Owen Jones, The Establishment and How They Get Away With It, book review: Author has little innate understanding of human nature

The Tories look forward to Jones’s views being aired during the coming election

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The Independent Culture

Owen Jones’s first book, Chavs, took on an important subject, the vilification and systematic denunciation of the British working classes.

It was a recent, and poisonous development: the evident freedom with which many people were pouring scorn on the unfortunate hadn’t been exercised on such a scale since the 1980s. The book was much read, but showed some very worrying tendencies. It had, to an extreme degree, a quality of tribalism that too easily blamed the phenomenon on Mrs Thatcher and her heirs. The poisonous snobbery exercised at the time by the chic Left towards Mrs Thatcher herself, something Jones was too young to have experienced himself, showed that the subject was more complicated than Jones’s tribal allegiances could acknowledge. Ferdinand Mount wrote a more penetrating book on the same subject, demonstrating something that Jones hardly seemed to understand, that the welfare of the very poor and the improvement of their lot was something that Tories of all varieties could take seriously.

Since then, Jones has expanded his career, and is an articulate presence on television discussion programmes, think-tanks, and social media. He is useful to all sorts of people, not just the Conservative Party, who look forward to his views being aired prominently in the coming general election. Those views are absolutely predictable, and a public debate can be planned with great security. There is no possibility whatsoever that Jones could say “Well, yes, Mrs Thatcher had a point there,” or concede, for instance, that the radical left was historically capable of hounding gay men in their ranks, once discovered, to suicide. That is useful to a commissioning editor, though less so to the service of truth.

For those reasons, people very much enjoy reading his more extravagant flights, just as they grew fond of the appearance of Tony Benn on Wogan once it was clear that nothing further was going to come of any of this lunacy. The other day, Jones was proposing that something or other ought to be nationalised – mobile telephones, Tupperware, or all the pubs in Carlisle, I forget which. It fills one with a nice warm glow, like the memory of the 1970s power cuts. It is amusing and harmless, and really of no consequence at all. People who change their mind, who are open to the influence of ideas from people outside their tent, are of no particular use in this regard. It was no surprise when The Guardian asked Jones recently to nominate “A Book That Changed Me”, that he nominated a book that could only be seen as a book that had confirmed him in what he already thought.

The Establishment is an old idea, going back half a century. It is, or ought to be, of great concern that the country is being run by people of privileged backgrounds to the exclusion of talent. In journalism, someone like me, who comes from an ordinary background and a comprehensive school, is much less usual than you would think. The situation is not quite so bleak as in other areas, but there is no doubt that privilege is protecting itself professionally, and the situation is growing worse. In a previous generation, there were only a few professions, like that of barrister, where some financial support was necessary at the beginning of a career. With the rise of unpaid internships, there are all sorts of professions that are now effectively closed off to people, like me, who could never work for nothing for a year or two.

The collapse of the ideal of equality of opportunity is something that is Jones’s concern, and he explores it with minatory energy. It is something that worries, and ought to worry, everybody in public life. The single thing that would cure it, of course, is the abolition of private education in this country. Jones, on the other hand, takes the opportunity to conflate this important subject with two utterly trivial and undesirable ones, the equality of outcome and the amazing existence of professional networks. People know each other! They hang out with each other! That is no more a sinister Establishment among politicians and money men than it is among DJs on the club scene. It is only weird and sinister because, increasingly, these people – DJs included – knew each other from birth, and certainly all went to the same schools with each other.

By the end, we’ve reached the usual stuff, tax the rich, renationalise all the pubs in Carlisle, and the reader is trying to extract the interesting subject from all the iteration of the tribal material. It is all very well, but as so often in Jones’s writings, the fundamental flaw is quite simple. Like his hero Tony Benn, he has very little innate understanding of human nature. I don’t wonder that one of his interlocutors stared when he seriously suggested to them that MPs were paid too much, and would do their job much better if they were on the minimum wage. The lack of human understanding that moments like that reveal is rather a problem if you are setting out a project for the long-term improvement of the human race.

The Establishment and How They Get Away With It By Owen Jones (Allen Lane £16.99)

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