The darker side of Dave

As the media hunt for a challenger to Gordon Brown, they have all but ignored the r

One Friday afternoon shortly before the 2005 election, pol itical journalists from the Sunday newspapers received a call from Labour's high command telling them to get to the party's Victoria Street headquarters as quickly as possible. They were ushered into a conference room, where they found Alastair Campbell, the party's former communications chief, attired in polo shirt and shorts and armed with a dossier for each reporter present. The über-spinner had been brought in to bolster faint hearts.

He explained that the party was picking up the first indi cations that things were not looking good in the key marginal seats. The Conservatives were proving to be a significant threat largely because of the vast sums of money being shovelled into the party coffers by Lord Ashcroft, the party's millionaire former treasurer. These, said Campbell, were being paid directly to the campaigns of Tory candidates in target constituencies. It looked like a classic story for the Sundays, intended to persuade wavering Labour voters disillusioned by the war in Iraq that the Tories remained a threat.

The gathered media pack was not convinced. After all, Campbell and his dossiers had form. The idea that Labour was genuinely frightened of Michael Howard, who had run a pitiful campaign dominated by right-wing scaremongering, was laughable. Few of the journalists present were persuaded. Some didn't run a single word in the papers that weekend.

Remarkably, Campbell happened to be telling the unspun truth on this occasion. Figures released immediately after the election showed that Ashcroft had paid £280,000 in donations to 33 candidates in marginal constituencies in the first three months of 2005. As a result, 11 of these candidates unseated the Labour MP and five Tory marginals were saved. It transpired that this was just part of Ashcroft's contribution. He had also loaned the party £3.6m. A consortium of donors, including Ashcroft, the casino tycoon Lord Steinberg and the car importer Robert Edmiston, had funded 93 constituency campaigns. According to research by Peter Bradley, who lost his seat in the Wrekin after a 5 per cent swing to the Tories, it turned out that, of the 36 gains, 24 had been targeted by the consortium. In some seats, such as Bradley's own, the Conservatives outspent Labour tenfold.

The name Michael Ashcroft still sends a chill down Labour spines. Bradley's analysis, and personal experience, show that those in marginal seats are wise to fear for their future. They also know that it was the Ashcroft money that persuaded the Blairite inner circle to seek out the loans that led to the catastrophic cash-for-peerages affair. There is deep frustration within the party that the Conservative loans given before the 2005 election appear not to have been held up to the same level of scrutiny as those brought in by the Prime Minister's personal fundraiser Lord Levy.

Labour's high command knows that Ashcroft is a fearsome adversary, prepared to take on the new Labour establishment and its allies in the media. He successfully disputed allegations published in the Times about his business dealings, forcing a front-page apology. Senior Labour figures are concerned that Ashcroft's influence has gone largely unchallenged. But in this area, as in so many others, Labour is no longer able to drive the agenda. There was a time not so long ago when Labour ran an attack unit providing almost daily stories about Tory sleaze. As with other aspects of the party's cash-starved organisation, the unit has not operated since the 2005 election.

There is barely contained fury within Gordon Brown's camp that such media operations are impossible while Blair remains in power, with the police hovering at the door of No 10. A source close to the Chancellor told me: "It is pretty clear that the present regime hasn't been able to go on the attack. But the residual Labour Party attack machine will get back into action. Hands have been tied."

Renewed scrutiny

There should be plenty for Labour, and the media, to get their teeth into. Those around Cameron know he has had a relatively easy ride so far. There is little doubt that Ashcroft will come under renewed scrutiny, despite his liberal use of the libel laws. Since December 2005, he has been a Tory deputy chairman, with special responsibility for marginal seats, polling and the party's youth wing, Conservative Future. His influence cannot be underestimated. His pamphlet Smell the Coffee, published straight after the last election, was a blueprint for a new era. It argued for the party to shift to the centre ground, to target resources more effectively and woo the mainstream support of professionals, women and aspirational voters of all backgrounds and races. It could have been written by Cameron. Ashcroft remains a highly controversial figure, especially in the Caribbean, where the tiny state of Belize has been his fiefdom. He was required to assume British residency in order to take his seat in the Lords, but still most of his business interests are abroad.

Ashcroft will not be their only target. Once Blair is gone, Brown's shock troops will waste no time in reminding people that Scotland Yard's cash-for-honours inquiry also covers the Tories. Edmiston was questioned by the police over his £2m loan to the party and his subsequent nomination for a peerage by Howard. He also helped establish Constituency Campaigning Services, which is central to the Tories' strategy for marginal seats. The relationship of CCS to the Conservative Party is under investigation by the Electoral Commission to see if the arrangement broke campaign rules. A further three prominent Tory donors - Irvine Laidlaw, Leonard Steinberg and Stanley Kalms - were given peerages after being nominated by Iain Duncan Smith. Meanwhile, Johan Eliasch, the Swedish head of the sportswear company Head, lent the party £2.6m and serves as the party's deputy treasurer. He is also an adviser to the shadow foreign secretary, William Hague.

The Conservative Party has been careful to cultivate an image as a political movement aloof from the vicious politics of Westminster. It has done this while developing a tougher edge to its media operation. During the darkest days of Duncan Smith's leadership, press officers at Central Office used to spend their time constructing elaborate paper aeroplanes to test-fly from desk to desk. Another bizarre but symbolic game involved jumping off the desks into waste-paper bins: anything rather than answer the phones to a press pack which had scented blood.

Spin machine

Now the small group of trusted advisers around Cameron has created a finely honed machine in the renamed Conservative Campaign Headquarters. The furore over Brown's decision to remove tax credits on pension dividends in 1997 shows how slick the spin machine has become. In recent days, commuters at train stations were greeted with a mock tabloid front page lampooning Brown over the pensions crisis, with the headline "Gordon Brown ate my pension". Such an operation is reminiscent of Labour circa 1995. It depends on cash, organisa-tion and bodies on the ground. On all three fronts, the 2007 Labour Party just can't compete.

Yet there are other fronts on which the Tories are vulnerable. They appear to have grown somewhat blasé about their fundraising. Cameron was reprimanded by the parliamentary watchdog last month for hosting seven "Leader's Club" lunches for businessmen at the Commons. He has since apologised. Not so long ago this would have been seized on as evidence of Tory sleaze. These dinners still take place, but outside parliament, where business people can purchase access to the leader for £50,000 (or they can meet other top Tories at the Shadow Chancellor's Club or the Frontbench Club).

So why has the Labour machine gone so quiet? There is another theory doing the rounds in the Brownite camp. Apart from the obvious issues of resources, the Chancellor's people suspect a lack of political will because of personal connections between the Cameroons and the Blairites. A particular bone of contention is the friendship between Benjamin Wegg-Prosser, Blair's head of strategy, and Rachel Whetstone, a top Tory apparatchik who also happens to be the partner of Cameron's right-hand man and PR guru, Steve Hilton.

For the present, what is left of the Labour's media fire-power is being concentrated on Scotland and the SNP. But if and when Brown becomes leader the gloves will come off. The Chancellor's circle intends to go on the attack against Cameron from the minute Blair leaves Downing Street. The Tories, for their part, will not take it lying down. They will abandon their image of the party that shuns "yah boo" politics. "If Gordon Brown comes for us, all that will go out of the window," a Tory insider told me. The Conservatives are starting to build their own anti-Brown attack unit at their new headquarters on, yes, Millbank, an updated version of Labour's highly effective team of the late 1990s. We are heading for a bloody political summer.

Five things the Tories don't want you to know about "Dave"

1 He is a member of White's in St James's, an elite, male-only establishment (his father, Ian, was once its chairman). At Oxford, he was notoriously a member of the exclusive all-male Bullingdon dining club, famous for its hard drinking and bad behaviour.

2 As special adviser to the chancellor Norman Lamont in 1992, Cameron did nothing to challenge policies that led to the collapse of the pound on Black Wednesday

3 He spent almost seven years as director of corporate affairs for Carlton Communications (a job he acquired with the help of family connections). Ian King, the Sun's business editor, describes him as "poisonous" and "a smarmy bully who regularly threatened journalists who dared to write anything negative about Carlton"

4 He praised his wife's stationery company in a GQ interview. And on Desert Island Discs, he plugged a book by his friend Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and chose a case of whisky made by a company co-owned by the Tory donor Robert Tchenguiz

5 He was forced to make an embarrassing apology last month for breaking the MPs' code of conduct by hosting fundraising lunches at his Commons office

Sam Alexandroni

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Why the elites always rule

Since an Italian sociologist coined the word “elite” in 1902, it has become a term of abuse. But history is the story of one elite replacing another – as the votes for Trump and Brexit have shown.

Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign was based on the rejection of the “establishment”. Theresa May condemned the rootless “international elites” in her leader’s speech at last October’s Conservative party conference. On the European continent, increasingly popular right-wing parties such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National and the German Alternative für Deutschland, as well as Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, delight in denouncing the “Eurocratic” elites. But where does the term “elite” come from, and what does it mean?

It was Vilfredo Pareto who, in 1902, gave the term the meaning that it has today. We mostly think of Pareto as the economist who came up with ideas such as “Pareto efficiency” and the “Pareto principle”. The latter – sometimes known as the “power law”, or the “80/20 rule” – stipulates that 80 per cent of the land always ends up belonging to 20 per cent of the population. Pareto deduced this by studying land distribution in Italy at the turn of the 20th century. He also found that 20 per cent of the pea pods in his garden produced 80 per cent of the peas. Pareto, however, was not only an economist. In later life, he turned his hand to sociology, and it was in this field that he developed his theory of the “circulation of elites”.

The term élite, used in its current socio­logical sense, first appeared in his 1902 book Les systèmes socialistes (“socialist systems”). Its aim was to analyse Marxism as a new form of “secular” religion. And it was the French word élite that he used: naturally, one might say, for a book written in French. Pareto, who was bilingual, wrote in French and Italian. He was born in Paris in 1848 to a French mother and an Italian father; his father was a Genoese marquis who had accompanied the political activist Giuseppe Mazzini into exile. In honour of the revolution that was taking place in Germany at the time, Pareto was at first named Fritz Wilfried. This was latinised into Vilfredo Federico on the family’s return to Italy in 1858.

When Pareto wrote his masterpiece – the 3,000-page Trattato di sociologia ­generale (“treatise on general sociology”) – in 1916, he retained the French word élite even though the work was in Italian. Previously, he had used “aristocracy”, but that didn’t seem to fit the democratic regime that had come into existence after Italian unification. Nor did he want to use his rival Gaetano Mosca’s term “ruling class”; the two had bitter arguments about who first came up with the idea of a ruling minority.

Pareto wanted to capture the idea that a minority will always rule without recourse to outdated notions of heredity or Marxist concepts of class. So he settled on élite, an old French word that has its origins in the Latin eligere, meaning “to select” (the best).

In the Trattato, he offered his definition of an elite. His idea was to rank everyone on a scale of one to ten and that those with the highest marks in their field would be considered the elite. Pareto was willing to judge lawyers, politicians, swindlers, courtesans or chess players. This ranking was to be morally neutral: beyond “good and evil”, to use the language of the time. So one could identify the best thief, whether that was considered a worthy profession or not.

Napoleon was his prime example: whether he was a good or a bad man was irrelevant, as were the policies he might have pursued. Napoleon had undeniable political qualities that, according to Pareto, marked him out as one of the elite. Napoleon is important
because Pareto made a distinction within the elite – everyone with the highest indices within their branch of activity was a member of an elite – separating out the governing from the non-governing elite. The former was what interested him most.

This is not to suggest that the non-governing elite and the non-elite were of no interest to him, but they had a specific and limited role to play, which was the replenishment of the governing elite. For Pareto, this group was the key to understanding society as a whole – for whatever values this elite incarnated would be reflected in society. But he believed that there was an inevitable “physiological” law that stipulated the continuous decline of the elite, thereby making way for a new elite. As he put it in one of his most memorable phrases, “History is the graveyard of elites.”


Pareto’s thesis was that elites always rule. There is always the domination of the minority over the majority. And history is just the story of one elite replacing another. This is what he called the “circulation of elites”. When the current elite starts to decline, it is challenged and makes way for another. Pareto thought that this came about in two ways: either through assimilation, the new elite merging with elements of the old, or through revolution, the new elite wiping out the old. He used the metaphor of a river to make his point. Most of the time, the river flows continuously, smoothly incorporating its tributaries, but sometimes, after a storm, it floods and breaks its banks.

Drawing on his Italian predecessor Machiavelli, Pareto identified two types of elite rulers. The first, whom he called the “foxes”, are those who dominate mainly through combinazioni (“combination”): deceit, cunning, manipulation and co-optation. Their rule is characterised by decentralisation, plurality and scepticism, and they are uneasy with the use of force. “Lions”, on the other hand, are more conservative. They emphasise unity, homogeneity, established ways, the established faith, and rule through small, centralised and hierarchical bureaucracies, and they are far more at ease with the use of force than the devious foxes. History is the slow swing of the pendulum from one type of elite to the other, from foxes to lions and back again.

The relevance of Pareto’s theories to the world today is clear. After a period of foxes in power, the lions are back with renewed vigour. Donald Trump, as his behaviour during the US presidential campaign confirmed, is perfectly at ease with the use of intimidation and violence. He claimed that he wants to have a wall built between the United States and Mexico. His mooted economic policies are largely based on protectionism and tariffs. Regardless of his dubious personal ethics – a classic separation between the elite and the people – he stands for the traditional (white) American way of life and religion.

This is in stark contrast to the Obama administration and the Cameron government, both of which, compared to what has come since the votes for Trump and Brexit, were relatively open and liberal. Pareto’s schema goes beyond the left/right divide; the whole point of his Systèmes socialistes was to demonstrate that Marxism, as a secular religion, signalled a return to faith, and thus the return of the lions in politics.

In today’s context, the foxes are the forces of globalisation and liberalism – in the positive sense of developing an open, inter­connected and tolerant world; and in the negative sense of neoliberalism and the dehumanising extension of an economic calculus to all aspects of human life. The lions represent the reaction, centring themselves in the community, to which they may be more attentive, but bringing increased xenophobia, intolerance and conservatism. For Pareto, the lions and foxes are two different types of rule, both with strengths and weaknesses. Yet the elite is always composed of the two elements. The question is: which one dominates at any given time?

What we know of Theresa May’s government suggests that she runs a tight ship. She has a close – and closed – group of confidants, and she keeps a firm grip on the people under her. She is willing to dispense with parliament in her negotiation of Brexit, deeming it within the royal prerogative. Nobody yet knows her plan.

The European Union is a quintessentially foxlike project, based on negotiation, compromise and combination. Its rejection is a victory of the lions over the foxes. The lions are gaining prominence across the Western world, not just in Trumpland and Brexit Britain. Far-right movements have risen by rejecting the EU. It should come as no surprise that many of these movements (including Trump in the US) admire Vladimir Putin, at least for his strongman style.

Asia hasn’t been spared this movement, either. After years of tentative openness in China, at least with the economy, Xi Jinping has declared himself the “core” leader, in the mould of the previous strongmen Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has also hardened his stance, and he was the first world leader to meet with President-Elect Donald Trump. Narendra Modi in India and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines are in the same mould, the latter coming to power on the back of promising to kill criminals and drug dealers. After the failed coup against him in July, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also been cracking down on Turkey.


In Les systèmes socialistes, Pareto elaborated on how a new elite replaces the old. A, the old elite, would be challenged by B, the new, in alliance with C, the people. B would win the support of C by making promises that, once in power, it wouldn’t keep. If that sounds like the behaviour of most politicians, that is because it probably is. But what Pareto was pointing out was how, in its struggle for power, the new elite politicised groups that were not political before.

What we know of Trump supporters and Brexiteers is that many feel disenfranchised: the turnout in the EU referendum could not have been greater than in the 2015 general election otherwise, and significant numbers of those who voted for Trump had never voted before. There is no reason to think that they, too, won’t be betrayed by the new leaders they helped to bring to power.

In the last years of his life, Pareto offered a commentary on Italy in the 1920s. He denounced the state’s inability to enforce its decisions and the way that Italians spent their time flaunting their ability to break the law and get away with it. He coined the phrase “demagogic plutocracy” to characterise the period, in which the rich ruled behind a façade of democratic politics. He thought this particularly insidious for two reasons: those in power were more interested in siphoning off wealth for their personal ends than encouraging the production of new wealth, and consequently undermined national prosperity (remember Pareto’s training as an economist); and, as the demagogic elites govern through deceit and cunning, they are able to mask their rule for longer periods.

Much has been made of Trump’s “populism”, but the term “demagogic plutocrat” seems particularly apt for him, too: he is a wealthy man who will advance the interests of his small clique to the detriment of the well-being of the nation, all behind the smokescreen of democratic politics.

There are other ways in which Pareto can help us understand our predicament. After all, he coined the 80/20 rule, of which we hear an intensified echo in the idea of “the One Per Cent”. Trump is a fully paid-up member of the One Per Cent, a group that he claims to be defending the 99 Per Cent from (or, perhaps, he is an unpaid-up member, given that what unites the One Per Cent is its reluctance to pay taxes). When we perceive the natural inequality of the distribution of resources as expressed through Pareto’s “power law”, we are intellectually empowered to try to do something about it.

Those writings on 1920s Italy landed Pareto in trouble, as his theory of the circulation of elites predicted that a “demagogic plutocracy”, dominated by foxes, would necessarily make way for a “military plutocracy”, this time led by lions willing to restore the power of the state. In this, he was often considered a defender of Mussolini, and Il Duce certainly tried to make the best of that possibility by making Pareto a senator. Yet there is a difference between prediction and endorsement, and Pareto, who died in 1923, had already been living as a recluse in Céligny in Switzerland for some time – earning him the nickname “the hermit of Céligny” – with only his cats for company, far removed from day-to-day Italian politics. He remained a liberal to his death, content to stay above the fray.

Like all good liberals, Pareto admired Britain above all. As an economist, he had vehemently defended its system of free trade in the face of outraged opposition in Italy. He also advocated British pluralism and tolerance. Liberalism is important here: in proposing to set up new trade barriers and restrict freedom of movement, exacerbated by their more or less blatant xenophobia, Trump and Brexit challenge the values at the heart of the liberal world.


What was crucial for Pareto was that new elites would rise and challenge the old. It was through the “circulation of elites” that history moved. Yet the fear today is that history has come to a standstill, that elites have ­become fossilised. Electors are fed up with choosing between the same old candidates, who seem to be proposing the same old thing. No wonder people are willing to try something new.

This fear of the immobility of elites has been expressed before. In 1956, the American sociologist C Wright Mills published The Power Elite. The book has not been out of print since. It is thanks to him that the term was anglicised and took on the pejorative sense it has today. For Mills, Cold War America had come to be dominated by a unified political, commercial and military elite. With the 20th century came the growth of nationwide US corporations, replacing the older, more self-sufficient farmers of the 19th century.

This made it increasingly difficult to ­distinguish between the interests of large US companies and those of the nation as a whole. “What’s good for General Motors,” as the phrase went, “is good for America.” As a result, political and commercial interests were becoming ever more intertwined. One had only to add the Cold War to the mix to see how the military would join such a nexus.

Mills theorised what President Dwight D Eisenhower denounced in his January 1961 farewell speech as the “military-industrial complex” (Eisenhower had wanted to add the word “congressional”, but that was thought to be too risky and was struck out of the speech). For Mills, the circulation of elites – a new elite rising to challenge the old – had come to an end. If there was any circulation at all, it was the ease with which this new power elite moved from one part of the elite to the other: the “revolving door”.

The Cold War is over but there is a similar sense of immobility at present concerning the political elite. Must one be the child or wife of a past US president to run for that office? After Hillary Clinton, will Chelsea run, too? Must one have gone to Eton, or at least Oxford or Cambridge, to reach the cabinet? In France is it Sciences Po and Éna?

The vote for Brexit, Trump and the rise of the far right are, beyond doubt, reactions to this sentiment. And they bear out Pareto’s theses: the new elites have aligned themselves with the people to challenge the old elites. The lions are challenging the foxes. Needless to say, the lions, too, are prototypically elites. Trump is a plutocrat. Boris Johnson, the co-leader of the Leave campaign, is as “establishment” as they come (he is an Old Etonian and an Oxford graduate). Nigel Farage is a public-school-educated, multimillionaire ex-stockbroker. Marine Le Pen is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen. Putin is ex-KGB.

Pareto placed his hopes for the continuing circulation of elites in technological, economic and social developments. He believed that these transformations would give rise to new elites that would challenge the old political ruling class.

We are now living through one of the biggest ever technological revolutions, brought about by the internet. Some have argued that social media tipped the vote in favour of Brexit. Arron Banks’s Leave.EU website relentlessly targeted disgruntled blue-collar workers through social media, using simple, sometimes grotesque anti-immigration messages (as a recent profile of Banks in the New Statesman made clear) that mimicked the strategies of the US hard right.

Trump’s most vocal supporters include the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who has found the internet a valuable tool for propagating his ideas. In Poland, Jarosław Kaczynski, the leader of the Law and Justice party, claims that the Russian plane crash in 2010 that killed his twin brother (then the country’s president) was a political assassination, and has accused the Polish prime minister of the time, Donald Tusk, now the president of the European Council, of being “at least morally” responsible. (The official explanation is that the poorly trained pilots crashed the plane in heavy fog.)

It need not be like this. Silicon Valley is a world unto itself, but when some of its members – a new technological elite – start to play a more active role in politics, that might become a catalyst for change. In the UK, it has been the legal, financial and technological sectors that so far have led the pushback against a “hard” Brexit. And we should not forget how the social movements that grew out of Occupy have already been changing the nature of politics in many southern European countries.

The pendulum is swinging back to the lions. In some respects, this might be welcome, because globalisation has left too many behind and they need to be helped. However, Pareto’s lesson was one of moderation. Both lions and foxes have their strengths and weaknesses, and political elites are a combination of the two, with one element dominating temporarily. Pareto, as he did in Italy in the 1920s, would have predicted a return of the lions. But as a liberal, he would have cautioned against xenophobia, protectionism and violence.

If the lions can serve as correctives to the excesses of globalisation, their return is salutary. Yet the circulation of elites is a process more often of amalgamation than replacement. The challenge to liberal politics is to articulate a balance between the values of an open, welcoming society and of one that takes care of its most vulnerable members. Now, as ever, the task is to find the balance between the lions and the foxes. l

Hugo Drochon is the author of “Nietzsche’s Great Politics” (Princeton University Press)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge