By Tom Walker
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2197

Who really holds power in Britain?

This article is over 11 years, 9 months old
We are told that we elect representatives to parliament so that they can make decisions on our behalf—but big business still pulls the strings
Issue 2197

For the next three weeks there is no government in Britain. Parliament has shut down for the election, and every MP and minister is running around the country desperately trying to shore up their vote. So who’s running the country in the meantime?

The answer is the same people who always do.

We are told that power in Britain lies in parliament, the cabinet and the office of the prime minister—whether it’s day-to-day politics or a huge emergency, they make the decisions.

That’s one reason why people get so angry when MPs are caught spending more time sitting in their million-pound expenses mansions than “running the country”.

Some even say that our problems come from the rise of a corrupt “political class”—party apparatchiks more interested in feathering their own nests than serving the people.

But the truth about who really runs Britain is even worse. Our real rulers are completely unelected.

Once it was the landed aristocracy who held power. Their influence has declined—although many are still filthy rich.

But since the industrial revolution, it has been the super-rich—the chief executives, bankers and industrialists—who hold sway. They are the people who own the massive corporations and have the power to make the real, economic decisions that affect all of us.

They are the ones who can close down a factory and sack thousands of workers at the stroke of a pen.


There are just 1,011 billionaires in the world—but their combined wealth is more than £2 trillion (up an incredible 50 percent in the last year). They have more money than half of all humanity put together.

Such unimaginable wealth translates into huge economic power—and with that comes political influence.

Of the top 100 companies in Britain there are just 1,166 director positions—and most directors sit on the board of lots of different firms, not just one.

This tiny group control companies with a total stock market value of £1.2 trillion.

Sir Arthur Knight, the former chairman of Courtaulds, once said, “It is too often forgotten that 80 percent of our manufacturing industry is run by 400 firms, in each of which three or four people are responsible for the key strategic decisions.”

The fact that we are ruled by the rich is not as obvious as it was a few centuries ago, when wealthy landowners and later industrialists had their own seats in parliament.

Today they rely on MPs and the other wing of the ruling class—the unelected army generals, police chiefs, judges, top civil servants and others—who keep the wheels of the capitalist state turning.

The state acts to protect the tiny minority who own the wealth from the vast majority who produce it—violently if necessary. This is what politicians mean when they talk about “law and order”.

It can also act as an arbitrator between competing capitalists.

Elected politicians do make some important decisions—the run up to the Iraq war would have been very different if parliament had voted against the invasion.

They can change the laws to attack workers in an effort to increase company profits, or favour one group of capitalists over another.

Or on the other hand they can bring in a minimum wage or strengthen the welfare state.

That’s why bosses have to “lobby” MPs—to put extra pressure to ensure their interests are represented.

The Tories are still very much the open representatives of capital and the bosses—a group of privately educated “old boys”.

They are not all necessarily filthy rich, although there are plenty of millionaires on the Tory benches. But they are all ideologically aligned to the ruling class and that’s why they are happy to serve it.


Some Labour MPs enter parliament with a genuine hope and commitment to making things better for ordinary people.

Aneurin Bevan was one such MP, on the left wing of the Labour party, and he made it to the cabinet.

But each time he reached the position he wanted he said he “saw power’s coat tails disappearing round the corner”. The heart of power evaded Bevan, as it has every other elected representative in Britain.

For other Labour MPs, their position removed them from the way that working class people live and this came to seem ever more alien. So they start to identify with the ruling class.

Yet for all the expenses and second homes, MPs’ income still pales in comparison to that of the super-rich.

So, in awe of the sheer wealth of the circles they’re moving in, many MPs become outright corrupt and mercenary.

When Stephen Byers said he is like a “cab for hire”, it was an accurate description of the relationship between politicians and the ruling class.

But there is more to parliament than corruption. Mass working class movements can put pressure on politicians and win real reforms.

But it is not possible to use parliament to challenge the system as a whole.

Parliament cannot oppose the capitalist state because it is an integral part of it. Even the tiny minority of honest left wing MPs find that they simply have no lever to pull that does anything other than serve the interests of capital.

MPs are constantly told that if they don’t serve the interests of business then firms will move away or close down—and that will mean suffering for their working class constituents who lose their jobs.

They are bullied into backing cuts by banks that threaten to downgrade the country, stopping the state borrowing money and prompting bosses to pull their money out en masse.

And the only tool parliament has to implement its policies is the bureaucracy of the capitalist state—and that bureaucracy would sooner rise up in open revolt than implement anti-capitalist policies.

Compared with the resources the ruling class controls, parliament is nothing but a dusty old building.

The real alternative lies outside it, with the movements of working class people. United, we can be far more powerful than the dead weight on those leather benches.


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