Aeron Davis provides an insightful, fluent and frank account of the nature of the contemporary British Establishment: in its own words. On one level, he confirms what we already know intuitively. We know there is something we can call “the Establishment”, which works in the interests of those who are in it. We know that the current Establishment has changed (a bit), so that a public-school education and Oxbridge are not now the only routes in. And we know that, despite this, a system of revolving doors between media, business, politics and the City endures. But there have been a number of other critical accounts such as Owen Jones’ The Establishment: And how they get away with it (2014), so why do we need to read Davis’ book?
In short, one of the main reasons is the complete and compelling candour of his interviewees. Davis has spoken to more than 350 members of the contemporary Establishment over a period of about 20 years and so is well placed to comment on how it has evolved. He offers a transparent account of the elites’ views of what they are doing and the ways in which they think and operate.
It may well be that this honesty was based on the assumption that, to quote veteran Labour MP Dennis Skinner on meeting the author, they were merely contributing to a piece of work by another “fucking useless academic”. But that assumption has led to some striking revelations.
There is the senior Treasury official who doesn’t quite know the full scale of an area of public debt, but for whom £300 billion seems a negligible amount. The ex-City fund manager who says that the purpose of the system is to take as much money as possible from investors, without them protesting. There is no need for these elites to worry about expertise when, as Davis shows, they can always move on to their next venture. For them there is no accountability.
It is not all gloomy. There are some heroines and heroes to root for here – and we do read accounts from those who are seeking to engineer change from within.
In places, Reckless Opportunists almost feels like a thriller. You find yourself yearning for the happy ending where the good people win – and the book does end with a set of principles by which this could be achieved. But overall Davis paints a picture of a very white, alpha-male world, where individual self-interest predominates, naked greed is good and success is measured through “change”, which is pursued solely for profit. He shows us the people involved in the process, many of whom are ruthless neoliberals.
For the author, these behaviours contain the seeds of the Establishment’s undoing. But I am not so sure. The lack of reflection on their own roles, how they got there and what their actions mean for society (the self-deception of former Tesco’s boss Terence Leahy would be laughable if it wasn’t so awful) mean that what is brought into focus is the way in which the Establishment has not only learned how to play the game, but is collectively reinventing the rules. Those rules are still largely being written in white masculinised terms. And that is just a little bit depressing.
Heather Savigny is professor in gender, media and politics at De Montfort University.
Reckless Opportunists: Elites at the End of the Establishment
By Aeron Davis
Manchester University Press 160pp, £78.85 and £9.99
ISBN 9781526127273 and 9781526127280
Published 12 March 2018