Anthony Sampson: Britain's heart of darkness

Over four decades, Anthony Sampson has watched democracy wither at home - and flourish in South Africa. Boyd Tonkin meets the master anatomist of power
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More than four decades into his eagle-eyed scrutiny of power and wealth in Britain, Anthony Sampson can still swoop on his prey at a speed that puts other journalistic sleuths to shame. At the end of our interview in a Mayfair hotel, a ludicrously elongated white stretch limo with smoked-glass windows draws up outside. Instantly, Sampson jumps up to see who is getting out of it.

This time, for once, the quarry eludes him. It may well have been one of the "populist tycoons" in leisure, services and showbiz who take centre stage in his latest, sharpest and most radical "anatomy of Britain", Who Runs This Place? (John Murray, £20). This fresh elite of super-rich anti-elitists emerges as the driving force of a country that shook off its old deference to rank only to bow and scrape before the masters of the marketplace, "a new Establishment, with greater resources and stronger bonds than the old one - the bonds of money". Meanwhile, Sampson turns a beadier-than-ever eye on corporate greed and secrecy, topically noting that the dual oil monarchies of Shell and BP depend dangerously on "massive gambles" and can still "throw up mavericks and autocrats at the top".

In the late 1950s, the young writer grew curious about the mysterious "white tribes" of ruling-class Britain when he returned from five life-changing years in South Africa. As editor of the pioneering Drum magazine in Johannesburg, where pin-ups and township jazz alternated with mischief-making satire and provocative investigations, Sampson had helped to give a voice to a new, vibrant urban Africa - just as the long night of apartheid started to descend. There, in a state created by Cecil Rhodes and later run by Afrikaner patriarchs, overt might and force loomed large and visible. "Somehow, you could see power being exercised in a way that you couldn't here," he recalls. "And you could see what it was like to be on the receiving end of that power."

Sampson pines, you feel, for responsible leadership; for moral authority rather than naked power. And his African connections allowed him to support perhaps the modern world's most gratifying example of that authority. He first met Nelson Mandela (whose biography he would publish in 1999) in a shebeen, more than 50 years ago. They have remained friends since - with, of course, that unavoidable 26-year hiatus from 1964 to 1990. "I was probably drunk and don't remember much," he says of their encounter. "He has a much better memory." Sampson saw the 85-year-old Mandela in February and reports that, though frail, he is "still sparkling when required".

On first acquaintance, the dapper ANC lawyer from a branch of the Tembu royal family struck Sampson as a charming political lightweight. "He was very imposing but, I thought, too much of a showman. He seemed like more of a Heseltine figure." Surely no one has ever made that comparison before. "He was even a bit flash - tremendously good-looking and a very sociable figure."

At the close of the 1964 Rivonia Trial, in which Mandela and his fellow ANC leaders were jailed for life, Sampson found himself brushed by the wing of history. By now an Observer journalist, he gave Mandela the ANC salute in court. Later, the prisoner - staring a death sentence in the face - passed Sampson a draft of his final speech from the dock for comments. That was the speech in which Mandela famously proclaimed: "I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination." He wanted Sampson's views on its impact in the global media. "I gave advice that I don't think he took at all." Then, in the 1980s, Sampson became a sort of unofficial bridge between the exiled ANC leadership, South African business and reformist elements within the apartheid government. Crucial contacts were made at parties in his west-London home.

Although still in jail, Mandela managed to wield the kind of authority that force will never undermine. "It was Mandela alone who took the decision to negotiate," Sampson explains. "The others probably would not have wanted to have talks at all. Which does suggest that he was the real man of destiny." We meet just as Mandela's successor, Thabo Mbeki, has won another landslide for the ANC in the South African election. Next Tuesday, on the 10th anniversary of the first post-apartheid poll, he will begin a second term. Sampson has known the scholarly and somewhat enigmatic president since 1985, and defends him against detractors who treat him as a colourless coda to Mandela's glory days. "Mbeki has a rather unfortunate image. He always did an awful lot of fixing for Mandela. And he was pretty damned effective at it."

Among South Africans, Sampson has dealt with pivotal figures who made a world-shaking difference. He recalls that Joe Slovo, Mandela's Communist colleague within the ANC, had to admit that the role of his chief "contradicted the Marxist theory of history, which is that historical forces and not individuals determine events." In Britain, on the trail of those governing tribes, Sampson found much more obscure networks of influence, hidden behind the smoked glass of secrecy, discretion and unchallenged status. Ever since the first Anatomy in 1962, he has sought with steely detachment to strip away the screens that surround British power, whether erected (as then) by titled bankers in some Lombard Street boardroom or (as now) by self-made TV moguls in a Covent Garden restaurant.

On the political front, his latest quest coincided with an extraordinary - but taxing - opportunity to see the new lie of the land. Late in the composition of Who Runs This Place?, the evidence submitted to the Hutton inquiry lit up the concealed pathways of power in Westminster and Whitehall "like a flare in the night sky". Showing all the pace and nous that writers half-a-century younger often lack, he quickly threaded the Hutton revelations through the book to devastating effect. They confirm his diagnosis that "decisions are actually taken by small groups of people, most of them unelected and unaccountable". Sampson had to phone through textual changes on the day of his final deadline, as he flew to South Africa: "an incredible bit of brinkmanship".

It was worth it. He explains that, although "one knew about the concentration of power in Number 10", the Hutton disclosures acted "rather like the Watergate tapes. You had this glimpse of the intensity, and almost the vulgarity, of power. When you see the crudity of power being exercised by a very few people, it is a fascinating reminder". After Alastair Campbell hared off in pursuit of the BBC, "there was something quite manic about it. The atmosphere of vendetta was very creepy. This obsession with revenge was distorting the whole system." Uniquely among recent premiers, Blair refused to give an interview to Sampson for the book.

As a student of British society, finance and politics, Sampson is dry, forensic and even fierce - more so than ever in Who Runs This Place?, with its elegant critique of corporate fat cats who fail upwards, and of the tightly knit "Super Class" who resurrect an Edwardian plutocracy, as if the generations of social reformers from 1910 to 1990 had thought and toiled in vain.

Sampson follows the serious money, rather than chasing stardust. So he studies Clifford Chance, the giant commercial law firm, but overlooks Max Clifford. Why? "He has played a role in debasing the public mind, but I don't think there's very much to say about him. He's a broker, basically: an agent of entertainment."

His his own trade, however, comes in for quite a drubbing. Since 1962, the circle marked "media" in Sampson's handy diagram of power has expanded from cricket-ball to beach-ball size as "the hacks came in from the cold, not through the back door, but up the grand staircase". This new ability among editors and pundits to make and break (mostly break) careers elicits "fear and dislike" in every other corridor of power. And with their new "destructive" potential goes a very meagre appetite for self-control or self-criticism. As Sampson says: "If you subjected journalists to the same kind of mocking analysis that's applied to politicians, there'd be nothing left. The whole profession would go under."

In fact, the sectors that come out of his book smelling sweetest - in terms of trustworthiness, probity and responsibility - often have the least truck with market-led populism. His star performers include the resurgent armed forces, the embattled but still globally-renowned BBC, even the scoffed-at and sidelined trades unions - which are treated by Sampson with unusual affection and respect.

He has plenty of time for generals ("There is some nostalgia for the sense of order they represent"); for union general secretaries (who become "more important to democracy" as political parties and corporations leave their social roots behind); but little for the sort of buck-passing boardroom baron who vanishes - as in the cases of ICI and Marconi - when a financial hurricane hits their company. Just as with T S Eliot's "mystery cat" Macavity, he observes, it seems that "nobody was actually there" whenever disaster struck ("He always has an alibi, and one or two to spare/ At whatever time the deed took place - MACAVITY WASN'T THERE!").

South Africa - which he visits every year - still fills Sampson with hope: "Anything can happen. The future is completely unpredictable, but it's very exciting." Back in Britain, the political and economic horizon looks cloudier. As the Government's power, and authority, wanes in the Iraqi aftermath, the "long boom" shows sign of coming to a halt, and Europe re-ignites as a burning issue in politics, the dormant debate over who really runs Britain may catch fire at last.

"When the tide goes out, it leaves all the garbage on the beach," says the writer who has done most to steer our post-war conversations about privilege and power. As for the modern plutocrats inside their stretch limos, they can expect a rough ride. Harder times will expose them to a harsher light. "That has been true of financial catastrophes in the past, and that will be true again. There are quite a lot of hazards to come."

Biography; Anthony Sampson

Born in 1926, Anthony Sampson studied at Christ Church, Oxford, and served in the Royal Navy. From 1951 to 1955, he edited Drum magazine in Johannesburg, South Africa. He then joined the staff of The Observer before becoming a full-time writer in the late 1960s. He published The Treason Cage in 1958 and Common Sense about Africa in 1960. His first Anatomy of Britain volume appeared in 1962; later versions came out in 1965, 1971, 1982 and 1992. He has also written The New Europeans (1968), The Sovereign State, on ITT (1973); The Seven Sisters, on the giant oil companies (1975); Black Gold: Tycoons, Revolutionaries and Apartheid (1987); Company Man (1995); and a family history, The Scholar Gypsy (1997). His authorised biography of Nelson Mandela appeared in 1999. This month, John Murray publishes Who Runs This Place? The Anatomy of Britain in the 21st Century. Anthony Sampson and his wife, Sally (with whom he edited The Oxford Book of Ages), live in west London and Wiltshire.