This book review is from the July issue of Total Politics
The New Few: Or a Very British Oligarchy
Simon & Schuster, £18.99
Review by Tristram Hunt, historian and Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central
If in politics timing is everything, then in publishing it is doubly so. And so with immaculate prescience arrives The New Few, in which Ferdinand Mount, Margaret Thatcher’s former policy guru gives those two redoubtable villains of contemporary Britain, bankers and politicians, a thoroughly good bashing.
If not as enjoyable an account of elite power politics as his autobiographical work, Cold Cream, this study is altogether more urgent.
Mount’s contention is that a new generation of centralising oligarchs have knowingly seized control of our economy and politics. Our current malaise in each is but the inevitable result.
Perhaps this charge can be upheld. However, Mount does not seriously try – such sustained didacticism is never his intention. Rather, the oligarchy ‘thesis’ serves as a device around which he weaves this ‘state of the nation’ address on power and equality.
It is an important intervention. Other books may have zoned in more forensically on its various themes, yet few have brought all strands together in one, thoroughly entertaining volume. For that much alone, this book deserves to be read.
The book is split, perhaps a little rigidly, into three distinct sections. Part one deals with the economy. The usual array of hubristic quotes and shocking statistics are marshalled skilfully and Mount has a good eye for the colourful anecdote.
What he adds, beyond a lively turn of phrase and an impeccable grounding in classics, is successfully to place the current crisis within the broader context of capitalism’s history. It is this understanding that grounds his hope for genuine cultural transformation, which he rightly suggests must accompany real change. After all, as history shows, capitalism has been here before.
The same, as Mount drily notes, cannot be said for politics. By any measure, mainstream political engagement is at an all-time low. Part two deals with this phenomenon and once more the analysis is convincing – disaffection is not a measure of disinterest.
And while I am not quite as dewy-eyed about early 1980s Labour Party conferences – more enjoyable viewed from within No 10 perhaps – I find his main argument, that inclusive party membership should not be shorthand for disempowerment and a diminished role for actual politics, appealing.
The final section offers us a progress report on the coalition’s success at tackling these problems. I must confess to finding Mount’s conclusion – roughly, ‘not too bad’ – bewildering. All the more so coming, as it does, after a brilliant savaging of the Vickers report and a judiciously downbeat assessment of the government’s schizophrenic attempts at localism.
Perhaps this is because Mount, like his distant relative the prime minister, secretly relishes a liberal-minded coalition. Throughout, his analysis is unashamedly wet, paternalist to its core.
Revealingly, he repeatedly insists he is “at heart” a deregulator.
This is not politically insignificant. If inequality is the challenge any post-crash political economy must address, then the right must respond without alienating its many supporters attracted to the more atavistic, libertarian tea party alternative proffered by UKIP.
All conservatives should welcome Mount’s credibly Tory response. Whether they have the gumption remains to be seen.