Book Review – Politics

The Establishment by Owen Jones and Parliament Ltd by Martin Williams

I will accept from the outset that both these books have an agenda, perhaps even an axe to grind, but both paint a picture of an establishment that is self-serving and self-interested while the rest of us look on open-mouthed or with the glazed over look of indifference or ignorance.

The Establishment, the Political Nation, exists to serve those lucky enough, privileged enough to be part of it. And of course like our class system, it is a ‘club’ that you can join, you don’t have to be ‘born into it’. 

As Orwell put it so succinctly in his fable ‘Animal Farm’;

“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

This is the  go to quote for many things that involve the Establishment or the Political Nation. As always Orwell’s writings are as relevant today as they were seventy years ago.

Yesterday’s radicals, yesterday’s idealists, today they are of the Establishment, just as much of those born into it.

What is the Establishment?  Well it is a broad church as Owen Jones book demonstrates. It includes, Parliament, the Aristocracy, some of the Media, the BBC for example would be included in most definitions. Leaders of Industry, the City, local government and so the list goes on.

It is also a state of mind. Conveying a sense of entitlement on the individual perhaps, or a belief that not all the rules should apply equally.

Both books have been well researched if not universally well received. Owen Jones looks at a wider target, including the media, while Williams concentrates on parliament, both Commons and the House of Lords.

Both have politicians lamenting the poor rates of pay that they receive and of course this is used to justify or explain some of the scandals that have ‘rocked’ Parliament. If only we were paid more, paid a decent salary, then we would not have to resort to making our money elsewhere. So the argument goes.

A strange defence. “I am not paid enough so I am justified in maximizing my expenses.”

I don’t see “I stole a loaf of bread because I am not paid enough” being accepted as a defence by the courts.

And are there many of us who could not manage on £74,000 per year?

Much of the problem, much of what is wrong, stem from the British habit of relying on tradition and precedent. When MP’s were finally paid in 1911, the nature of this payment was never fully defined. It was referred to as a salary but Lloyd George made it clear in the debate that preceded the vote, that it was not to be seen as a substitute for a career or a job but as some sort of recompense for the sacrifice MP’s made whilst on public service.

Failure to accept that it is a job, one that requires dedication, long hours, many of them antisocial,  lies at root of many of the problems. And some of the blame has to shouldered by the rest of us. After all you get what you pay for.

Both books lift the stone on Parliament and the rest of the Establishment. What is underneath is often not very pretty and there is a clear need to clean things up. But both are short on solutions.

Perhaps that is not the point of the books. They both shine a light into the dark places, they have made us aware that the Establishment is, in so many ways not fit for purpose, and certainly has no right to sit in judgement on the rest of us.

But until the political system is reformed, so that the strangle hold on the political system can be broken, until that happens then it is hard to see how things can change . First past the post has to go and a system that means that everyone’s vote counts, whether it be PR or the alternative vote, needs to be brought in. We cannot have a government claiming a mandate to govern with 37% of the vote or a mere 24% of the electorate. The electorate need to feel that their vote matters, that they can make a difference. Recent referendums show that when this is the case, then political involvement and awareness increases.

But where is the motivation or the incentive for the political establishment to make such a reform? Where is the incentive for the House of Lords to accept the need to reform and to vote for reform of itself? Or for that matter for the House of Commons to reform ‘the other place’, only to find that its power and influence is being eroded by a reformed democratically elected chamber.

Conflict of interest is built into the system. MP’s represent their constituents, elected as they are on a first past the post system. But they also owe party loyalty and can be ‘whipped’ to vote for the Government, or suffer set backs in their career. After all most ministerial positions are filled from the House of Commons. Perhaps part of the solution is to separate the two.

Continue with an elected House of Commons but ban MP’s from becoming part of the Executive. They would be legislators only. Turn the House of Lords into a fully elected upper chamber, but use proportional representation to select its ‘Lords’ from party lists. It is from this ‘chamber’ that the Prime Minister would be chosen and members of the government. The Government would, in theory at least, be a government based on meritocracy. If you went further and banned MP’s from having a second job, but adjusted their pay to reflect the hours and the work that the role involved, then you would remove many of the conflicts and temptations that exist under the current system. MP’s would be able to vote according to their consciences and not slavishly follow the required party line for fear of being overlooked at the next reshuffle.

But that reform or something like it is unlikely to happen anytime soon. More worrying is the lack of an opposition. For our current political system to work, at least half decently, we need an effective, organised parliamentary opposition. The chaos that the Labour party finds itself in will do us no good. Unless it gets it act together, there will be no one effectively  holding the Government to account.

Will we get the reform that we need? Will it happen soon?  I fear not. The Establishment is to engrained and too powerful. It will accept change at some point in the future.  But as the Chartist movement found, only when it wants to, on its own terms and when it feels it can control the outcome. Until then, the rest of us just have to press our noses against the window and watch with growing frustration at the inequalities and inequities.

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