Book Review from the April 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
'Who Governs Britain?' By Anthony King. Penguin £8.99.
It’s a good question, and King surveys twelve possible answers, from voters and party members to MPs and the media. One theme of the book is that the ‘classic’ form of post-war government, which lasted till the 1970s, no longer holds. The political power of special advisers has increased; fewer politicians now have extensive experience of working outside politics; ministers are expected to be more pro-active, and civil servants no longer provide them with knowledgeable critiques of government policy; parliamentary select committees are more independent-minded than previously, and the judiciary plays a larger role than it used to. But one wonders what effect all this has on the majority of the population.
King makes the important point that the UK is not remotely a sovereign state, one possessing supreme power over its own affairs. It is subject to many international organisations, most obviously the EU, but also the UN, NATO, G7, IMF, World Health Organisation and so on. Multinational companies are extremely powerful too. More generally, the UK is affected by impersonal market forces (i.e. the ups and downs of world capitalism). Quite apart from the current recession, there was the massive loan from the IMF in 1976, forced on the government after foreign-exchange reserves drained away. Back in 1931, during the Great Depression, a ‘National’ government was formed after overseas investors lost confidence in the minority Labour government.
An interesting chapter deals with the media, who report on nearly everything except their own relations with ministers and party leaders. Radio and TV are legally required to be impartial (!), but no such restrictions apply to the press. Rupert Murdoch exercised enormous influence over Tony Blair, and was described as sometimes more powerful than the Prime Minister. Many politicians are cowed by fear of having the media ridicule them or delve into their private life.
One chapter covers ‘interests’, people or groups with some cause in common. Thatcher greatly disliked vested interests (well, some of them, anyway), and trade unions are no longer anywhere near as influential as they once were. Some interests are not officially organised as such, and there is a brief reference to ‘the well off’, described as ‘the dominant interest’, with no real competitors. But there is absolutely no recognition of the power of the one percent, and how government policies defend them. Murdoch’s influence on politicians derives from his media power, but his reason for exerting it the way he does is due to his position as a capitalist.
King’s final answer to his question is that ‘no one institution and certainly no one individual’ governs Britain. He sets out a rather feeble proposal for a ‘Nordic style’ system, where parties try to accommodate their disagreements. But this will make no substantial difference, for it is capitalism and the capitalist class that rule, something most academic observers of politics fail to spot.