Confusion is power

David Runciman

  • The New Few, or a Very British Oligarchy: Power and Inequality in Britain Now by Ferdinand Mount
    Simon and Schuster, 305 pp, £18.99, April 2012, ISBN 978 1 84737 800 2

You can tell Russia is not a real democracy because there is no great mystery about its politics. Democracies are slightly baffling in how they work: just look at America; just look at Europe; just look at us. In Russia the basics are easy to understand: people use money to get power and power to get money. The country is ruled by a narrow, self-serving elite who go through the motions of holding elections and transferring power. No one is fooled. When Putin moves from the office of president to prime minister and then back again, it is not exactly smoke and mirrors stuff. It’s just out one door and in through another. He doesn’t care that no one is fooled. This is how oligarchies work: the people at the top care much more about their dealings with each other than their dealings with the public. It is also the reason oligarchies fail in the end: the public tires of being treated in this way. Democracy may well be bubbling up in Russia in ways that the elite will eventually be unable to control. But until they lose control, there is no doubt about who is in charge.

If Britain is turning into an oligarchy, as Ferdinand Mount claims, then it’s nothing like the Russian version. Mount begins with the Russians and their new breed of ‘nimble freebooters’, whose rise to power he calls ‘an amazing, shocking spectacle’. So shocking is it to democratic sensibilities that it is easy to assume it has ‘nothing much to do with those of us who live in what used to be called the West’. But that would be a mistake, Mount says. Perhaps we are not so different. Power in Britain is becoming concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, and so is wealth. ‘Could it be that, without knowing it, we have been hatching our own oligarchs?’ Well, if we have been doing it without realising it, then it’s an odd sort of oligarchy. This has not been a power grab by a bunch of ruthless operators. It’s more like an embarrassing accident. The people who are running the show seem as confused as anyone about how we got here. They didn’t mean it to turn out like this and they would quite like to do something about it. They just don’t know how. It is, as Mount’s title says, ‘a very British oligarchy’.

The Russians symbolise the kind of society we have become, not because of what they have been doing over there, but because of what they have been doing over here: buying our football clubs, schmoozing with our politicians, fighting it out in our law courts. Roman Abramovich didn’t come to London to muscle in on our politics or to steal our money. He came because we didn’t try to stop him. We let him do what he likes and don’t ask too many questions and we don’t tax him for the privilege. We provide him with a cover of respectability for all the nasty stuff that happens somewhere else. Britain is a functioning democracy that operates according to the rule of law yet doesn’t seem to mind when other people exploit our institutions for their own purposes. As Mount says, we are not really ‘a full-blown oligarchy’ but ‘a flabby, corroded type of liberal democracy in which the oligarchs have been enjoying a free run’. When both Peter Mandelson and George Osborne find themselves compromised by their inability to avoid the company of unaccountable freebooters like Oleg Deripaska and Nat Rothschild it makes British democracy seem not so much corrupt as incompetent and weak. The politicians are just following the line of least resistance. Standing up to people with vast reserves of wealth and the power to make your life more difficult than it might otherwise be takes a certain amount of effort; certainly more effort than playing along with them does. And playing along with them is more fun. So if no one is going to insist on your doing the difficult thing, why bother? After all, a yacht is a yacht.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in