Miles Cole for New Statesman.
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The pugilist: Sadiq Khan’s quest to become mayor of London

Can the Tooting MP complete the journey from council home to City Hall? 

One recent morning, Sadiq Khan entered the ring at Earlsfield Amateur Boxing Club in Wandsworth, south London. He ­began sparring with one of the regulars: ducking, weaving, throwing jabs. Khan learned to box as a boy, partly for self-defence; two of his brothers are coaches at the volunteer-run academy near Tooting, the constituency he has represented since 2005. Among those pictured on the wall is Frank Bruno, the club’s most famous son.

Khan had invited me to join him, and soon after I arrive at 10am, Pop, the youngest of his seven siblings, inducts me in the ring and we begin 90 minutes of training. “Boxing isn’t fighting,” Khan told me when I interviewed him two days earlier. “It’s a classic mistake people make – boxing is a sport. The skills you learn are life skills: being magnanimous, what to eat, how to keep fit, how to look out for each other. The first thing you learn in boxing is defence – you’ve got to defend yourself . . . We all boxed [in my family] and that gives you confidence if you get into bother on the street.”

The only one of his brothers not to compete at amateur level, Khan preferred football and cricket (he had trials for Surrey). But he moves with an agility seldom associated with MPs – many of whom are more likely to be found in the Palace of Westminster’s bars than its gym. As a devout Muslim, Khan does not drink, and in 2014 he ran the London Marathon.

During our warm-down we pass a road on which his father drove the number 44 bus. A few minutes away is the council estate where Khan grew up. He doubts that bus drivers today could afford to live in the area, and speaks with sadness at how gentrification has frayed the bonds of community. It was the fear that working-class Londoners were being denied the opportunities ­afforded to his family that partly inspired his candidacy for mayor of London.

***

In eight weeks, on 5 May, Sadiq Khan will compete in the UK’s biggest bout of all. With the exception of the French president, no European politician has a larger personal mandate than the mayor of London. The city's leader controls a £16bn budget and housing, planning and transport policy. If the government lives up to its devolutionary rhetoric, the next incumbent will acquire still greater powers.

For the past eight years, London has been led by Boris Johnson, who twice defeated his Labour predecessor, Ken Livingstone. But Khan is predicted to win back City Hall for Labour. Zac Goldsmith, the Tory MP for Richmond Park, whose billionaire father founded the Eurosceptic Referendum Party, was the candidate that many in Labour feared: telegenic, green (he edited the Ecologist magazine) and socially liberal. The Tories’ hope was that, like Johnson, Goldsmith would attract non-Conservative voters. Yet in a city that leans ever more towards Labour – the party won 45 of its 73 seats in last year’s general election – few believe he can emulate his predecessor. Fellow Tories have criticised his campaign as “low-energy”. The most recent poll, published by Opinium on 8 March, gave Khan a 10-point lead in the final round.

“I’m the least complacent person you’ll find but I’m quietly confident,” he told me.

Khan, colleagues often say, is “a winner”. At the 2010 general election, he defended his Tooting seat from an aggressive and well-funded Conservative challenge. In the same year, he managed Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign, masterminding the defeat of Miliband’s elder brother, David. In the 2014 local elections, after Miliband rewarded him with the post of shadow minister for London, Khan achieved Labour’s best result in the capital since 1971. At last year’s general election, on an otherwise morose night, the party gained seven seats in London, its strongest performance since 2001.

When Khan announced in May last year that he would stand to be Labour’s mayoral candidate, many expected him to be defeated by Tessa Jowell, the popular former Olympics minister. It was not an assessment that Khan ever shared. As David Lammy, who finished fourth in the selection contest, told me: “I remember Sadiq sitting in his office – it would have been six months before the campaign got going. He looked me in the eye and said, ‘You know, I am going to do this.’ He was steely about it and very clear in his own mind.”

Khan’s team emphasised an ­elementary but overlooked truth: it was Labour Party members and supporters who would choose the candidate. The party’s leftwards trajectory gave him the advantage. Unlike Jowell, an unashamed Blairite, Khan opposed the Iraq War, a totemic issue for activists. He worked hard to win the endorsements of Ken Livingstone, the Unite, GMB and CWU trade unions and his fellow London MPs. Khan’s nomination – if not support – of Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership and his opposition to the Welfare Reform and Work Bill gave him further credibility among the party’s selectorate. His policies included a London Living Rent (based on a third of average local income) and a four-year freeze on Tube and bus fares.

While Jowell and other candidates attempted to appeal to existing party members, Khan recruited new ones. Over the four-month campaign, he made more than 200 visits to workplaces, community centres, churches, temples, mosques and shopping malls. “The thing that should never be underestimated with Sadiq is his ability to campaign,” Lammy told me. “He’s a bit like a terrier; when he gets his teeth into something he’s not going to let it go.” Jowell simply told me that Khan was a “formidable campaigner” and that “all the signs are that he’s going to win”.

When the selection result was announced on 11 September 2015, with Khan beating Jowell 59-41 in the final round of voting, many were stunned by his landslide victory. But not him. “I never thought it was going to be a close race,” he told me just after the result was announced at the Royal Festival Hall. “I always knew – irrespective of what respectable London newspapers may write and who they’re going to endorse – when it comes to voters seeing what the candidates stand for and what their vision is, I’d win.”

No one I spoke to doubted Khan’s political skill, but some questioned his integrity. “He has got a tendency to want it so much that he slightly overeggs it,” a senior Labour MP told me. “Some of that mud will get thrown at him: that he changes his position, that he is politically expedient – and that then goes to trust. What does he really stand for?”

Having nominated Corbyn for the leadership, Khan was derided for sharply rebuking the new Labour leader in a Mail on Sunday interview on 20 September. He warned that Corbyn’s meetings with Hamas and Hezbollah reinforced Labour’s “anti-Jewish” image, criticised him for failing to sing the national anthem (“He was very unwise. You are trying to be the British prime minister”) and vowed to “work closely with a Tory government if it is in London’s interest”.

Such comments, opponents suggested, would never have been made during the selection contest for the mayoral candidacy – when he needed the Corbynites. But he insists there was no inconsistency. “I was quite clear when I nominated Jeremy that I wasn’t going to vote for him [Khan endorsed Andy Burnham]. Look on my Twitter timeline. And, George, in the selection process I was asked whether I would serve in his shadow cabinet, if I wasn’t successful, and I said no – because we come from different parts of the party. We believe in different things.”

Without the help of Khan and other non-supporters, Corbyn would not have made the ballot. Khan insisted that he had no regrets. “Jeremy Corbyn, to give him some credit, won among Labour Party members, among Labour Party supporters and among trade union supporters . . . You can have an analysis of why the other candidates failed to inspire, enthuse and engage with the membership, whereas Jeremy did, and that’s a conversation for them to have.”

He rejected the suggestion that his victory was a by-product of Corbynism. Were that the case, he said, one would have expected Diane Abbott or Christian Wolmar (both of whom voted for the eventual leader) to win. “The reason why that didn’t happen was because in my campaign I managed to enthuse, inspire and engage the selectorate. My mandate is similar to Jeremy’s, almost 60 per cent ... We were fizzing with energy, we had ideas and we won.”

His attempts to distance himself from the Labour leader have led the Tories to label him “Corbyn’s man”. At a Goldsmith rally on 26 January, David Cameron warned voters that they would be “lab rats in the first Corbyn economic experiment in public life” if Khan won.

However, in tacit acknowledgement of the risk posed by Corbyn’s unpopularity, Khan does not plan to appear in public with him in the lead-up to May (to the consternation of Corbyn’s allies). The leader’s role will be limited to voter mobilisation: leafleting, fundraising and phone banking. Yet Corbyn has more cause than most to hope that Khan is successful. Labour is forecast to become the first opposition since 1982 to lose council seats in a non-general-election year; retaking the mayoralty would provide crucial consolation.

Khan is also avoiding campaign appearances with Livingstone and has ruled out giving him a job if he wins. “If you’re running for mayor, your job is to represent London – you’ve got to stand up for London,” Livingstone said of Khan. “You often have to disagree with a Labour government, as I had to. It’s a campaign between Zac and Sadiq; it’s not a rerun of me and Boris. We should keep out of it.”

***

The day after Corbyn made the Labour leadership ballot on 15 June last year, Khan was again accused of expediency when he announced that he opposed a third runway at  Heathrow Airport in favour of Gatwick. “Sadiq was for Heathrow expansion in 2008; he was for it when he was transport minister in 2009. Zac Goldsmith has announced he is running [the Tory candidate is a long-standing opponent], and suddenly he’s against it,” Lammy told a mayoral hustings. But Khan denied that his stance was born of opportunism. “It was born out of the facts. Unlike Zac Goldsmith, I accept the case for an increase in flight capacity in this part of the country. I think the case has been made for jobs and growth.

“But in the last full year for which there’s data almost 10,000 Londoners died because of air pollution. There are children in parts of London whose lungs are underdeveloped. The UK Supreme Court last April held that the air-quality directive had been breached. So air is a killer – it makes you sick and it’s illegal. In those circumstances, you can’t say yes to a new runway at Heathrow.”

At Gatwick, he added, far fewer people were affected by air and noise pollution.

The Tories have recently levelled a far graver charge than that of Corbynism or opportunism: that Khan is a friend of Islamist extremists. On 7 February the Sunday Times reported that Khan had attended four meetings of the group Stop Political Terror (while campaigning against the US-UK extradition treaty), which had the support of Anwar al-Awlaki, the late al-Qaeda cleric. On 12 February, across two pages, the London Evening Standard noted that Khan’s former brother-in-law, Makbool Javaid, had attended events organised by the extremist group al-Muhajiroun in the 1990s (the pair have not spoken for a decade). Four days later, MailOnline reported that Khan had given a speech at the 2008 Global Peace and Unity festival while the “black flag of jihad” was flying.

Nick Timothy, a former chief of staff to the Home Secretary, Theresa May, told me: “Khan wants to be the mayor for millions of Londoners at a time when the terror threat is very real. An attack could happen at any time and he would have to respond and unite the city in those circumstances – he will be responsible for policing and community relations. He’s campaigned against the role of the police and allowed himself to share platforms with people who very definitely have the wrong kind of views. It’s not very good judgement if he wants to be the mayor of a city like London.”

Such comments frustrate Khan. “People who understand politics understand what happens at these things,” he said. “What happened was very simple.

“Many MPs from all parties, including Boris Johnson and Zac Goldsmith himself, had objections to the US-UK extradition treaty . . . Now, often when there are meetings happening about a cause, what happens is you’re very busy; the meeting may have been taking place for two, three, four hours; you’re doing other stuff. You go along, you take the stage, you do your spiel, you speak and more often than not just leave to do your next event.

“Often you’ve got no idea who was speaking before you, who’s speaking after you. Nobody could honestly, hand on heart, think I agree with the sort of views spouted by other people who spoke at the same meetings: that’s not the way it worked.

“I’ve been quite clear in my views in relation to extremism and radicalisation. I’ve been quite clear in my views in relation to people who claim to follow the same faith as me but have views that are abhorrent.”

He added: “So, what are you implying by your nudge-nudge and your wink-wink? What are you saying either about me or about the one million Londoners of Islamic faith? I get people approaching me all the time who are Muslim who say, ‘If they’re doing this to you, what chance have I got?’ or, ‘You’re encouraging us to get ­involved in mainstream politics yet this is how you’re treated’ or, ‘If they’re digging around, as they’ve been for months, about your extended family – about who used to be related to you, or whatever – what chance have we got?’”

He spoke of his dismay that Goldsmith, who some believed would shun such tactics, had pursued this path. “Those advising Zac to do this sort of stuff, it’s foolish advice. I thought Zac was bigger than this.”

Khan has received death threats from extremists for his involvement in democratic politics and, more recently, for supporting equal marriage. Friends say that despite the political and physical risks posed by taking this stance, he never hesitated. As a former human rights lawyer and champion of civil liberties (he chaired Liberty for three years), it was an automatic choice.

In a speech to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in November, a week after the Paris terror attacks, Khan spoke of how “successive governments had tolerated segregation in British society” and had allowed “the conditions that permit extremism to continue unchecked”.

He warned: “We’ve protected people’s right to live their cultural life at the expense of creating a common life. Too many British Muslims grow up without really knowing anyone from a different background, without understanding or empathising with the lives and beliefs of others.”

None of this has prevented his rivals making the claim that he is a friend of extremists and, by implication, one himself. But unlike Livingstone, who responded vociferously to accusations of anti-Semitism, Khan has maintained his composure.

“I’ve watched him go through this extremism row two or three times quite closely,” an MP told me. “He’s extraordinarily calm under that level of pressure. He draws on a well of inner stability that is really impressive. Tony Blair could obviously do it in spades but there are not that many senior politicians who can do it.”

***

Sadiq Aman Khan was born on 8 October 1970 at St George’s Hospital in Tooting. His grandparents emigrated from India to Pakistan following Partition; his parents emigrated from Pakistan to London shortly before his birth. Khan was the fifth of eight children (he has six brothers and one sister). His late father, Amanullah, was a bus driver for more than 25 years; his mother, Sehrun, was a seamstress.

Khan attributes his work ethic to his upbringing. “My dad worked all the hours that God sent as a bus driver. If he got overtime he’d take it. My mum not only raised eight children but was sewing clothes in the house while raising us, while cooking.

“I was surrounded by my mum and dad working all the time, so as soon as I could get a job, I got a job. I got a paper round, a Saturday job – some summers I laboured on a building site.”

He was taught to support those in need. “My mum and dad would send money to their relatives back in Pakistan. My mum still does, because we’re blessed being in this  country.”

The family grew up on the Henry Prince council estate in Earlsfield, where Khan and his seven siblings squeezed into a three-bedroom home. He did not travel abroad until he was 23 and slept in a bunkbed until he was 24. He attended the Ernest Bevin comprehensive school (named after the former Labour foreign secretary), which Independent editor Amol Rajan described as “the dreaded second choice ... the staple of local news reports about drugs, gangs and local hoodlums.” I asked Khan if this Tarantino-esque description was accurate.

“Listen, I’m very careful of speaking about certain things because it gives the impression ... Look, it’s still a school and children still go there, you don’t want to tarnish the reputation of the school. It was a great school, it fulfilled my potential. I’m not one of these people who moans that I could have been this if I’d gone to this school. It was a great school, the teachers worked their socks off.” He added: “It was a tough school, though, you had to be streetwise, you had to look after yourself.”

Racism was a feature of the family’s life. Bus passengers referred to his bearded father as “Paki Santa” and assaulted him. Such insults sometimes prompted Khan to use his boxing skills. “We went down on the floor hitting each other,” he told the Mail on Sunday of one fight. “He didn’t call me the ‘P-word’ again.”

Khan and his brothers also encountered racism on the football terraces. “I experienced Wimbledon, my brothers experienced Chelsea,” he told me. “At Stamford Bridge there’s a place called ‘the shed’. The NF [National Front] would sell newspapers and wear boots and the green bomber jackets and chase people like my brothers away, call them names.

“I didn’t support Chelsea because I didn’t want to support a club that had racist fans. Plough Lane was down the road ... I remember going to watch Wimbledon vs Spurs, it was an FA Cup game. Although I was a Wimbledon fan, at the Wimbledon end, after the game I was racially abused by fans using the Y-word and the P-word.

"I didn’t go back to Plough Lane.”

He then spoke movingly of the extent to which London had progressed. “My daughters [Anisah and Ammarah] are 16 and 14 and they’ve basically grown up in the same area that I grew up in and my wife grew up in. They’ve never been called the P-word – they’ve never been the victim of overt racial abuse. That shows the progress we’ve made.”

At school, a teacher told Khan, who studied biology, chemistry and maths at A-level, “You’re always arguing. Why don’t you be a lawyer, rather than a dentist?” It was this, as well as LA Law on television, that inspired him to join the Bar. He studied at the University of North London (now London Metropolitan), where he became a visiting lecturer, and took his finals at the Guildford College of Law. Having joined Labour at the age of 15, he was elected as a councillor in Wandsworth in 1994. That same year, he married Saadiya Ahmed, a fellow solicitor.

Khan told me he made a conscious decision to specialise in human rights law (“acting for the underdog”), rather than corporate law. “It wasn’t work for the sake of becoming a millionaire. It was working hard and giving something back.”

He became a trainee solicitor in 1994 at Christian Fisher under the renowned human rights lawyer Louise Christian. Three years later, he was made a partner – a precocious achievement for someone of his age and background. In 2004 he left the company, which had been renamed Christian Khan, to become the Labour candidate for Tooting. Khan and his former partner, who was aggrieved by his sudden departure, have not spoken since.

As a human rights lawyer, he acted for what he recently described as “unsavoury individuals”, such as Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, and Babar ­Ahmad, who pleaded guilty in the US in 2013 to “providing material support to terrorism”. Ahmad, whose extradition was opposed by Khan and other MPs (including Goldsmith), was a childhood friend. Khan’s opponents have sought to exploit this.

“We never went to each other’s houses. We weren’t close friends but we knew each other growing up – we’d see each other at mosques,” Khan told me. “When you see people at the mosque you don’t discuss politics and stuff. It’s, ‘How you doing? How’s things?’ You may play cricket together, as most kids do at the park and stuff. I can’t remember having an argument about his views in detail. What I do know is that when he was arrested it was a big deal because he was the victim of police misconduct. He brought a claim and won damages in relation to how he was treated – he suffered serious injuries.” Khan has seen Ahmad twice since he was released from prison in the US: at a funeral at Balham Mosque and on the Tube with his lawyer.

In 2005, Khan was elected as the MP for Tooting, his lifelong home. He was praised by former shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna, who represents neighbouring Streatham, as a constituency champion. "In spite of the fact that he's had a national role he was never seen to have taken his eye off the ball of the local situation," he told me. 

Six months after entering parliament, Khan rebelled over Tony Blair’s attempt to introduce 90-day detention for terror suspects, the first of several clashes with the then prime minister. In 2006 he signed an open letter warning that the government’s foreign policy provided “ammunition to extremists”. On the tenth anniversary of the 7 July 2005 London bombings, he spoke of how Blair had “called the four MPs of Islamic faith in to No 10 and sat us round a table and said – to Mohammad Sarwar, Khalid Mahmood, Shahid Malik and myself – it was our responsibility.

“I said: ‘No it’s not. Why have you called us in? I don’t blame you for the Ku Klux Klan. Why are you blaming me for the four bombers on 7/7?’” (This account is contested by Mahmood and Malik, who accused Khan of “self-serving revisionism”.)

“They’re allowed to recollect things how they like,” he told me. “I’m quite clear in my recollection . . . It reinforces my view that we’ve got to defeat radicalisation and extremism by all of us working on this – this isn’t a uniquely Muslim problem. There’s a great saying, which is, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ Similarly, it will take a village to defeat terrorism and extremism.”

In Gordon Brown’s 2008 reshuffle, Khan was appointed communities minister, becoming the second Muslim to serve in government. The following year he was made transport minister: the first Muslim to attend cabinet and become a privy counsellor. “The palace called me and said, ‘What type of Bible do you want to swear on?’ When I said the Quran, they said, ‘We haven’t got one.’ So I took one with me.”

Of his faith, he told me: “It’s part of who I am – that’s the best way of describing it, because I’ve been asked this a lot. We all have multiple identities: I’m a Londoner, I’m British, I’m English, I’m of Asian origin, of Pakistani heritage, I’m a dad, I’m a husband, I’m a long-suffering Liverpool fan, I’m Labour, I’m Fabian and I’m Muslim.”

I asked him how he felt when an LBC/YouGov poll was published showing that 31 per cent of Londoners would be “uncomfortable” with a Muslim mayor. “That was during the selection campaign. When I saw it I was thoroughly depressed.

“When you’re the candidate in a campaign, you’ve got to be strong; you’re the leader. I went to the campaign – we’ve got lots of volunteers – three of my volunteers of Islamic faith were devastated. Two of them were crying. They just didn’t want to carry on because they were devastated that the impression was given that three out of ten Londoners are somehow Islamophobes.

“That’s not what the survey was about. With surveys, with polls, it’s how you ask the question. If I ask you the question, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if the mayor of London was of Islamic faith?’, what sort of message would that send? It elicits a very different answer to, ‘How comfortable are you with the mayor of London being a Muslim?’ And so I’ve spoken to people at LBC who on reflection realised that the question maybe shouldn’t have been asked, or at least asked in a different way.

“You can slice and dice it whichever way you want, this is a great, great city. There is no other city I’d rather raise my daughters in. I’ve got cousins in Pakistan, ethnic majority and religious majority, and they say to me they couldn’t achieve in Pakistan what I’ve achieved here.

***

For some politicians, campaigning is mere business; for Khan it is a pleasure. I joined him in east London as he visited start-ups hosted by the Bootstrap Company in Dalston: a film-maker, a bakery, a dressmaker. “Are you making a profit yet?” he asked. At a time when his party is increasingly perceived as “anti-business”, Khan takes every opportunity to present himself as a friend of enterprise. He has been aided by Goldsmith’s decision to support Brexit.

“We’re a city where literally more than 500,000 jobs are directly dependent on us being a member of the EU,” he said. “We’re a city where 60 per cent of the world’s companies choose their headquarters. Forty-three per cent of London’s exports go to the European Union. In those circumstances, if you want to be a good mayor, how can you be in favour of leaving?”

Goldsmith has argued that a Conservative mayor will invariably get a better deal from the government, a notion that Khan dismisses. “To give the current government their due, they do business with a Scottish Parliament, which is not Tory . . . they do deals with the Welsh Assembly, which is not Tory. They’ve given greater devolution to Greater Manchester, which is not Tory and probably never will be.

“I actually get on with George Osborne and other members of the government. Many of them sponsored me when I did the marathon. I think I’m friends with some of them.” Osborne, a fellow Londoner, personally congratulated Khan when he won the mayoral nomination.

Khan’s name is often mentioned alongside that of Sajid Javid, the business secretary and fellow bus driver’s son (“I’m the son of a bus driver. I used to love that line ... then Sajid fucking Javid came along,” Khan quipped during his press gallery appearance). “I saw him the other night, actually,” he said. “I think one of the great things about politics now is if you’re an ethnic minority the sole party for you to choose isn’t the Labour Party. That’s fantastic, I think, it’s really encouraging that both mainstream parties have embraced the importance of reflecting society.”

During his time in the shadow cabinet, Khan was one of Ed Miliband’s closest allies and a tribune of the soft left. But he told me that he no longer supports signature policies such as a 50 per cent income-tax rate or a “mansion tax”.

“It’s really important to understand that we had a manifesto, which we fought the 2015 election on, and we lost – we lost badly for the second time in a row.

“In the Eighties when we were losing elections, members of my party had a phrase, which I think was wrong, which is ‘no compromise with the electorate’. The electorate are always right.”

In his book If Mayors Ruled the World, Benjamin Barber writes that “a preference for pragmatism and problem-solving over ideology” is a feature of successful city leaders. It is a model that Khan – like Ken Livingstone before him, a socialist who forged an alliance with big business – has embraced.

If Sadiq Khan wins the race to lead London, he will capture a prize that increasingly eludes Labour outside the city: elected office. The election of a British Muslim mayor would be an event of international significance, and a symbol of London’s cosmopolitanism. “I’m fed up of losing. I don’t believe in heroic failure,” he told me. “I’ve got the policies, I’ve got the principle. We need the power to improve London.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Psycho

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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.

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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.

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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