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The old men’s club We don’t hear about it as much anymore as we used to, do we? The sentence seems a bit dusty, a bit retrospective. Harrovians, Etonians, Wykehamists and other privately educated politicians may make up 80% of Britain’s Prime Ministers so far; but more and more they sit side by side in parliament with others who did not go to paid schools, are not male, are not white, and not only did they not go to Oxbridge, but have no university education at all.
And yet here we are, flipping through the seedy dealings of a small group of people connected at the top. The last few weeks of conservative scandals are proof that this network is still alive and kicking. What these scandals also reveal is an evolution in the character of the network: high finance and mercantilism are becoming a fast track for new members into the ranks of this particular political elite.
Let’s untangle the web of connections between the City, the government and their friends. BBC chairman Richard Sharp is facing two separate investigations amid allegations that he helped former Prime Minister Boris Johnson secure a loan of up to £800,000, weeks before Johnson recommended him for the BBC job. Our current prime minister, Rishi Sunak, worked in hedge funds and is a Goldman Sachs alumnus. Sharp, many years ago, was Sunak’s boss at Goldman Sachs, and years later, Sunak’s economic adviser during the pandemic. Sunak, as foreign minister, drew on a long tradition of moving between the two worlds of politics and finance. Sajid Javid made his fortune at Deutsche Bank and had a second job at JP Morgan while acting MP. George Osborne took a job at BlackRock and most recently at Robey Warshaw investment bank.
There are other paths to and from the center that involve making so many millions that you can claim to be “sloppy” when calculating how many of them you owe in taxes. Take Nadhim Zahawi, for example, who was sacked as Chairman of the Conservative Party for breaching the ministerial code by failing to declare the HMRC investigation into his tax affairs. Zahawi makes a big deal about his unorthodox profile and his journey into elite British politics as an immigrant who couldn’t speak English until he was 11 years old. He even appraised himself in his own letter in response to his firing. His next memoir (if he ever sees the light of day) is titled A Boy from Baghdad: My Journey from Waziriyah to Westminster. But his rise has more to do with what the Tory party rates and enjoys than his contribution as a politician. His wealth and dynamic arrangement for oil companies and finance companies like David Cameron’s Greensill, gave him the status of a well-connected negotiator and risk-taker in a party that rates entrepreneurship on a tightrope, rather than raising concerns about the blur. lines between his political duties and the great business empire.
Capital from commerce and banking is also protected by those with cultural capital in parts of a press owned by billionaires. Sunak’s support team on the road to No 10 has been a small group of privately educated and Oxbridge-educated media and communications specialists; a second generation that is walking the highly rewarding and high-profile path to politics blazed by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. James Forsyth (Sunak was reportedly best man at his wedding) went from lavishing praise on Sunak in his Spectator column to becoming Sunak’s political secretary. Forsyth’s wife, Allegra Stratton, became Sunak’s director of strategic communications at Treasury, and then press secretary number 10. After a brief hiatus after falling on her sword for flouting breaking social distancing laws , is now back at Bloomberg.
The shared political, personal, and financial interests of this network are the glue that binds them together, making them a kind of family, whose members forgive each other. The outside world recedes to a distant and hostile plane, where the rules apply differently. The faces of the public politicians are meant to serve are blurred into irrelevance, while those of their friends and peers are clear, sharpened by common experiences, memories, and social interactions. Democracy does not “die in the dark”, it dies at dinner.
The values that these intimacies create, rather than money, inevitably trickle down into politics. As prime minister, to take a recent example, Sunak is reversing post-financial crisis regulations to create space for more post-Brexit city activity, a potentially destabilizing move the Bank of England governor has warned against. Sunak will risk dismantling crucial industry safeguards to find ways for financiers to make more money, but he won’t investigate how that money could be taxed more usefully, through a variety of wealth taxes that could raise almost £40 billion for public services. So when nurses and other essential workers are forced to strike for a small increase in wages, they’re told the money simply doesn’t exist. He does, but it’s off limits. Britain, chillingly sums up the Financial Times, is a poor society with some very rich people. I would say Britain is a poor society because it is run in the interest of very rich people.
What distinguishes this from the oligarchy? Some 200 years ago, in The Black Book: An Exposition of Abuses in Church and State, John Wade wrote that “Government has been a corporation and has had the same interests and the same principles of action as the monopolists.” This summary would not be a wholly inaccurate description of modern Tory rule. It has become a corporation at the heart of a great network of interests. It may not look exactly like the one referred to by Wade, composed of the well-paid sinecures of the 19th century aristocracy; But he’s finding new, even more slippery ways to dole out favors and jobs.
“It has been supported by other corporations,” Wade wrote, “the church has been one, the farmers another; the districts a third, the East India Company a fourth, and the Bank of England a fifth: all these, and interests like these, constituted the citadel and outer works of his force, and the first object of each has been to prevent the investigation. .”
Powerbroking in Britain has passed from the hands of this former landed gentry and colonial business class to the players of international finance. This is the network, not the old men’s club: more accessible, less silly, more colorful, with women in the fold, but just as ironclad and determined in its purpose to maintain its power, take care of its own and flee from the investigation.