RDN on Mount’s “The New Few”

I had highish hopes of Ferdinand Mount’s book, The New Few. Here, after all, was a famously intelligent, civilised and well-informed conservative voice addressing a concern which is widespread: that Britain is badly run, and controlled by rather few people. Actually, the book made one wonder in what sense Mr Mount still feels he is of the right (if he does), not least since almost everything he says is commonly, and rather boringly, said by the left. The following looks at the book in some detail….

The New Few: Or a very British oligarchy
Ferdinand Mount
Simon & Schuster

There are lots of things wrong with this book. The worst feature of The New Few is that Ferdinand Mount doesn’t persuade one that he’s put his finger on the nature of the problems he says he’s identified. Sure, there’s something wrong with British elites, but Mr Mount isn’t very interesting about any aspect of them.

A bit of context: I am only being slightly more severe about the book than was Peter Oborne’s sound review in the Daily Telegraph. Jon Cruddas was much kinder in the Independent, and usefully gave us the book’s back story.

A bit more context: Ferdinand Mount is in a longish line of recent failures on this theme. They include: Hywel Williams’s Britain’s Power Elites: The rebirth of a ruling class (2006); Stewart Lansley’s Rich Britain: The rise and rise of the new super-wealthy (2006), both reviewed by RDN here; and Robert Peston’s Who Runs Britain: How the super-rich are changing our lives (2008) (reviewed by RDN here).

Ferdinand Mount says there is a “new few” and that they are “a very British oligarchy” and that there is a link between “power and inequality in Britain now”. All those claims are on the front cover and are repeated within. None of them stand up.

A further problem, especially for rightish readers: Ferdinand Mount is some sort of Conservative or conservative, or used to be. He might have given us a decidedly right-wing approach to a discussion of modern power and inequality, or even an interesting account of his abandonment of earlier beliefs, if that’s what’s happened. But this book doesn’t do those jobs. It is just what any nice social democrat might say. There’s too much muesli and too little Tabasco. Even a Michael Portillo, and certainly a Charles Moore, might have done better, or at least made an attempt. Maybe (I must read him) Jesse Norman already has.

The book opens with quite a long account of the tendency in modern financial firms to grow over-large and over-concentrated. He makes a fair case, and it is the mainstream, middlebrow view, that a few financial types got over-rich first amalgamating and then destroying their firms.

Mr Mount insists that he loves capitalism and that the modern, crippling version of the principal-agent problem is an old beast in a new form, which can be cured mostly by firms having a two-tier board, including Continental-style worker representation. So far, so good. These and others of Mr Mount’s recipes are selective and sketchy. The worst of them is that what he offers is no more than bits of mid-market wisdom which could be had from the top end of the New Economics Foundation, Occupy, the middle-left, or Will Hutton.

To return to the bigger issues, to the claims which Mr Mount can claim to be novel. Do a few over-mighty bosses of inflated firms represent an oligarchy, or a plutarchy? To do so, they would have to rule something more significant than a few banks, however painfully the tail of bank failure can wag the dog of economic chaos. Mr Mount doesn’t seriously try to persuade us that bankers parlayed their clout into political power.

Indeed, Ferdinand Mount never really betrays an understanding of what oligarchs do, though he writes rather well about what he calls “oligators” in one bird’s eye chapter. Ten years ago, books by Chrystia Freeland and others showed us that the post-Soviet oligarchs (whose rise invited a new coinage) were nexuses of political and entrepreneurial interests, crucially backed by state and criminal muscle. If Britain were run by Russian-style (or Asian, or even southern-European), or old-style 18th Century British oligarchies (such as they ever existed), we would see or seek interlocking systems of power, ensuring that legislation, law enforcement and firms worked smoothly in some private interests. If it were run by one “very British” oligarchy – as Mr Mount’s ambitious subtitle suggests – we would need to see one mighty, powerful, and – crucially – coherent, Establishment. We don’t.

Mr Mount weighs in against the EU, and that has been claimed by plenty of people to have a sort oligarchic centre: but even that won’t really wash. Sure, it can seem and be too cosy, but if it is an organised affair, it is allowed to be so by several democratic governments more by their laziness than by its malevolence, or theirs.

We can move on to another crippling failure of the book. It supposes that extreme inequality of income contributes to oligarchy. Rule by a very few very rich really would be a plutocratic system. Yet the very rich don’t seem to have much power in our country, for all that they clog up the West End and buy a lot of lobbyists.

Indeed, Mr Mount doesn’t make much of a fist of showing why one might care about modern inequality at all. He vaguely points at social dysfunction, suggesting that the 2011 summer riots showed us inequality in action. Wouldn’t unemployment, unemployablity, and a constant drumbeat of provocative “culture” explain the unruliness just as well? Anyway, he moves on to ameliorating inequality. He waxes lyrical about the Living Wage campaign, which does indeed seem attractive. Bizarrely, he likes the idea of poor people both getting a decent wage and not having to pay taxes. Surely, a conservative could indeed argue that ideally it is employers and not the state who would make sure the low-paid could live decently. But he might go on to add that a good measure of things running well would be that anyone in work could pay income taxes and thus be a contributing member of the polity. (That was one of the good ideas lurking in Nicholas Ridley’s defence of the Poll Tax.)  Addressing the contribution the rich ought to make to society, Mr Mount suggests they should pay higher rates: again, this is a goodish idea, if it could be arrived-at decently.

Leave aside the difficulty that Mr Mount’s approaches to inequality would probably hardly dent it, we are left wondering in what way the existence of a hyper-rich stratum in society constitutes anything like an oligarchy.

About halfway through the book, Mr Mount switches from the clout of the wealthy few to the sway of the politically powerful. He doesn’t say whether this is a different, standalone oligarchy, or explain how it might marry up with his imagined money one.  He almost confesses other muddles. He generally argues that Parliament has lost power, but can’t help noticing that since the Coalition it has gained some. (Jack Straw, in his fascinating Last Man Standing, argues that Parliament has gained a fair amount of power over the executive in recent years.) More particularly, Mr Mount is keen to argue that political parties have gained a stranglehold on the electoral process, mostly by choosing who gets to stand in general elections. Others, including Michael Portillo (“Cameron shouldn’t fear the EU wolf”, Financial Times, 14 December 2012), argue the reverse and this latter case seems to make sense granted that one way or another the modern backbencher seems stroppier than most we have seen for generations.

But the real oddity in Mr Mount’s case is that while he seems to want political power wrested from the hands of the professional political elite, his wider, deeper longing seems to be for a nice sensible polity. But the way to get the latter is surely to keep power away from amateur political obsessives: one can be all for political engagement without putting huge faith in the wisdom of party activists.

Besides, don’t we already have a polity which is a couple steps up from what populism would create? It is every day negotiated into existence in spite of all the stridencies which make up the cacophony of pub, radio phone-in and the blogosphere.

One can see why Ferdinand Mount might be keen to see a society shorn of the extremes of wealth and poverty, though I would have thought a conservative might stress the problem of absolute rather than relative poverty. But it seems bizarre to have joined the bien pensant (as Mr Mount seems to have done), and to be urging on the forces of sweet reason, and yet not to notice that our modern political class – for all its hegemonic political correctness, its clubbish thought-control, and its ghastly mishandling of the Civil Service, its spawning a nomenklatura – is actually holding the centre, or the ring, as best it can. The Europhobes, the sans culottes, the racists, the real socialists: they’re all out there, as usual, and the old Few – civilisation, the elite, even something a bit like the Establishment – will we can hope be refreshed as the real New Few and keep them at bay.


Addie Mcmillan
Mount, who is a gifted and subtle author of many books, both fiction and nonfiction, is perhaps best known for writing the Conservative party's 1983 election manifesto. Like many on the aristocratic wing of the Tory party, he was never a full-blooded Thatcherite, and long ago reverted to classic One Nation Conservatism. What's odd, and is itself worthy of reflection, is how left-field that kind of old-fashioned belief in social cohesion now appears. After all, Mount is no rabid anti-capitalist, but a 72-year-old conservative arguing for a little more equal distribution of wealth. And among a cowed and timid political class that currently qualifies as a radical position.

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Publication date

08 January 2013