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The poisoning of liberal democracy Ferdinand Mount's The New Few presages a decade destabilised by inequality and incompetent oligarchies

Charismatic politicians rise when parliament is vestigial, said Ferdinand Mount in 2012. Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn. Credit: Hannah McKay - WPA Pool/Getty

Charismatic politicians rise when parliament is vestigial, said Ferdinand Mount in 2012. Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn. Credit: Hannah McKay - WPA Pool/Getty

January 7, 2020   4 mins

The General Election offered fantastical Socialism or an unknown Johnsonism. Neither was particularly promising. It’s no surprise then, despite the fury that washed across Twitter – ever a false mirror – that turnout was down on 2017. It has, in fact, collapsed since the mid 20th century.

We are not sleeping, though. As Ferdinand Mount notes in his 2012 polemic, The New Few: or A Very British Oligarchy — Power and Inequality in Britain Now, it is easy to amass numbers to join the National Trust or gather in defence of wildlife or climate. This remains true. But although we are alert, politically, we feel powerless.

How unusual to hear a plea for equality from the party of government — which, admittedly, was in coalition with the Liberal Democrats at the time of writing. But Mount — a journalist, a fine novelist, a former head of Margaret Thatcher’s policy unit and a baronet — isn’t a garden-variety Tory. He has the wisdom to fear rampant inequality, and the destabilisation, and ennui, you find when it thrives. That is, he is a real One Nation Tory. Boris Johnson now uses the phrase as if he found it in a corner and picked it up, so we cannot yet know if he means it. I hope he does. I think he doesn’t.

Mount, born in 1939, has watched the Britain he knew ebb away. The institutions of liberal democracy he describes are still present, looking much as they always did: parliament, the cabinet, the judiciary, local government, the BBC. But we sense a poisoning. We smell it in the air; Mount would agree. As he points out, we are trapped within an oligarchy which, like ivy, “will cling to any support; and when you cut it back it keeps on growing again”. But not a particularly functional one. It wasn’t when he was writing, and it is worse now. Inequality has destabilised it, and a competent oligarchy would never allow that. It is, rather, a rotting oligarchy.

How did it happen? In the book, Mount stares at the lie printed on a Scottish £10 note, promising to pay the bearer on demand, and he marvels at how the banking oligarchs merged themselves with dud banks to cause a global crisis for something as dull as greed. There is no conspiracy here to charm Leftists. It is sadder than that: it was incompetence, and hubris.

Mount mourns the death of localism: the decline of local councils, which had vast power before central government stole it for a management class that did not even know why they wanted it. Everywhere oligarchy seeks to centralise: “the Health Minister wants to close the cottage hospital. The bishop wants to close the little churches. The official pressure continues to work against the local and against the human scale.”

Mount mourns the seaside conferences where political parties made policy, chose their candidates and terrorised their leaders into compliance with their wishes. In its heyday, he writes, “Labour MPs were usually penned in an enclosure to the right of the platform looking like defendants in a Communist show trial”.

Now they are pictures for broadcast news and, because we know this, membership of political parties is in its death throes. Labour may boast of its almost 500,000 members, but it is applauding its own decline. The party had almost six and a half million members in 1965, a fact which, when I repeated it on Twitter, people simply refused to believe; we cannot remember a time when we had control of our leadership. Cabinet government, Mount continues on, is a nonsense, the civil service has declined and parliament, without its control of time, is “a fig leaf, a rubber stamp, a ghost of past glories”.

The media will not stop it. The media does not even cover Parliament anymore, unless there is a crisis and then we are too late, reporting only on the wreckage. The BBC is sinking under its own oligarchical tendencies; so is the Labour Party. It is now, and this is funny, an oligarchy.

What political figure will triumph when parliament is vestigial? Mount is writing in 2012, but he guesses right: the charismatic. “Now would-be-personalities must make their mark on Question Time or Have I Got News for You. The lion comique of these arenas is Mr Boris Johnson, and it was through his mastery of them that he rose effortlessly to become Mayor of London, not for anything he did or said in the House of Commons, for he did and said very little there.”

We have, it is true, rejected one set of oligarchs since The New Few was published: the oligarchs of the European Union. Mount makes no judgment on the EU, for it is not his way. He is, to the Twitter generation, a very strange journalist: deft, subtle and self-effacing. But he offers up Europe as another convincing argument for our feelings of powerlessness. He is potentially optimistic; if we can reject one set of oligarchs, we can reject another. But I wonder if our oligarchs threw out European oligarchs to gather more power to themselves. You could call it the revenge of the local, since the UK is now the local.

But I am not optimistic. One truth frightens me particularly. The Prime Minister is no longer, as Mount notes back then, primus inter pares: first among equals. If he has a large majority, and is clever, Parliament is not his conscience but his instrument; and his activists, disgusted at their inability to choose their own leaders and policies, left for the National Trust long ago. There is nothing to suggest that oligarchy is anything other than ascendant.

It is not a happy book, then; for me, it captures the essence of a miserable decade. But it is consoling to see the decline of liberal democracy noted so carefully, and in rare prose, by a respectable Tory of the kind that is, like his world, almost extinct.

Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist.


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