By Estelle Cooch
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Crumbling Pillars of the British Establishment

This article is over 10 years, 4 months old
The phone hacking scandal has rapidly spread to engulf the police, the government and sections of the media. Estelle Cooch looks at the crisis of legitimacy spreading through the British establishment.
Issue 361

A succession of scandals have engulfed British public life over the last three years, each one placing under the spotlight the entrenched corruption of a different institution that governs our lives. First, there was the banking crisis and the huge bailouts that followed, and then came the parliamentary expenses scandal. Now the phone hacking scandal has raised profound disquiet not just about parts of the press but also about the cosy relationship of sections of the media with both politicians and the police. As deputy prime minster Nick Clegg told the Independent, “The pillars of the British establishment are tumbling one after the other”.

What, if anything, connects these crises? One aspect is the revelations about the tight circle of personal relationships among the rich and powerful. The stories of David Cameron horse-riding with his Chipping Norton neighbour and (now former) News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks have confirmed in the crudest way the links between those who run Britain. As does the existence of the so-called “Chipping Norton set”, named after the Oxfordshire town where a small cabal of the British ruling class all own properties.

The scandals are also connected by the greed, disregard for the law that the rest of us must heed, and utter lack of accountability of those at the top.

But the links go deeper than this. The impact of neoliberalism on British society over the last 30 years is another thread that runs through the scandals.

Take the banks. Within a generation public attitudes towards banks have been transformed. As recently as 1983 the annual British Social Attitudes Survey could report that 90 percent of people thought that banks were well run. As Thatcher’s government deregulated the City of London in 1986 and financial institutions came to play an ever bigger role in contemporary capitalism, trust in the banks steadily eroded. By 1994 it had fallen to 63 percent, as the popular image of the banker shifted from that of conservative local branch manager to swaggering City yuppie. But it was the banking crisis of 2008 that shattered the banks’ reputation, with just 19 percent now believing they are well run. Academics John Curtice and Alison Park have described this as “probably the biggest change in public attitudes ever recorded by the British Social Attitudes.”

In May 2009 the Daily Telegraph began to publish leaked MPs’ expenses claims. Throughout the summer the now well-known revelations of expenses claims for mock Tudor beams, moat cleaning, second homes that didn’t exist shocked the public.

The 14 May edition of Question Time had its highest viewing figures ever with 3.8 million viewers tuning in, surpassing even the 2003 episode as Britain attacked Iraq (a crisis which itself did enormous damage to trust in parliament). The expenses scandal eventually led to the imprisonment of five MPs and, according to a MORI poll in June 2009, views towards the motives of MPs were more negative than in any previous poll.

But the credibility of parliament had been corroded over a much longer period.
The erosion of the post Second World War social democratic settlement, under both Tory and Labour governments – and the way MPs of both parties have sought to emulate the lifestyles of the rich they spend so much time with – had also served to hollow out the legitimacy of parliament over the succeeding decades.

The neoliberal reshaping of large parts of British society was dependent on the successful breaking of the power of unions. The turning point in the rise of Murdoch’s empire and its debasement of journalism was his victory over the print unions at Wapping in 1986, a key episode in the string of victories the Thatcher government achieved over the organised working class in the 1980s.

Band of warring brothers

Splits at the top of society have also played a role in spreading the scandals.
The Daily Telegraph, a bastion of the Tory establishment, was no doubt partly motivated in breaking the expenses scandal by a desire to shift public anger away from the bankers onto the heads of the politicians with the suggestion that fiddled funds were not just a private sector issue, but also went to the heart of government. In other words, blame the state not the market. But the impact was largely to generalise the anger against those at the top of society further.

Equally, some MPs undoubtedly sought revenge on the press for the expenses scandal by demanding that the police reopen the phone hacking inquiry, questioning the claims by News Corp and the police alike that it was just limited to one rogue reporter.

As Karl Marx pointed out, the ruling class is like a “band of warring brothers” – with a common interest against those they exploit at the bottom of society, but riven by divisions and competition between themselves. In times of economic crisis unity can begin to crack as they turn on each other in ways that can serve to undermine the legitimacy of the ruling class as a whole.

The series of scandals and now the riots this summer challenge the myth that Britain is a model of stability. Nevertheless there is an element of truth in the claim that British capitalism has avoided upheavals more than many of its main rivals.
It is worth stating again why this is.

The protracted expansion of British capitalism, as the first great industrial nation, meant that the labour movement developed less on generalised class politics and more on narrow craft defensiveness, unlike in places such as Italy or Russia where the working class was forced quickly into large factories. Even when Britain stopped being the “workshop of the world”, its large empire helped cushion it from the worst ravages of the great inter-war crises of the 1920s and 30s. British economic supremacy is far in the past and that opens the door to a questioning of some of the ideological assumptions that it sustained.

Policing by consent

The Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin noted that capitalist democracy provides the “best possible political shell of capitalism”. By this he meant that such was the power of the collective working class that capitalism worked most efficiently with the consent of workers.

Long periods in which the class struggle has been kept within certain limits have meant that the idea of rule by consent, with change coming through reform rather than revolution, has deep roots inside the British working class.

One expression of this is the notion of “policing by consent”. Historically the police have looked to ensure that even where they use repression on those who challenge the rule of property, they have tried to present a friendly image to the mass of the population, so limiting any wider radicalisation against the state.

This has proved more difficult in recent years. The outrage that followed the
high-profile killings of Jean Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson, alongside the brutality at the student protests last year, have contributed to significantly denting that image among much far wider layers of the population.

Revealingly, the chief constable of West Yorkshire Police, Norman Bettison, told the Guardian following the riots that he was “troubled” by the “diminishing support for the police as the arbiters of social order and equivocation about its role in maintaining the peace”. Bettison added, “You can keep your water cannon, plastic bullets and curfews…What would put greater power into the hands of the police is the wholehearted support…of the public.”

The police hope to use the riots to rebuild support, but continuing deaths in custody and the likelihood of further revelations about the close relationship between the police and Murdoch’s press will not make that easy.

For Marxists, it is not surprising that a revolving door exists between different parts of the state and ruling class institutions, but for many people the fact that ten out of 45 current Metropolitan Police press officers used to work for News International will be astounding.

Following the murder of Jean Charles de Menezes it was the Murdoch’s newspapers that aggressively backed the police, while simultaneously hacking the phone of De Menezes’s brother.

The impact of neoliberalism in the past three decades has been to erode the mediating structures that the Italian revolutionary Gramsci referred to as “civil society”. A weakening of political parties and social and religious organisations has led to the greater atomisation of society. Such structures can both help give expression to discontent in society and also contain it within certain limits. The erosion of these structures also means it is very difficult for the ruling class to gauge reaction to policy, leading to the spontaneous outbursts of rage we have seen this summer. After the poll tax riots of the early 1990s the Tories were paralysed with fear over any backlash minor policy changes would provoke.
This wider questioning of key institutions of the ruling class feeds into the weakness of the government.

It is worth remembering that the Tory coalition with the Liberal Democrats is itself a result of a declining Tory vote. The Tories in 2010 won only 36.1 percent of the vote – a stark contrast with the 49.5 percent vote in 1955. Even John Major managed just under 42 percent of the vote in 1992. And the Liberal Democrats had to dump a large part of their programme to enter into government. Equally, the Tories’ limited restoration of their electoral fortunes depended in large part on Cameron distancing his party from much of Thatcher’s legacy. Though the Tories will hope that the riots can be used to shift politics to the right, they face the danger that their encouragement for the police and courts to launch a vicious crackdown and their renewed ideological assault on “welfare dependency” will further “re-toxify” the Tories in the eyes of many people.

A cabinet of millionaires, with a shallow mandate, attempting to push through the biggest onslaught on the welfare state, the public sector and workers’ living standards for generations, with a simmering anger over the behaviour of swathes of the establishment, was always likely to face sudden outbursts of anger. The riots this summer are unlikely to be the last.

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