
2016 was a bad year for people on the centre left. Trump won against all the odds, and the Brexit referendum means Britain will in all probability, now leave the European Union (EU).
To many it was a bleak time, but the premise for this book is that Brexit in particular was not a one-off. The ‘elites’ had it coming.
Brexit was just a symptom of a deep-rooted, structural problem caused by globalisation, “turbo” capitalism, financial engineering and new communication technologies.
Policy in the Middle East and Central Asia has been “disastrous”. The scale of the financial crises in 2000 (when the dot-com bubble burst) and 2007-8 were not foreseen. The “rapid” rise of Scottish nationalism (Welsh is not mentioned, so this refers to the Scottish independence referendum of 2014), and the loss of the Conservative majority in 2017, also show the elites have become “destabilised and disoriented”.
The problem with this argument is that many would disagree.
It could be argued that the election of Trump and Brexit, mark the high tide of right wing populism, and perhaps policy is not so “disastrous” after all.
Trump’s presidency has been rocked by a look inside the White House in a book which revealed that Trump himself retires to bed early with a cheese burger, and he furiously tweeted that he was a ‘very stable genius’.
It looks likely that it will be a ‘soft’ Brexit, where a trade deal with the continent is thrashed out, and there will be a ‘meaningful vote’ in Parliament afterwards (the Prime Minister’s own words).
Since the election of Trump in America and the Brexit referendum vote in the UK, there have been other elections which have been warmly welcomed by those on the centre left. Rutte beat the right wing Wilders in the Netherlands, and most importantly, Macron won a convincing victory in France. He even created a new party to do it.
The coalition talks in Germany following the election there, have been long and tortuous. They collapsed spectacularly at one point. Yet it looks likely now that the centre right party of Angela Merkel (CDU) will link up with the centre left social democrats (SPD). A preliminary blueprint was agreed on January 12.
The book is also let down in other ways.
There is, for example, no section on devolution. Tony Blair was at fault in many respects, particularly on the international stage, but the devolution which was created when he was at Number 10, made the most lasting change in Britain for generations, possibly of all time. It is still developing too – witness the increasing power of the Scottish Parliament, and the moves to increase the size of the Welsh Assembly.
Professor Davis could have used devolution to bolster his argument that in his world-view, it has created many more ‘elites’ such as political and business leaders. There are now a growing number of political lobbyists and SPADs (Special Political Advisor).
But to people on the centre left it has also allowed ‘progressive’ politics to flourish. There is a moderate Labour administration in charge in Cardiff and a nationalist party in Edinburgh.
Apart from devolution, there is also no separate section on the aristocracy or the honours system. Surely they are key parts of the ‘elite’?
There is a loose use of language which undermines the central thesis.
There is talk of the “national media” and “national news operations”, but which nation does he mean? The Welsh one? The Scottish one? Or (more likely) the English one? Does he mean the UK is a nation?
Acres of print have been used up trying to explain what is and what isn’t, a ‘nation’ and this book is no addition to that canon.
Which ‘media’ does he mean? The Western Mail and BBC Wales in Cardiff or The Scotsman and BBC Scotland in Edinburgh, are unlikely to be happy.
Professor Davis attacks the “self-serving” ‘elites’ but leaves himself open to this charge himself. At one point he says he “got to speak” to 40 MPs. Well, bully for you. What could be more ‘self-serving’ than that?
He proclaims that “It (his book) is based on 20 years of researching elite figures… I have interviewed and observed over 350 people working in or close to the top”.
Well, I’m sorry to disabuse you Professor, but I’m afraid there are many more than that – especially if you include the ‘elites’ who have risen to the top after devolution, which you haven’t.
He says: “The social history I have produced here is more that of the middle-brow, sociologist interloper”.
He does nod to the classic work of Antony Sampson in his 1962 study of the elites Anatomy Of Britain. Times and circumstances have changed massively since then, but his conclusions remain pertinent today.
You would do better to read that book than this one.
Phil Parry has been a journalist for 34 years and covered many political events.