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Who is really running Britain?

This article is over 3 years, 11 months old
The Dominic Cummings affair has exposed how far the Tories will go to protect unelected advisers. Nick Clark looks at what the scandal says about how society is run
Issue 2707
Parliament is just one of the places where power lies (Pic: Muarice/Flickr)

Boris Johnson is not in charge.

In front of a parliamentary committee last week he let slip he had been “forbidden” from announcing any more targets or deadlines for coronavirus tests.

Which begs the question—forbidden by who?

There are plenty of people with the power to “forbid” a prime minister from doing something, most of them totally unaccountable—starting with their own aides.

Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings has often looked more powerful than most of the government’s elected MPs. 

Dominic Cummings shows class arrogance of the rich
Dominic Cummings shows class arrogance of the rich
  Read More

So important is he to Johnson that senior ministers have gone on TV and radio to make fools of themselves in his defence.

Cummings is at least as much in charge of the government as Johnson is himself. Yet he was never elected, and we’re never supposed to hear from him.

Journalists who congratulated themselves on holding Cummings to account were at the same time aghast that he held a press conference in 10 Downing Street’s garden.

They prefer their private briefings in Number 10’s basement, where Cummings is quoted only as Johnson’s “spokesman”—not in front of cameras for everyone to see.

Pundits complained the setting made Cummings look like he was part of the government. In truth he always has been, and the political correspondents have all been happy to play along.

The real problem is that the Cummings scandal has dragged that truth into the open and exposed it in the light of day.

It’s not irrelevant whether the prime minister is a vicious racist Tory like Johnson or a candidate from the Labour left. 

Politicians and their decisions matter. They can press for wars and initiate disastrous Covid-19 strategies. 

But electing MPs is only part of the picture—and hidden behind that are Britain’s dark warrens of power.

Politics is said to be working normally when deals are made in Westminster’s corridors, private bars and dining rooms by unelected people we’ve never heard of.

The aides are just the start of it. There are also the untouchable senior civil servants who run government departments. 

It’s right that government listens to the advice of scientists or healthcare specialists. 

But these civil servants feel just as entitled to have a say over government policy as the ministers do.


They have to sign off on policies and spending plans—which they’ve usually had a hand in drawing up themselves—giving them an effective veto that politicians rarely defy. 

And these high paying posts are filled with members of the old boys’ club—toffs who know each other from private schools and Oxbridge. 

Last week the National Audit Office revealed that ministers overrode civil servants’ attempts to block spending 11 times since January. 

This was news because it’s only happened 75 times in the last 30 years.

Governments and ministers come and go, but the civil servants run the show—and they know it.

If they really want to, they can ruin a government by simply obstructing, defying or ignoring elected politicians completely. 

Ahead of last year’s general election, then shadow chancellor John McDonnell met senior treasury civil servants, supposedly to prepare them for a radical Labour government.

As he had it, this was to brief and educate them on the partial nationalisation and reversal of austerity Labour had planned. 

He probably also hoped to persuade them not to sabotage it all.

But top civil servants had already begun working to undermine the possibility of a Labour government. 

They briefed journalists at the Times newspaper that Corbyn was “too frail” to be prime minister, and not up to the job “physically or mentally.”

Labour’s calls for an inquiry went nowhere. The Tories announced the civil service would investigate itself and nothing more was heard after that.

The supposed “independence” of the civil service really just means it’s unaccountable. Its “impartiality” means it works for the rich, whichever party is in government.

For civil servants and bosses alike, society is running smoothly when big business is making big profits.

The real power in society doesn’t lie with elected politicians, or even with their aides and civil servants. It’s with the bosses and multinationals that control huge chunks of the world’s wealth.

In 2011, a study of 43,060 multinational companies revealed they were owned by a core of 1,318 firms. At the core of that was a “super-entity” of 147 interconnected companies—mostly financial institutions—that together controlled more than 40 percent of the world’s wealth.


Almost a decade on, that percentage is sure to be even higher as competing firms crash, merge and swallow each other up.

Typically most major firms rely on some form of relationship with the state—to hand them the contracts they want, provide the infrastructure they need, or bail them out when they fail.

In 2018 Tees Valley council—the authority for one of the poorest areas in Britain—offered more than £100 million to the richest man in Britain. 

It hoped that Ineos owner Jim Ratcliffe might build a new car plant on the site of a former steelworks.

Tory mayor Ben Houchen said he “threw the kitchen sink” at Ineos. His offer included grants and tax breaks, as well as to build the factory and funding to train local workers.

It wasn’t enough. Ratcliffe turned the offer down.

This same relationship plays out between bosses and politicians on a much larger scale—from the lobbying and bribing of MPs to the mysterious workings of “market forces.”

During last year’s general election, the value of the pound fell when opinion polls suggested the Tories’ lead over Labour was narrowing.

It showed that bosses wanted a Tory government—and could sabotage the economy by taking their money away if they didn’t get it.

In candid interviews with the Financial Times newspaper, bosses talked openly of moving their money out of Britain if Corbyn became prime minister.

Politicians and civil servants pass the laws and legislation they hope will keep the economy profitable for businesses. 

And unelected judges, police officers, intelligence services and generals enforce them.

Again, most of the time this is hidden in the language of “independence” and “impartiality”. 

Sometimes the mask slips.

Twice in the past three years Royal Mail’s millionaire bosses have run to the courts after postal workers voted overwhelmingly for massive strikes. Both times judges sided with them on the basis of laws designed specifically to stop workers striking.

The last time this happened, in 2019, judge Jonathan Swift—formerly one of the government’s chief law officers—said the coming election was a factor in his decision.

That’s just one example of the immense influence wielders of power have over ordinary people’s lives—from the very big to the most mundane.

Whether he is choosing to open an Ineos plant in one place or to close another elsewhere, the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people depend on the whims of Ratcliffe.

What Ratcliffe produces in those plants—gas, chemicals, plastics—is a huge part of the industry driving catastrophic climate change. It affects the lives of everyone on the planet for centuries to come.

And if Ratcliffe decides, along with other billionaires, to hoard his cash and wreck the economy, millions of ordinary people will bear the brunt of the economic crisis he causes.

The basis for this power is untouched by parliament or the outcome of elections. 

But that doesn’t mean it’s unshakeable. For all the power that bosses such as Ratcliffe have, it all relies on the work that ordinary people do.

Royal Mail’s recently departed chief executive Rico Back is worth millions, but he didn’t sort a single letter or carry a single sack. 

He depended on tens of thousands of postal workers to do all that for him—and when they threatened mass unofficial strikes, he was forced to resign.

Ordinary people could inflict a similar defeat on Johnson and Cummings if they defy their attempts to force a return to unsafe work and schools.

It’s just a glimmer of the ability ordinary people have to “forbid” the scheming of the unelected powers to who really run Britain. 

Cummings is just the start.

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