In his immensely influential classic work The Anatomy of Britain, first published in 1962 and regularly updated during the next two decades, Anthony Sampson portrayed this country as governed by a hereditary ruling class, for the most part educated at a few public schools and Oxbridge colleges, cut off from ordinary people and wholly unsuited to wield power in the modern world.
His was not a new complaint, but what made it memorable was the painstakingly researched detail. Sampson examined all the major national institutions - parliament, the civil service, the armed forces, the episcopate, the judiciary, the boards of the great corporations and companies, such as ICI and Unilever, the Bank of England, the City - and established that, almost without exception, the words Eton and King's, Winchester and New College, Harrow and Christ Church, or the equivalent, applied to those at the top. And as Sampson demonstrated, not only did the old governing class all go to the same schools and colleges, but they were all part of a great biological network or cousinage. It was a tour de force of cold-blooded and thorough investigative journalism, far more dangerously subversive of the old order than any amount of the customary radical propaganda. As a result of Sampson's recurring "anatomies" of Britain, the "old school tie" ceased to be the subject of sub-Wodehousian music-hall jokes and became instead the subject of sinister-looking statistical graphs and tables.
Now, 40 years on and at the beginning of another millennium, Sampson has produced a new book in which he has second thoughts, perhaps even a change of heart. What this new volume says, again with a mass of damning evidence and incisive commentary, is that in today's world of triumphant global capitalism, Britain's meritocracy is even more dangerous, even more exclusive and out of touch with ordinary people, than the old hereditary aristocracy it replaced. While the old aristocracy was at least evolved out of an ethic separate from, and ideally superior to, the current capitalist triumphalism, today's meritocracy, which is the product and beneficiary of that capitalist triumphalism, is enslaved to it body and soul. Coming from Sampson, such a charge is endearingly rich. He used to be quite fond of arguing that the old aristocracy was particularly unfit to govern a modern society precisely because of aristocrats' snobbish contempt for trade. Now he has come round to the view that such an ambivalence about money would be the ruling class's saving grace.
But I do not want to score points. Sampson has written a superb diagnosis of what is wrong with the meritocracy that replaced the old hereditaries. Equality has not been the result: only a different form of inequality and, in Sampson's chastened view, a more dangerous kind, given that the new meritocrats at the top are so complacently confident of their right to be there that they feel under no further obligation to justify their good fortune by a life of public service. In fact, these new meritocrats feel a compulsion to avoid public service in case they should lay themselves open to the charge of aspiring to nobility.
What a mess! In the rush to create a classless society, we have washed down the plughole, along with hereditary privilege, the public service ethic. What is more, as Sampson shows, the old aristocratic families are still alive and kicking and getting richer all the time. All that has happened is that they have become a minor substratum of a new self-serving plutocracy in which dukes rank pretty low down the list, well below, say, Rupert Murdoch. As for the poor MPs, they rate well below rich dukes. That they are elected is not in itself enough to make today's money-obsessed public take them seriously. In truth it was never was. In the old days most Conservative and even many Labour MPs were somebody, in class terms, before they were elected. Like it or not, it was class, quite as much as being elected, that gave MPs authority and it is their classlessness now which takes that authority away. Sampson disagrees. He attributes MPs' current lack of authority to being cut off from the people, cocooned in the Westminster bubble. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. Today's House of Commons lacks authority because its members look and sound just like anybody else. Ministers, and leaders of the opposition likewise, are all dismayingly ordinary: not so much cut off from as indistinguishable from the rest of us.
Not only was the power of the state enhanced by the existence of class, but so was the power of those controlling the state. No wonder our parliamentary and administrative institutions - and indeed all our national institutions - are functioning so badly. The class system that gave them authority has been discredited, rendered obsolete and hollowed out. The shell is still there. The public schools and Oxbridge colleges still turn out high-flyers. But whereas these high-flyers once formed a governing or political class, they now form only a dominant economic class.
Sampson recognises and deplores this. "The retreat," he writes,
of the old establishment and the rebels of the left has left a vacuum which has been filled by the masters of the market place who can evade personal responsibilities and pass the buck to each other. They can invoke polls, sales figures, ratings, calculations of profits, without reference to ethics or the society they are helping to create, and they can keep their heads below the political parapets, while the values of public interest and public service have been eroded by the emphasis on individual competition.
Very true. Retreats, however, can be stopped, can even be turned into advances. Is that what Sampson wants? He does not say. There is no indication here whether he wants more of this damaging egalitarianism or less. We hear his message very clearly, that the new plutocracy is worse than the old aristocracy - less open, less concerned to preserve individual liberty, less benevolent, less public-spirited. But at no point does he address what should be done. Something invaluable has been lost, and it is not socialism, that much is clear from the book. Sampson won't thank me for saying this, but I think that the unspoken, or even unthought, message to be drawn is that it is Old Toryism that is missing.
Who Runs This Place? is enormously readable, containing a wealth of entertaining apercus and digressions. Did you know, for example, that today's "gloomy old Treasury" has now gone open plan, with the department's civil-service head, Gus (not Sir Augustus) O'Donnell, sitting in full view of the underlings; or that the head of the Home Civil Service under Edward Heath's prime ministership "had a nervous breakdown and started to conduct crucial meetings lying on the floor. He was eventually flown off to a villa in Barbados owned by Lord Rothschild, and soon afterwards became chairman of the Midland Bank"?
This anatomist has a wit that is as sharp as his scalpel. He has once again examined the British body politic and come up with a report which suggests that it suffers from a condition of anaemia induced by a severe thinning of the customary supply of blue blood to its heart. Emergency supplies are needed. This book is a call for volunteers. Dear God, I never thought to be alive to see this day.
Peregrine Worsthorne's In Defence of Aristocracy is published next month by HarperCollins