[I am pleased to announce that my friend and colleague, the esteemed British lawyer Anthony Julius, has agreed to author a short series of book reviews to be published exclusively on this blog. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Anthony and his work, and I am proud to be able to share some of his writings here. His first book review is of Peter Oborne’s “The Triumph of the Political Class” – Robert Amsterdam]
Review of Peter Oborne “The Triumph of the Political Class,” Simon & Schuster, 2007, £18.99
By Anthony Julius
The political commentator Peter Oborne believes he has spotted a shift for the worse in Britain’s political culture. A new political elite has emerged. This is the “Political Class,” as supported by the “Media class.” The Political Class is much like the old Soviet “nomeklatura.” It is a menacing phenomenon. It has rejected the values and practices of the governing class that ran Britain in the 19th century. This class embraced the concept of public duty. It rejected the greed and pursuit of self-interest that characterised 18th century British politics. It insisted upon a clear division between private interests and the public interest, and it championed integrity in political office. It turned the civil service into a professional, apolitical elite. It was committed to the concept of Ministerial responsibility. This governing class, whose members were guardians of the Victorian state, could not be bribed, suborned or influenced.
Oborne maintains that the achievements of these Victorian reformers has been reversed in many cases, and positively destroyed in certain other cases. The culprits are the Political Class, also known as the “Modernises.” They have attacked all the traditional institutions of British civil society and the state. They have a common economic base, since all are dependent on the British State for funding and prestige. They collaborate with each other across party lines. When they are not working as Members of Parliament (or members of the Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly) they tend to be lobbyists, political consultants or special advisers. They have no experience of life outside politics, which breeds a culture of incompetence. They believe themselves to be exempt from the rules that govern ordinary people. They regard themselves as unaccountable. Their relationship with the media is a corrupt one. They are deeply attached to the paraphernalia of office; they are also selfish and only interested in success. They have no interest in ideas or ideology. Their stance towards the electorate is defined by a “post-democratic” manipulative populism. The political Opposition is now in collusion with the Government. The real division in Britain public life is not between the main political parties but between the Political Class and the rest.The book’s central thesis will be familiar to anyone acquainted with the works of classical sociology. Society is run by a self-perpetuating political elite; that elite is self-interested; the ostensible political divisions within the elite are much less significant than its corporate character; democracy is no more than the shuffling of roles among members of the elite. Where Oborne diverges from this theory is in his belief that this is not a necessary feature of every modern society but a purely contingent – and therefore reversible – feature of modern British society. If the Modernisers can be defeated – and his book is a blast in their direction – then we have a good chance of reverting to the standards and practices of our Victorian forebears. “At some stage,” he concludes, “a British politician may well discover a new language of public discourse and methodology of political engagement which communicates simply and plainly to voters.”