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Who holds power in Britain? When discussing the question, “Who holds power in Britain? ”, it is difficult to only identify one group or institution. Of course, Britain has legal and political powers that legitimately control what happens, however, there are several arguments that suggest that in reality, Parliament, the judicial courts and the democratic system have little impact over the shaping of the country. Instead, it can be argued that the ‘Establishment’, are the main group to hold power. The Establishment of course covers a vast range of people, from the press, to politicians, to business leaders, but their two commonalities are money and contacts. It is important to understand when looking at the Establishment, what they do, who they are and why and how they maintain power. It is also important however, to understand a potential change in the system, in light of recent events, such as Brexit and the 2017 General Election disproving that the Establishment are untouchable, and instead the power of the People, whether it be through right-wing Euro-scepticism or left wing anti-establishment feeling. In both cases, the People proved that the will of the everyday-person, would be listened to. Thus, it is certainly true, that the Establishment is not exclusively the main power within Britain, but holds the majority through pressure and influence. To understand why the Establishment hold power, it is important to understand who they are, as this is also a key feature of their ability to maintain authority.
The Establishment covers a variety of professions, from politicians, to business leaders, to journalists and media owners, judges and bankers. Their jobs are important, but want binds them is their ethos and their ability to monopolise power as a group. Predominantly they are from and circulate in the upper classes. Kuper suggests the modern Establishment “all live in London, and meet at receptions and in each other’s kitchens” (The Financial Times, 2012), with the key point being they maintain connections and relationships, regardless of their political standings, occupations or backgrounds. He argues that the “main route in…still runs through Oxford and Cambridge” and “Many establishment members went to private school, too” (The Financial Times, 2015). Thus, members of the Establishment, often begin their careers with a variety of connections and contacts that the ordinary person would rarely have access to. There has certainly been a shift away from the importance of private education more recently, as Kuper suggests (The Financial Times, 2012), with 29% of MPs in 2017 attending private school (The Independent, 2017), compared to the increase after the 2010 General Election, in which 35% were (The Independent, 2010) and “62 per cent of the coalition cabinet received a private education” (The Independent, 2018). Despite this, only 7% of the British public are privately educated (The Independent, 2017), meaning the representation of the elite groups in the Establishment is vastly higher. The Establishment are able to influence society through the wide range of people within it, as well as their high-profile jobs, which often place them in expert positions, thus giving them the power and illusion of a higher opinion and authority.
The current economic system benefits them, as it is often unregulated and unpatrolled, allowing them freedom to act, and thus they try and maintain the status quo. Their persona of intellectual and financial elitism allows them to be unaccountable. This was evidenced after the 2008 Financial Crisis, in which the bankers were largely responsible for. However, as Inman suggests, “Punishing the bankers who brought on the financial crisis has proved distressingly difficult” and many have “kept their wealth and pensions and live comfortable” (The Guardian, 2013). He argues that politicians, such as Osborne, Cable and Balls were too “scared to break up the four highstreets banks” in order to control them (Ibid, 2013). Despite £65billion of tax-payer’s money being funded to rescue the banks (The Guardian, 2016), very few bankers actually went to prison and Treanor suggests that “the main focus of the policymakers appears to have been keeping the banks afloat rather than trying to appropriate blame” (The Guardian, 2016). Similarly, the MP’s Expense Scandal had little impact on them, as found by Larcinese, “Punishment in the ballot box, however, was relatively small and generally not sufficient to remove MPs involved in the scandal from their seat” (LSE, 2015). Despite the wrongdoing of the Establishment in both these cases, there was limited impact and the reputation of the Establishment was unscathed.
The Establishment, especially with the help of the press, is able to limit damage to itself in order to maintain power and control. The nepotism within the Establishment enables it to maintain its power, as Savage suggests in Social Class in the 21st Century, “wealthy people are considerably more likely to know several people in high-status occupations” (Savage: 2015, p. 144-145). He argues Bourdieu’s idea that “Rather than seeing social networking as benefitting society in general, he sees it as a means of allowing the privileged and powerful to use their connections to help each other and protect their interests” (Savage: 2015, p. 131). It allows them to further their own careers, but also the ideology of the Establishment, which is to maintain the status quo, economically and socially. Savage also suggests that family backgrounds have a noticeable impact on social networking; those with parents in professional positions, are more likely to earn more than those with working class parents (Savage: 2015, p. 149-152). This allows the Establishment to hold power, as the circle remains closely bound and the demographic of people barely changes over time. Due to the amount of money and the positions in which the Establishment hold, they appear untouchable and unaccountable. The sheer volume of the Establishment, as well as the confusion as to who they are exactly, allows them to avoid major criticism or blame.
The Banking Crisis of 2008, as well as the MP’s Expenses Scandal of 2009, prove that the Establishment are so far removed from the average person and that they are impossible to target. It is far easier to blame a smaller, vulnerable group of people, than target a large group of wealthy, powerful individuals, who monopolise and own an enormous amount of Britain’s business, press and wealth. Similarly, tax evasion is an issue rarely on the agenda of the government or political parties, and is often not scrutinised or attacked in the same way as benefits fraud, for example. Despite both issues suggesting an abuse of the welfare system, the working class are targeted far more than the rich, often with worries that the rich would take their business elsewhere. However, studies show that higher taxation on the rich and the reduction of tax avoidance hardly impacts this (Lloyd and Miliband: 2017). Thus, it is more that the Establishment holds power and are untouchable.
At the same time, the Establishment dissolutions and demonises the working class, by scapegoating them for society’s problems. Jones uses the example of Bigot-gate in 2010, to suggest that there is a deep-routed attack on the working class by the Establishment, even from those in the Labour Party, who were meant to represent their beliefs (Jones: 2012, p. 86). Jones also argues that “Demonizing people at the bottom has been a convenient way of justifying an unequal society throughout the ages” (Ibid: 2012). This allows the Establishment to maintain the status quo, and prevents calls for radical change to the system which benefits them.
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