January 09, 2009

Peter Oborne: The Triumph of the Political Class

Peter Oborne's book is a great read for anyone at all interested in politics.

He claims the old establishment pillars of society such as the monarchy, parliament, civil service and the judiciary are being undermined by a new political class who are more interested in staying in power by coralling and conniving with the media than they are concerned with the hard grind of governing.

He is good on set pieces such as the disgraceful treatment of parliamentary standards commissioner Elizabeth Filkin. Unsurprisingly he is at his strongest in analysing the media's subservience to New Labour. He emphasises the bias in their reporting when the government was putting out its case for going to war in Iraq. Several reporters must be ashamed to see their bias set out in the permanent record.

MPs have lazily connived at their own subversion. The case against New Labour for subverting the civil service is strong, but less one sided than Oborne claims. For decades the civil service had seen it as its main role to manage economic decline, and despite its rectitude it can reasonably be accused of amateurism when it employed a tiny number of accountants despite managing huge sums of money, and when for instance Treasury civil servants were able to overrule professionals in deciding how far apart the posts should be supporting railway overhead wiring.

Underneath, civil servants are regulatory. But that is underneath. To the new political tribe, the surface is all that matters. Anything below the surface - the consequences or practicality of policies (what consequences will large scale immigration have? will tax credits work?) - doesn't interest ministers who focus on headlines. What matters is a polished surface.

New Labour subverted the civil service through cavailier, ignorant impatience. They really thought government was easy. Tax credits? Piece of cake. Millennium Dome? Piece of cake. Integrated transport policy? Piece of cake. They thought it would be enough to give the orders and fix the media. The fascinating business of implementation was a black box. Things would just happen.

Anyone who has worked in a large organisation knows this isn't so. And of course Oborne is right in his withering criticisms of Blair - the man who pronounced that the Stern Report was the most important document he'd ever received.

Oborne - clearly of the old school - also attacks ministers for criticisng judges. Sometimes, it is true, sentencing policy has been constrained by ministers' failure to build enough prisons. But in other cases the judiciary is simply out of step. For instance, the average sentence for knife crime is less than the minimum sentence which judges are required to impose in all but exceptional cases.

So some sections of the old establishment order need to improve. Oborne's case is thus not quite as black and white as he paints it. Nonetheless, the Labour "modernisers" have a lot to answer for. So do MPs. And I will be more cynical about what I see in newspapers and on the BBC.

Enjoy the book.


Witterings From Witney said...

Read this last year and can highly recommend it too. Try also The Rise of Political Lying.

Reads like a good thriller - once picked up, hard to put down!

Alfred the Ordinary said...

I agree with Witterings. The sad thing is that I remember most of the incidents recounted by Peter Oborne. It wasn't until I read them, put together, in the context of the Political Class, that I realised how corrupt this class has become. Suddenly I could also understand the basis of some recent pronouncements.

I also recommend The Rise of Political Lying.

How do we restore some moral compass, some moral responsibility to politics, or has it all gone too far? Would it just be trying to put new wine into old wineskins?

Anonymous said...

We have just read this in our book group - we have eclectic tastes. It provoked a great deal of interesting discussion. For several of us, the book gave us insights into why, over the years we have become disengaged from active involvement in politics. We agreed that Oborne overstates the case that it is a political "class" which has undermined traditional countervailing powers - he underestimates the influence of powerful individuals in shaping events.
Thank you Peter Oborne for providing us with a lively and invigorating read!
Interested party Berkhamsted