England’s old boys’ club has evolved into ‘the network’, made up of high rollers and city slicks
The old boys’ club. We don’t hear about it as much as we used to, do we? The phrase seems a little dusty, a bit of a throwback. Harrovians, Etonians, Wykehamists and other privately educated politicians may constitute 80% of Britain’s prime ministers so far; but they increasingly sit cheek by jowl in parliament with others who did not go to fee-paying schools, are not male, not white – and not only did not go to Oxbridge, but are not university educated at all.
And yet here we are, riffling through the seedy dealings of a small connected group of people at the top. The past few weeks of Conservative scandals are proof that this network is still alive and well. What these scandals also reveal is an evolution in the network’s character – high finance and mercantilism are becoming a fast track for new members into this particular political elite’s ranks.
Let us untangle the web of connections between the City, the government and its friends. The BBC chair, Richard Sharp, faces two separate investigations amid allegations he helped the former prime minister Boris Johnson secure a loan of up to £800,000, weeks before Johnson recommended him for the BBC job. Our current prime minister, Rishi Sunak, worked in hedge funds and is a Goldman Sachs alumnus. Sharp, many years ago, was Sunak’s boss at Goldman Sachs, and then years after, an economic adviser to Sunak during the pandemic. Sunak, as chancellor, was building on a long tradition of moving between the two worlds of politics and finance. Sajid Javid made his fortune at Deutsche Bank and had a second job at JP Morgan while a sitting MP. George Osborne took a job with BlackRock, and lately the investment bank Robey Warshaw.
There are other paths to and from the centre that involve making so many millions that you can claim to be “careless” about figuring out how many of them you owe in tax. Take Nadhim Zahawi, who was sacked as chair of the Conservative party for breaking the ministerial code by failing to declare the HMRC investigation into his tax affairs. Zahawi makes much of his unorthodox profile and journey into elite British politics as an immigrant who couldn’t speak English until he was 11. He even valorised himself in his own letter responding to his sacking. His forthcoming memoir (if it ever now sees the light of day) is titled A Boy from Baghdad: My Journey from Waziriyah to Westminster. But his ascent is more to do with what the Tory party rates and indulges than his contribution as a politician. His wealth and dynamic fixing for oil companies, and finance companies such as David Cameron’s Greensill, gained him status as a well-connected deal-cutter and risk-taker in a party that rates high-wire entrepreneurship, rather than raising worries about the blurring of lines between his political duties and large business empire.
The capital from trading and banking is also protected by those with cultural capital in parts of a billionaire-owned press. Sunak’s support team on the way to No 10 has been a small group of privately and Oxbridge-educated media and comms specialists; a second generation that is walking the highly rewarding, profile-boosting path from media to politics that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove ploughed. James Forsyth (Sunak was reportedly best man at his wedding) went from lavishing praise on Sunak in his Spectator column to becoming Sunak’s political secretary. Forsyth’s wife, Allegra Stratton, became director of strategic communications for Sunak at the Treasury, then No 10 press secretary. Following a brief hiatus after falling on her sword for mocking breaking social distancing laws, she is now back in the fold at Bloomberg.
The shared political, personal and financial interests of this network are the glue that binds them, turning them into a sort of family, one whose members are forgiving of each other. The outside world recedes into a distant hostile plane, where the rules apply differently. The faces of the public that the politicians are meant to serve blur into irrelevance, whereas those of their friends and peers are clear, sharpened by common experiences, memories and social interactions. Democracy doesn’t “die in darkness”, it dies at dinner.
The values these intimacies create – rather than money – inevitably trickle down into policy. As prime minister, to take one recent example, Sunak is rolling back post-financial crisis regulations to create space for more City activity after Brexit, a potentially destabilising move that the Bank of England governor has warned against. Sunak will risk dismantling crucial industry safeguards to figure out ways for financiers to make more money, but he will not look into how that money could be more usefully taxed, through a range of wealth taxes that could raise almost £40bn for public services. So when nurses and other essential workers are reduced to striking for a tiny increase in salaries, they are told the money simply does not exist. It does, but it is out of bounds. Britain, the Financial Times chillingly summarises, is a poor society with some very rich people. I would arguethat Britain is a poor society because it is run in the interests of very rich people.
What is to distinguish this from oligarchy? About 200 years ago, in The Black Book: An Exposition of Abuses in Church and State, John Wade wrote that “Government has been a corporation, and had the same interests and the same principles of action as monopolists.” This summary would not be an entirely inaccurate description of modern Tory government. It has become a corporation at the heart of a large lattice of interests. It may not look exactly like that referred to by Wade, composed of the high-paid sinecures of the aristocracy of the 1800s; but it is finding new, even more slippery ways of handing out favours and jobs.
“It has been supported by other corporations,” wrote Wade, “the church has been one, the agriculturists another; the boroughs a third, the East India Company a fourth, and the Bank of England a fifth: all these, and interests like these, constituted the citadel and out-works of its strength, and the first object of each has been to shun investigation.”
Powerbroking in Britain has passed from the hands of this old landed gentry and colonial trading class to the players of international finance. This is the network, not the old boys’ club: more accessible, less toffy, more colourful, with women in the fold, but just as steely and determined in its purpose to maintain its power, look after its own and shun investigation.
Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist