The new few:
By no stretch of the imagination could Ferdinand Mount be considered a radical. His establishment credentials are impeccable: Eton, Oxford, columnist for right-wing publications (Telegraph, Sunday Times, Spectator), a former head of the Downing Street Policy Unit under Thatcher, baronet (though he does not use the title).
It is remarkable, therefore, that he has written a book that, potentially at least, is quite subversive. And although it makes limited reference to Scotland – apart from some sharp observations about those who helped to destroy the reputation of Scottish financial institutions for probity – its general argument should encourage us to think carefully about the direction in which the nation is heading.
Mount's book, 'The New Few' (subtitled 'A Very British Oligarchy'), offers a penetrating analysis of power and inequality in modern Britain. A quotation from George Orwell, written in 1948, is used as an epigraph: 'For quite fifty years past the general drift has almost certainly been towards oligarchy. The ever-increasing concentration of industrial and financial power; the diminishing importance of the individual capitalist or shareholder, and the growth of the new "managerial" class of scientists, technicians and bureaucrats; the increasing helplessness of small countries against big ones; the decay of representative institutions...all these things seem to point in the same direction'.
For Mount, oligarchs are to be found mainly in business and politics: 'The two sets of oligarchs must feed off each other to live and breathe'. Their ruthless self-interest subverts democratic processes and leads to greater and greater concentration of power in the hands of the few. Moreover, history tells us that oligarchies breed arrogance and corruption. Those at the top lose the capacity for constraint while requiring others to submit to ever-intensifying regulations: 'This is equally true of public institutions such as hospitals, schools, universities and police forces as it is of private commercial organisations'.
Mount illustrates his argument with reference to the financial rewards enjoyed by chief executive officers (CEOs), pointing out that the ratio of total rewards for CEOs in top companies to the pay of average UK employees rose from 45 to 1 in 1998 to 120 to 1 in 2010. He disputes the oft-stated claim that such disparities are necessary in order to secure the best talent, suggesting that the market for senior executives is distorted in various ways – 'by monopoly power, by professional cartels...by stitch-ups in the boardroom, by undetected market abuse, not to mention by the ancient arts of carve-up, scam and outright looting'. Mount should know what he is talking about: for a short time he worked in a merchant bank.
A deeply divided society can easily move from simply being perceived as unfair to become dysfunctional, breeding resentment, anger and perhaps opening the way for extremists
With regard to the political scene, he quotes figures which show the dramatic decline in voting figures at elections and membership of the main parties, signalling disenchantment with the record of politicians and marking a dangerous turn for democracy. Party conferences are no longer arenas in which issues of principle are debated robustly but merely stage-managed showpieces for the leadership. Large sections of the population now view the political process with a mixture of apathy and despair.
The most powerful part of Mount’s argument concerns inequality. Compared with other countries, such as Sweden or Japan, Britain is now a deeply unequal society. It is not only those at the bottom who are disconnected from the mainstream. Those at the top have lost any sense of what life means for the majority. They are insulated in their private estates and gated communities, in the limousines that take them from one meeting or social event to the next, in the private jets and yachts which are the visible expressions of their wealth and status. A deeply divided society can easily move from simply being perceived as unfair to become dysfunctional, breeding resentment, anger and perhaps opening the way for extremists.
Is it meaningful to speak of a specifically Scottish oligarchy? Previous articles in SR (including some of my own) have drawn attention to the existence of elite networks, particularly in Edinburgh. The Sunday Times publishes an annual 'rich list' of Scottish multi-millionaires, which includes well-known names (some with titles) from business and industry. The first minister has occasionally been criticised for having what is perceived as too close a relationship with some of these people. His own background, of course, included a period in banking before he became a full-time politician so he will be familiar with the language and priorities of the key players. The essential elements of an oligarchy as defined by Mount are certainly there. In a small country with a weak opposition and a well-connected inner circle of decision-makers, the risks of centralised power, with ineffective democratic checks, are considerable.
Mount ends his book by stating that: 'The oligarchs can and must be re-connected to the rest of society; so can and must the underclass'. He proposes a number of measure to bring this about, none of which could be regarded as revolutionary: 'the vigorous reform of company law and practice in order to improve transparency, accountability and fairness'; more examples of 'shareholder revolt' to hold company directors to account; the reinstatement of genuine local democracy, which has been weakened by decades of centralisation; the reform of the welfare state; the development of technical schools, which have been an important contributor to Germany's economic success; the revival of the 'living wage' campaign (not to be confused with the minimum wage), designed to lift the lowest earners above the poverty line. What would also help would be an engagement with political processes by people who owe no allegiance to traditional tribal loyalties, who are not motivated by a combination of greed and power, and who believe that there must be an ethical basis to any conception of the good society.
Walter Humes held professorships at the universities of Aberdeen, Strathclyde and West of Scotland and is now a visiting professor of education at the University of Stirling