Howard Davies finds something rotten in the state of Blair's Britain that runs deeper than a summer holiday in Cliff's villa
For more than 40 years, since the days of Harold Macmillan, Anthony Sampson has been Chief Anatomist to the UK body politic. His first Anatomy of Britain was published in 1962. Several updates have been issued since, with increasingly contrived anatomical titles. Now, having exhausted all plausible reformulations of the original theme, we have Who Runs This Place? It is, however, the same dog, washed.
In the intervening years, others have attempted to muscle in on the trade: Jeremy Paxman's The English is a typical example. But no one has matched Sampson's combination of analysis, networking and sharp drafting.
Paxman remains best suited to his day job, and he is well described here as "the scourge of all lying politicians".
In this latest edition of his "rough guide" to power in the UK, Sampson takes his scalpel to Tony Blair's Britain. What does he find? Have two terms of Labour made a difference to the way power is wielded? Are we now a more open society, with newly accountable elites, from a broader range of backgrounds, governing with a closer knowledge of the lives and desires of ordinary people?
Broadly, and with some qualifications, Sampson's answer is "no". Indeed, he does not like what he sees. Too little has changed, in his view, and much of the change he finds has been for the worse.
Some of his dyspepsia is clearly motivated by matters of taste, rather than analysis. He is allergic to the beautiful people dimension of the Blair entourage: family holidays in Cliff Richard's Barbadian villa are offensive to the chief anatomist. "The prime minister's own little court in Number 10, his showbiz receptions, his holidays in grand houses, his travels on planes from the Queen's Flight, were becoming more publicised than royal tours or lavish receptions in the royal palaces, which kept the cameras away from them."
But his core criticism is more serious, and less personal. There is, he believes, dangerous incoherence about governance at the heart of the new Labour project - as we used to call it. In the first place, he cannot begin to understand the third way, quoting former head of the US government's anti-trust division Joel Klein's dictum, admittedly in a US context, that "no third way has ever outlasted the president who articulated it". But that is a minor point: what concerns him more is new Labour's interaction with the good, the great and the economically powerful.
One advantage Sampson has over his competitors is perspective: his cuttings book dates back further than the week before last, the usual time span of journalistic "research". As a result, he unkindly reminds us of some of Blair's extravagant claims when in opposition. The young Blair, playing to a party gallery, told the world that any incoming Labour government would be bound to "come into sharp conflict with the power of capital".
In office, it does not seem to have turned out quite that way. The moneyed classes have changed, of course. It is now Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch, not Kleinwort Benson and Morgan Grenfell. Sampson is careful to chronicle the dramatic changes in the City post-Big Bang, cruelly quoting an American investment banker on the fate of old City money. The only question faced by the new boys, he thought, as they swept aside the blue bloods, was "how much do we have to pay them to clear out of town and do something else with their lives?".
But the masters of the universe who replaced the old guard are perhaps even more politically powerful and have certainly been more welcome in the corridors of No 10 than their aristocratic predecessors. They are, in Sampson's view, "a new upper class imposed on the aristocratic structure of traditional Britain", imposed with the enthusiastic support of Blair and his people. He believes that respect for money, rather than professional conduct or ethics, is the biggest change in British society in the past 40 years. New Labour has been pleased to support that transition and even to push it on.
The third offence on the charge sheet is the promotion of what he sees as an excessive centralisation of power. In opposition, Peter Mandelson (remember him?) said firmly that new Labour "requires a new decentralised and devolved style of politics". In office, Blair reformulated this concept a little, explaining that "people have to know that we will run from the centre and govern from the centre". This, to Sampson, is one of a number of examples of ways in which "Blair's convictions remained closely linked to his interest in power". The result is a government that, in spite of its stated commitment to reform, has done very little to disperse and devolve power.
But Who Runs this Place? is not simply a diatribe against Blairism. Sampson cuts deep into other organs of the state. The media are given short shrift.
They too are short term in their focus, and the politically partisan ownership of most newspapers diminishes the impact of their views. We know what the Rupert Murdoch, Conrad Black (still, just) and Lord Rothermere papers will say on Europe, and on the primacy of the US relationship in foreign affairs, so why pay any attention to their arguments? What he calls the "commentariat" has slightly more influence but is frequently ill informed and chained to the treadmill of the weekly column, which militates against original thought. The BBC he sees as cowed and humbled, while the academic community, which ought to play a balancing role in holding the government to account, "has become so dependent and demoralised that it can no longer play that role". Ouch.
The royal family? He cites a waspish observation from Roy Jenkins: "The concept of an extended reigning family has not prospered." The legal profession? Don't ask. Sampson has no time for the introverted, overpaid community of silken folk who have had too much influence over the Blair regime. Trades unions? In secular decline and in search of a new role.
Parliament? Members of Parliament are "less distinguished, more professional, more insecure and they hardly muster enough talent to form an effective government". Local government? Forget it. Only the armed forces fare well in this dissection. They have "a much clearer identity of purpose than most institutions" and remain proud and capable, if smaller.
The net result, Sampson believes, is a highly skewed distribution of power, perhaps even more skewed than it was 40 years ago. Surveying the full landscape, he identifies "small clusters of self-enclosed, self-serving groups on the peaks, and the populace on the plain below".
It may be that anatomising for so long takes it out of you. Sampson has analysed himself into a state bordering on depression. In doing so, he may have generated unrealistic expectations for himself. How many countries have not been governed by relatively small groups? Even where power has nominally rested with the populace, it has typically been wielded by a tightly defined group, usually rather a nasty one. And I suspect he is too pessimistic about parliament. We tend to think that the great nabobs of our youth were a cut above their counterparts today. But I would cheerfully trade Gerald Nabarro for Christopher Soames or Ian Mikardo for Ann Clwyd.
Sampson also pays little attention to the government's, or perhaps more properly chancellor Gordon Brown's, redistributional achievements. There has been a significant impact on the relative incomes of poor working families and on child poverty since 1997. Maybe the very stealthiness of the tax and benefit changes have camouflaged their effects and hidden them even from the chief anatomist. Any assessment that attaches such significance to the power of money should recognise that shift of spending power.
He is clearly right, though, that there has been no meaningful decentralisation of power under Blair after devolution in Scotland and Wales. Treasury control over the financing of local services has remained as rigorous as ever, and ministers intervene daily in the detail of local provision. I would go further and argue that there is an unhealthy obsession with government policy in too many areas of British life. Junior ministers, who often know astonishingly little about their areas of responsibility, are treated with exaggerated respect. We dutifully attend conferences structured around ministerial non-pronouncements of non-policies, or around the fourth announcement of the same spending plan.
In universities, cohorts of academics seek to reverse-engineer decisions in the Department for Education and Skills that were barely engineered in the first place. In the City, banks pay good money to public relations agencies to entice special advisers to lunch. Having been one of that breed, I can confidently say that some of them have no idea what day of the week it is.
If Sampson helps to puncture this excess of reverence for what is perceived to be power, he will have done a great service to the nation.
On a more banal level, Who Runs This Place? is a useful piece of explanatory prose. There are errors, of course. Colin Campbell may wish to be vice-chancellor of Birmingham University, but he is not. And Derek Roberts and Malcolm Grant cannot both be provosts of University College London at the same time. Niall Fitzgerald of Unilever has not, to my knowledge, grown a beard, though one day he may. Cockney Peter Bonfield, late of BT, appears to have changed his name to Brian and become an Australian, perhaps to hide from angry shareholders. But these are trivial errors. Sampson's anatomy remains a model of its kind that can be commended to anyone who aspires to an understanding of public life in Britain today.
Howard Davies is director, London School of Economics and Political Science.
Who Runs This Place?
Author - Anthony Sampson
Publisher - John Murray
Pages - 418
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 7195 6564 2