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How the rich run Britain

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At the general election we will be asked which party do we want “in power”. But, as Raymie Kiernan explains, it is a rich elite who really wields influence in Britain
Issue 2448
David Cameron with Formula One boss Ron Dennis, one of the signatories of a letter to the Telegrapgh which said the Tories had been good for business. Dennis has donated £126,000 to the party. He is worth over an estimated £300 million and is the Official British Business Ambassador.
David Cameron with Formula One boss Ron Dennis, one of the signatories of a letter to the Telegraph which said the Tories had been good for business. Dennis has donated £126,000 to the party. He is worth over an estimated £300 million and is the Official British Business Ambassador. (Pic: Department for Business, Skills and Innovation on Flickr)

Over 100 bosses signed a letter in the Telegraph newspaper as the election campaign began to tell us to vote Tory because they are good for business. 

They said cuts to corporation tax had boosted profits—and that a Labour government would threaten this growth. They also threw in a threat of mass sackings for good measure.

From an early age it’s drummed into us that voting is the key to changing society. During elections we are asked which party we want to see “in power”. But the reality is the MPs, cabinet ministers and whoever lives at 10 Downing Street do not really run the country. 

Those who do are the tiny, unelected elite who have always ruled over us but do a good job of hiding it. The letter to the Telegraph was a rare glimpse of this elite.

People rightly get angry when MPs are caught profiting from their privileged position through fiddling expenses or selling their influence. Some argue the problem is a corrupt political class more interested in their own bank balance than those of the people they are supposedly there to serve. But the truth about who really runs Britain is even worse. 

It is the super rich who control society, accountable to no one except possibly their shareholders. The chief executives, bankers and industrialists control the wealth and power. They are the ones that make the economic decisions that can affect all of our lives.

Last year they marshalled their influence to frighten people in Scotland against voting for independence. Daily news reports bombarded people with nightmare scenarios should they vote Yes. Some, such as the bosses at B&Q, said it would mean jobs would be lost. 

Yet last week its owners announced the closure of 60 stores—3,000 job losses—anyway.


In Britain there are 104 billionaires with a total wealth of over £301 billion—an average of £3 billion each. Meanwhile the poorest fifth of the population have less than a tenth as much between them.

Britain has more billionaires per head of population than any other country. Controlling such extreme wealth gives them huge economic power—and unrivalled political influence.

There are just 1,120 FTSE 100 company directors on boards that control a total stock market value of £1.25 trillion. Most of them sit on more than one board. Usually this power is described as “market forces”, not pinpointed to a group of individuals. It’s presented to us as a natural phenomenon like the weather.

It used to be easier to see that we are ruled by the rich. A few centuries ago landowners and later industrialists had their own seats in parliament. 

Today they rely on MPs and other wings of the ruling class to keep the wheels of the capitalist state turning. This includes the police chiefs, military generals, judges, top civil servants and others.

The whole state apparatus acts to organise affairs in the interests of the capitalist class. It is not neutral. It protects the minority’s wealth from the majority who produce it, violently if necessary. This is usually termed “law and order”. 

But the state and capital aren’t the same thing. Elected politicians do make important decisions that can make it easier or harder for the ruling class to pursue its interests. They decide if a state goes to war, restricts workers’ rights, funds public services or sets a higher minimum wage. This influences the distribution of wealth in society.

That’s why bosses throw so much money into lobbying MPs to ensure their interests are represented and donate millions of pounds to fund political parties.

It’s also why the Tories, as the privately educated group of “old boys” representing capital, legislated to limit trade unions’ ability to do so.

The bosses’ strategy pays off. Private health care firms with Tory links have been awarded NHS contracts worth nearly £1.5 billion. And there is a revolving door between the top ranks of the civil service and corporate boardrooms. Some 600 ministers and top civil servants were appointed to business roles between 2000 and 2014. 

A third of top civil servants in 2013/14 were private sector appointments including former senior executives of oil and gas giants, banks and more.

Even the committee set up to monitor any impropriety in these appointments has a board made up of representatives of the military, business and the civil service. The whole thing reeks.

Most MPs are not filthy rich—although many are and the outgoing cabinet was stuffed full of millionaires. But all are ideologically tied to ruling class interests.


Many go into politics because it is seen as a well paid career with even better perks. But some enter parliament to fight for real change. But their principles rarely hold firm when they come up against the reality of how real power evades them and seek instead to compromise with the system. 

Their experience also becomes increasingly remote from the people they are meant to serve. Yet for all the second homes and expenses their wealth is nothing compared to those who hold real power.

This doesn’t mean they will not try to grab as much cash as they can. The latest “cash for access” corruption with Tory Malcolm Rifkind and Labour’s Jack Straw demonstrates this.

Straw is now set to take an executive position after the general election with the firm he privately lobbied for to win a £75 million government contract. And Rifkind’s role as a private health firm board member was questioned after it won a NHS contract. 

This was even though its bid cost £7 million more than the NHS alternative. It is no wonder so many people look at Westminster and think it does not represent them and that it is corrupt to the core. They are right.

But all of this doesn’t mean movements of working class people cannot influence parliament and pressure politicians to win real reforms. Any rights we do have were not handed to us. They were wrenched out of the ruling class’s grip through struggle.

But socialists do not look to parliament to challenge the capitalist system. Parliamentary democracy, which we are told is the highest form of popular representation, is based on the lie that every voter in society is equal—they are not.

Ordinary people have no say over decisions with the biggest impact on their lives. Parliament is integral to the system, and is part of the problem. 

Even the small group of left wing MPs find that they have no lever to pull that does anything other than serve the interests of capital. They are often bullied into accepting and implementing cuts by banks threatening to stop lending or big business saying they will pack up and leave.


The bureaucracy of politicians would rather stick pins in its eyes than implement anything near an anti-capitalist agenda. The revolving door and the elite schooling make sure of that.

Compared to the vast resources the ruling class controls, “parliament is,” as Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin put it, “a dung heap”. But he also argued it could be a platform to organise opposition outside the parliament. 

Socialists don’t see elections as just a distraction. We stand candidates to offer a left alternative but are under no illusion that is where change comes from.

The super rich bosses could not have all their wealth without workers creating it for them. We are often told we need politicians and bosses to organise things for us. This is a lie. 

Workers’ collective power can be used to offer a society based on finding the best and most efficient ways of providing for the needs of ordinary people. It can bring about real democracy where ordinary people run society.

And it can throw out the rich minority that make our lives a misery, and keep the wealth to themselves. The real alternative lies with arguing to unite the movements of working class people to overturn their whole rotten system.

Further reading

Arguments for revolution
by Charlie Kimber and Joseph Choonara, £3

The State and Revolution
by Vladimir Lenin

The state and capitalism today
by Chris Harman, International Socialism 51

Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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