Reckless Opportuntists: Has the British Establishment Become Self-Serving, Insecure and Incompetent?

Almost 70 years ago then Prime Minister Clement Attlee was asked by a reporter outside 10 Downing Street after he had seen the Queen to call a general election whether he wanted to expand on the campaign he was about to lead. He replied: “No.”

As a long-standing MP of upper middle class stock who had been to public school and Oxford, he was clearly a member of both the elite and the Establishment at a time when the two terms were interchangeable. The worlds of business, finance and the media looked very similar. Their leaders were born to rule, manage and distribute finance and felt little need to address those outside their circle.

Fast forward seven decades, and one could say that on the surface little has changed. The current foreign secretary and Archbishop of Canterbury, and the most recent former prime minister, all went to Eton College and Oxbridge. The current director general of the BBC is also ex-public school and Oxford.

But scratch deeper and it soon becomes clear that there has been substantial change. An increasing number of companies and banks are run by non-Brits — the Governor of the Bank of England is Canadian — and by Britons who have come from less gilded origins than the examples cited above.

The Establishment that was identified by Anthony Sampson 50 years ago as a male-dominated hierarchy that was intertwined with monarchy, aristocracy and the landed gentry has lost much of its influence.

On one level this should be good news, that the class glass ceiling has been broken. The problem, according to Aeron Davis, a professor of political communication at Goldsmiths University, is the new elite that has replaced them is a “generation of self-serving, insecure and less competent leaders”.

This stark view from his book, Reckless Opportunists: Elites at the End of the Establishment, is the result of conversations Davis has had with 350 senior figures within politics, business, finance and journalism over the 20 years, many of whom have shared startlingly honest insights into the ways that decisions are made — or fudged — at the highest echelons of society.

At the heart of his argument is the contention that the members of the elite have tended to be people with a hatred of left-wing views and of the nanny-knows-best attitude they blame for the UK’s post-war economic decline.

These views are combined with a short-termism that prioritises immediate rewards and sees moving on to new jobs and responsibilities as a goal in itself, rather than developing a career within one institution.

This neoliberalism has had a number of significant and damaging effects on the way that the country is run, according to Davis. In the City of London, the short-term attitude has become institutionalised: managers have to chase rises in profits every quarter; investors will not take short-term losses even if it would lead to long-term profits; and chief executives see two or three years as a decent run before moving to the next job. In fact, many CEOs are on one-year contracts.

Journalism has turned into “churnalism” as media owners have cut costs to maximise profits at the expense of the ability of their reporters to investigate stories rather than convert five press releases a day into news “stories”.

But for Davis perhaps the most damaging consequence is the outsourcing of responsibilities by a civil service that has halved in size since Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979. The departments of health, education, transport, work and pensions, culture and media, and the Home Office have all worked hard to effectively make themselves redundant.

Reckless Opportunists is an eye-opening and entertaining book

The cost of what Davis calls a destruction of the institutions of the British Establishment from the inside has been a loss of long-term knowledge, expertise, and balanced views that had been at the heart of the way these organisations were run.

They have lost institutional memory and cohesion as cost-cutting has led  Whitehall, businesses and the media to rely on outsourced help — private contractors, management consultants, and PR agencies respectively.

The problem is that the main expertise required to become a leader in modern Britain — PPE degrees, media training, MBAs, accountancy skills, public management qualifications — are not the same ones needed to perform well having risen to that level.

This has produced a generation of “reckless opportunists” focused on either making money or retaining power for power’s sake as long as they can. Davis picks out Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Fred Goodwin (RBS), Philip Green (BHS), and Richard Desmond (Express newspapers) as examples.

Davis also critiques the growing use of numbers and metrological targets which he says are used by the new elites to justify the way they run their organisations. He makes the point that the pursuit of these numerical objectives means the targets end up wagging the policy dog, whether it is the time taken to be seen in A&E, or nine-year-olds spotting frontal adverbials. Davis has a clever metaphor for this: a virtual reality game that the elites both design and play (to win).

Reckless Opptortunists is an eye-opening and entertaining book. But there are a few peccadillos worth mentioning. Former Chancellor Alistair Darling is referred to as Baron whereas all other peers are just called Lords. The theme of the increasingly short tenures of MPs, ministers and chief executives crops up repeatedly in different chapters. The British currency appears once as stirling rather than sterling. It is also mildly ironic that two of the five reviews on the back cover come from people featured in the book.

Much of the critiques of the City, business life, and the media have been set out elsewhere but what makes this book stand out is the author’s access to senior figures from the CEO of Rolls Royce to former Chancellors of the Exchequer. It is also a great benefit that they are quoted at length to enable to the reader to gain the insight from the horses’ mouths.

Where the themes come together is in the final chapter where Davis explains how the modern elite, with their short-term goals and aspirations, have constructed a networking system that ensures that, just as landed gentry and aristocracy knew each other in previous eras through social events and fox hunts, so the new elite strengthen their position through networking,

Davis comes up with suggested reforms to both limit the power of the new elites, and also to open up the candidate pool for leadership. Certainly, his position as a self-confessed outsider has made this a powerful and independent critique of the way modern Britain is run.

More about the author

About the author

Phil has run Clarity Economics, a London-based consultancy, since 2007 and, before that, was Economics Correspondent at The Independent.

Phil won feature writer of the year Work Foundation Work World media awards in 2009, and was commended by the Royal Statistical Society in 2007.

He is the author of Brilliant Economics and The Great Economists.

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