Anthony Sampson: We've abandoned the tradition of a ruling class. But is that to Britain's benefit?

Blair's government looks like innocents abroad when confronted by the solid ranks of Republican rulers and their corporate allies
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Are the Americans acquiring a ruling class, just when the British are finally losing theirs? Certainly the Bush family is now quite openly revelling in its dynastic strength, proclaiming a family continuity which has little connection with the old American ideal. The tradition of the self-made president, "from log cabin to the White House", and the promise of the "century of the common man" have gone out of the window.

Are the Americans acquiring a ruling class, just when the British are finally losing theirs? Certainly the Bush family is now quite openly revelling in its dynastic strength, proclaiming a family continuity which has little connection with the old American ideal. The tradition of the self-made president, "from log cabin to the White House", and the promise of the "century of the common man" have gone out of the window.

At the Republican convention last week, George W Bush was backed up by his father George H W Bush, his brother Jeb, the governor of Florida, and his nephew George P Bush who already shows promise as a future president, while a score of Bush relations was among the Republican activists.

It seemed like a throwback to British politics in the 18th or 19th centuries. The two British authors of a new book on American politics, The Right Nation, begin by quoting Sir Lewis Namier, the historian of the age of George III, who wrote that English parliamentary history "is made by families rather than individuals"; and they go on to add: "The same could be said of American political history, especially in the age of George I and George II."

The Bush dynasty established by the President's grandfather Senator Prescott Bush now looks more like British aristocratic rule than the previous tradition of American political upstarts - such as Truman, Nixon or Clinton. Transposed to 18th-century Britain, George W Bush might have been the third Marquess of Bush. It was hardly surprising that he should keep referring to Winston Churchill - who was not only the victor of the Second World War but also the son of the Duke of Marlborough.

The Democrat challengers have been hardly less blue-blooded: first Al Gore, the son of a senator from an old American political dynasty; then John Kerry, with the style and wealth of a Boston Brahmin - even though his grandfather was a Jewish immigrant from Germany.

But the Bush family's strength lies not so much in its conservative continuity as in its adaptability, and its ability to retain power through fast-changing political changes: to quote The Right Nation again: "There is no better introduction of Republicanism in the past generation - from patrician to populist, from Northeastern to Southwestern, from pragmatic to ideological - than the radical transformation of Republicanism's current leading family, the Bushes."

Thus the first President Bush, with his Wasp Ivy League style, was able to migrate to Texas, where he could both make a fortune and link up with the rough-hewn voters of the oilfields. And he produced a son who, partly by the accident of his own drunken youth and later repentance, was able to emerge as the model of the populist leader with a folksy born-again style - while still inheriting the shrewd experience and political connections of his family.

Above all, the family had money, and a deep understanding of how to raise money for political campaigning, which depended, much more than before, on huge resources. The Bushes were interlocked with the powers of the corporate world, as the great British political families had been interlocked with landed interests and fiefdoms; and they had the same natural instinct for seeing where the real power was moving as the Cecils or the Churchills.

But in the meantime British politics has been moving in the opposite direction. Looking at the reshuffled Labour Cabinet, and the new Tory Shadow Cabinet this week, we are reminded how far we have abandoned the tradition of the British ruling class.

It has been a slow demise, since the first Reform Bill of 1832 was expected to bring about its downfall. More than a century later, Macmillan's government in the late 1950s still bore many of the marks of a ruling class, with a cabinet full of aristocrats and Old Etonians. Harold Wilson's cabinet had few aristocrats; but it was dominated by an intellectual aristocracy of Oxford dons who had little natural contact or communication with ordinary voters.

It was not till the arrival of Mrs Thatcher that the Tories broke their links with the old ruling families and gave way to self-made businessmen and professional politicians from Cambridge. Michael Howard's new Shadow Cabinet is largely disconnected from any ruling class. Only Michael Ancram, the heir to the Marquess of Lothian, and Nicholas Soames, Churchill's grandson, belong to old Conservative families. John Redwood, the Fellow of All Souls, and Oliver Letwin, the former Cambridge don, perpetuate some of the academic tradition. But Letwin's parents are American; Michael Howard is the son of an immigrant from Romania, and Lord Saatchi originated in Baghdad.

And the New Labour Cabinet is now a world away from any ruling class: with its array of self-made Scotsmen, Northerners and immigrants from the Commonwealth, including the Australian Patricia Hewitt, the South African Peter Hain, the Guyanese Lady Amos and the Ghanaian Paul Boateng. Only Hilary Benn, the son of Tony Benn and grandson of the Labour peer Lord Stansgate, remains as a hereditary politician.

The Prime Minister, it is true, was brought up with some feel for British politics, as the son of a Tory barrister who wanted to be an MP, but he showed little interest in politics at his public school or at Oxford. It was showbiz and the law, with much help from his wife, that pressed him towards public life.

Insofar as British ministers have a common class, it is a professionalised politicians' class, of people brought together by careers in party politics without much experience of life outside Westminster and their constituencies, and with a fitful knowledge of business.

It is true that Blair and his colleagues increasingly need businessmen, whether as donors, collaborators or patrons. But they depend heavily on a few rich men, and their approaches are amateurish, compared with the systematic links of the Bush administration with huge and shady corporations such as Enron or Halliburton - which are the ultimate support for America's new ruling class.

The British political class might seem far preferable to the emerging American rulers: the combination of political families and greedy corporate backers, who often seems to bear out the nightmares about the military-industrial complex. But the shortcomings of British politicians become much more apparent as they become more dependent on American policies and bargains, Blair's government begins to look like innocents abroad when confronted by the solid ranks of Republican rulers and their corporate allies.

British politicians can be thankful to have got rid of the arrogance and self-interest of their old ruling class. But they need to be reminded of the advantages of the best of it - the tradition of public service and long-term thinking. They need to escape from the short-term pressures of opportunism and dependence that are so evident. And as they face America's new ruling class, with all its cynical bargains with corporations and manipulation of the voters, they need to remember the British still have their own inherited values and traditions of political integrity.

Comments