Though not without its faults, Peter Oborne’s The Triumph of the Political Class none the less offers a compelling portrait of the inhabitants of the Westminster bubble, says Nick Cohen
Sunday September 30, 2007
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The Triumph of the Political Class
by Peter Oborne
Simon & Schuster £18.99, pp390
During an interview in 2003, Gordon Brown took the trouble to argue with a long-dead academic, all but unknown outside conservative intellectual circles. ‘There is a Namier school of history, which suggests that everything is less to do with ideas and popular concerns than with the manoeuvrings of elites,’ he told the Times. ‘I do not accept that … politics is about ideas and ideals and is about the policies that reflect the concerns of people.’
Lewis Namier (1888-1960) argued in his masterwork The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III that talk of great battles of principle between the Whigs and Tories of Hanoverian England was nonsense. Ministers were in politics for the money and to advance the interests of their cliques. MPs who boasted of their independence were forever seeking favours from the public purse. Ideology mattered so little that ‘the political life of the period could be fully described without ever using a party denomination’.
You can do the same today, argues Peter Oborne in this thought-provoking polemic. Members of the 21st-century ‘political class’ are as isolated and self-interested as their Georgian predecessors and Brown’s outburst against the realism of Namier was nothing more than the rage of Caliban at seeing his face in the glass.
Oborne is a muscular writer who values intellectual clarity and he works hard to explain that he does not regard the political class as a continuation of the old establishment. On the contrary, it despises the values of traditional institutions that once acted as restraints on the power of the state – the independence of the judiciary, the neutrality of the Civil Service and the accountability of ministers to the Commons.
It takes a while to be convinced because, like the Prime Minister, the British tend to think of political parties, in a watered-down Marxist way, as manifestations of class interests fighting for different visions of how society should be run. Oborne neatly turns conventional wisdom on its head and argues that the modern elite is contemptuous of traditional constraints precisely because it has been taught by Marxist academics that the rule of law or the personal responsibility of politicians are just fictions that hide the power of the privileged. The modern political class thinks it can override these discreditable constitutional conventions because it has been elected, albeit by an ever-diminishing proportion of eligible voters.
If you are young and ambitious and want to join, Oborne sketches out a career path. First, you must set yourself apart from your contemporaries at university by taking an interest in politics. You must join a think-tank or become researcher to an upwardly mobile MP on graduation. Before getting to the top, you will have eaten with, drunk with and slept with people exactly like you, not only in politics but in the media, PR and advertising, trades the old establishment despised, but you admire for their ability to manipulate the masses.
You will talk a language the vast majority of your fellow citizens can’t understand and be obsessed with the marketing of politics rather than its content. You will notice that once in power, you can get away with behaviour that would have stunned your predecessors. You can use your position to profit from lecture tours and negotiate discounts, as Cherie Blair did. You can try to find your mistress a job in the Civil Service, as Robin Cook did, or make love to your mistress in government offices on government time, as John Prescott did. When challenged, you will say that ‘everyone in business behaves like this’ when, in fact, they don’t.
Politics will be your career. You will have no experience of other trades and, paradoxically, be a worse politician for it. Because you’ve never managed a budget or a large institution or served in the armed forces, the likelihood is that you will waste vast amounts of public money and send British troops into battle unprepared.
Oborne marshals his facts impressively. As a political commentator first on the Spectator and then on the Daily Mail, he has seen at first hand the subservience of lobby correspondents to New Labour and presents the reader with gruesome scenes of Alastair Campbell being cheered on by sycophants at lobby briefings.
But although Oborne loathes the Westminster beat where he has spent his adult life, he can’t escape from the narrow-mindedness of Westminster journalism and see the wider world beyond. He denounces politicians for their soundbites, but fails to mention that television news will broadcast only those politicians who deliver soundbites. He deplores ministers’ criticisms of judges, but fails to understand how the Human Rights Act has given judges political power. And having condemned the effects of Marxist teaching on today’s politicians, Oborne metamorphoses into a Tory version of Noam Chomsky as he wails that democracy is a facade and media independence a myth.
Hysteria inevitably follows such a descent and he concludes by muttering that England is on the edge of fascism. Such blemishes detract from but do not destroy a powerful and troubling study. At his best, Oborne is a patriot who wants to protect the best of his country from smarmy men and women who know everything about power except how to use it wisely.