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Brown and Mandelson: It's Love

Peter Mandelson once spoke of how Gordon Brown “wants to kill me before I destroy him”, but now the

There is a compelling black-and-white photograph from 1996 of Peter Mandelson and Gordon Brown by the fine Magnum photographer Peter Marlow. Brown, his head slightly lowered, has his back to the camera, somehow reinforcing the sense of his volcanic presence in a wood-panelled room of the Institution of Civil Engineers, where the men are alone before some long-forgotten youth employment launch. Would the moment that First Secretary Mandelson tells Prime Minister Brown the game is up, if it were ever to happen, look something like this? In faultlessly pressed white shirt and cufflinks, jacketless, his pose courtierly, Mandelson is in profile. Almost, but not quite, apprehensive, he has the facial expression of a man waiting patiently for an answer that he knows, with just the faintest trace of sympathy, the other does not want to give. As in a classic narrative painting, the tension is palpable.

As well it might have been. For Marlow has frozen an instant in the most pivotal few months of what by then already seemed an irretrievably dysfunctional relationship. Only four months earlier, Tony Blair had written to remind Mandelson that “we are not players in some Greek tragedy” and lamented that “the most brilliant political minds of their generation” are “more desirous of victory over each other than making it work”. This followed a letter of “resignation” from Mandelson after a particularly poisonous row. Mandelson quoted the Brown ally Michael Wills as saying that “Gordon ‘wants to kill me before I destroy him’”.

Yet by the time the picture is taken, Mandelson, eager for a fashionable and expensive home in Notting Hill, has been house-hunting under the genial tutelage of Geoffrey Robinson, the millionaire MP, close friend of Brown and then owner of the New Statesman. Weeks later the two men would finalise the £373,000 loan from Robinson that, in the single most self-destructive act of his career, Mandelson would keep secret as he began his rise through government under the patronage of Tony Blair.

Until, that is, details of the loan were leaked to the press in December 1998 by other close allies of Brown, causing Mandelson’s first resignation from the cabinet. Brown was not responsible for the leak, but it was the climax of what Blair had called in his letter a “titanic but ultimately irrelevant personality feud”. Yet it was a feud that no one, least of all the then British prime minister, knew how to stop.

A decade later, Brown and Mandelson are all but joined at the hip. The clutch of Merrie England titles that Mandelson has acquired in his new role reflects his centrality in the government. There was speculation at the time of the reshuffle that Mandelson had sought to be foreign secretary – certainly a job he has long wanted.

In fact, it was never a possibility. He is too pivotal to be allowed long absences from the UK. He now spends much of his time in Downing Street – including, by all counts, many evenings that end with his urging the Prime Minister to go to bed. He even coexists, albeit warily, with Ed Balls, easily Brown’s closest ministerial confidant hitherto. Today, joined in their service to the Prime Minister, they have a “non-aggression” pact in which, while Balls continues bilateral telephone contact with Brown, the two lieutenants do not contradict each other at meetings and do not brief against other. Finally, Mandelson is credited, even by those who wished it had not happened, with “saving” the Prime Minister during the period of maximum turbulence around the Euro elections this month.

How did all this happen? How did Mandelson’s sworn enemy come first to bring him back into government and then to locate him as primus inter pares among his ministers? And how will it end? After all, it was not as if the enmity did not survive in-tact well into Mandelson’s appointment as European trade commissioner in 2004. Even while Brown was still chancellor, Mandelson would regularly, if only semi-openly, complain to British correspondents in Brussels about the Treasury’s refusal to consult with him.

After Brown became Prime Minister relations with Mandelson became, if anything, worse. The Brussels press corps were left with the impression that the commissioner thought Brown might not be up to taking on what he indicated was the impressive challenge being mounted by David Cameron. Then, in March 2007, at a time when the widely known freeze in relations between the commissioner and his home-country government was already undermining his authority in Brussels, Mandelson chose to give a chilly radio interview in which he announced that he had decided to deny Brown the pleasure of sacking him by not seeking a second term. It was a new low point.

The bare facts of the subsequent and gradual rapprochement during the first half of 2008 are well documented: the prime ministerial visit to Brussels and the long talk between the two men about anything but trade. The London dinner given by Stewart Wood, the only No 10 official then permitted contact with Mandelson, to which were invited both Mandelson and Baroness Shriti Vadera, a tough-minded and long-standing ally of Brown’s, to whom Mandelson greatly warmed. The lunch, also in London, Mandelson had with the veteran Downing Street (and former Treasury) official Jeremy Heywood, before which the Prime Minister asked Heywood if he could come, too. Heywood politely refused, but the lunch was followed by another long tête-à-tête between Brown and Mandelson, this time in Downing Street.

Even before this, however, Brown followed up on his Brussels trip – after a short interval – by starting to telephone Mandelson, to send him speech drafts and policy proposals. In short, to consult him. By all accounts the gradually intensifying appeal was notably personal, a call for help by a man who was discovering that being prime minister was a good deal more complicated than being chancellor. But Mandelson, his friends are convinced, had no notion at this stage that he might return to government.

It is easy to describe the invitation to Mandelson to rejoin the cabinet in October last year (and the thaw that preceded it) in merely political terms. For Brown, the appointment added much-needed lustre to an otherwise routine reshuffle. More importantly, and even if the prospects of a challenge from David Miliband had faded, it served to neutralise what he saw as a still potent Blairite threat to his premiership. From Mandelson’s point of view it was, in Blair’s now famous phrase when a stunned Mandelson consulted him about the offer, a “no-brainer”.

Despite having arguably the best job in the European Commission – given that trade, unlike many of the other portfolios, is actually in the commission’s competence – he missed the action in London; he was in danger of becoming a “lame duck” because of his decision not to seek a second term and because of the wide perception, even if it was becoming much less accurate, that he had been frozen out by London. And there was little sign of a successful conclusion to the world trade round, which might have crowned his term in Brussels. (Blair’s advice, similarly solicited by Alastair Campbell, whom Brown also offered more or less any job he wanted, was more equivocal. Campbell refused the job offer; he had built another life, which he enjoyed.)

Yet politics alone cannot explain the subsequent and growing intimacy between the two men, or the relative ease with which they exorcised the demons of the previous 13 years. The psychological roots almost certainly lie further still in their past.

It is easy to forget now the cohesiveness of this triangle, before John Smith’s death in 1994, that had gradually formed since the “discovery” of Mandelson as Labour’s communications director, and the subsequent promotion of the backbenchers Brown and Blair as early as the run-up to the 1987 election. Alex Stevenson, working as a young researcher for Mandelson, recalled that, during 1993, when the group felt relatively isolated as “modernisers”, there were “incessant” telephone calls from Blair and Brown, but that those from Brown were even more frequent. The three men’s closeness – with a largely unspoken understanding that Brown was the leading figure of the three – can scarcely be exaggerated. Probably no one but Mandelson and Brown remembers that it was the latter who painstakingly advised the former on his crucial speech to the selection conference that chose him as parliamentary candidate for Hartlepool in 1989 – and actually wrote the peroration of it.

The best analogy to describe the relationship is that of two brothers who quarrel bitterly over a legacy – in this case the leadership of the Labour Party and the premiership – but are finally reconciled, resuming their old warmth. This is the view of two former officials who worked in Downing Street during the worst of the Mandelson-Brown schism and experienced it first-hand. One says now, “I think the reason they were so angry with each other was that they had been so close.” The other puts it even more forcefully: “It’s impossible to hate someone that much unless you also love them.”

Even during the worst of the feud, the bond was never quite broken. When Mandelson’s mother, Mary, the daughter of Herbert Morrison and the most formative political influence of his life, died in 2006, during yet another peak of Brown-Mandelson hostilities, Brown telephoned Mandelson in Brussels to express his condolences. The conversation was awkward but the call was memorable enough for Mandelson to report it to his closest friends.

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Anatomy of a feud

1994 After the death of the Labour leader John Smith in 1994, Peter Mandelson sidelines his old friend Gordon Brown and backs the more popular Tony Blair for the leadership. “We’ve been betrayed,” Brown tells one ally. “I love you, but I can destroy you,” Mandelson warns Brown.

1995 Blair’s attempts at détente fail when he confronts Brown. “Peter? He’s been going around telling everyone that I’m gay. And I’m not gay,” Brown fumes.

1996 Displaying his often unacknowledged sense of humour, Brown acidly remarks to a Tribune rally: “Peter asked me for 10p to phone a friend the other day. I said: ‘Here, take 20p and ring them all.’ When people ask me if I have a close relationship with Mandelson, I answer: ‘How would I know? I haven’t spoken to him for 18 months.’”

1998 Mandelson is forced to resign from the cabinet for the first time after the Guardian reports that he received a secret loan of £373,000 from his ministerial colleague Geoffrey Robinson. Mandelson blames Brown’s pugnacious spin doctor Charlie Whelan for the leak.

2001 Accused of unreasonably aiding the Hinduja brothers in their quest for British citizenship, Mandelson resigns as Northern Ireland secretary and loses his status as joint election co-ordinator with Brown. Mandelson is subsequently exonerated by the Hammond inquiry.

2007 Asked whether he fears being replaced as the UK’s European commissioner when Brown becomes prime minister, Mandelson replies: “I don’t know whether this is going to come as a disappointment to him, but he can’t actually fire me. So like it or not, I’m afraid he will have to accept me as commissioner until November 2009.”

2008 On 3 October, Mandelson makes an extraordinary return to the cabinet as business secretary. Ten days later he becomes Baron Mandelson of Foy and takes his seat in the House of Lords.

2008 Mandelson is said to have “dripped pure poison” about Gordon Brown to George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, just weeks before his return to government. Mandelson denounces the leaking of the conversation as “straight out of a dirty-tricks department”.

2009 Brown hands Mandelson overall control of a new superdepartment, with a portfolio including business regulation, universities and space travel. Awarded the Soviet-style title of First Secretary of State, Mandelson cements his position as de facto deputy prime minister.

George Eaton

More remarkably still, at the time of his first resignation eight years earlier, Mandelson, fighting in vain for his political life after being exposed by some of Brown’s closest henchmen, turned to the then chancellor himself for counsel. He discovered that Brown was horrified that the saga was leading to Mandelson’s inevitable departure from government.

In Mandelson’s second resignation, Brown played no part. Indeed, Mandelson had more cause to blame Blair than Brown. What the resignation did, however, was expose the falsity of the frequent claim that Brown’s problem had been with Mandelson and not with Blair. Mandelson’s removal did nothing to reduce the relentless pressure Brown applied on Blair, which, together with the legacy of the Iraq War, culminated in Blair’s departure in 2007.

Nevertheless, the split between Mandelson and Brown was deeply personal and precisely fratricidal. Brown’s lieutenants blamed Mandelson for creating the conditions in which Blair emerged in the polls as the clear front-runner for the Labour leadership in 1994. In fact, he had no such magical powers, as Brown himself may deep down have realised. Which is why Mandelson judged the break came several months later in an argument over party appointments. The issue over which Mandelson sided with Blair against Brown was relatively trivial, but showed the depth of Mandelson’s new fealty to Blair.

All this, especially the intensity of feeling between Brown and Mandelson, calls into question the conventional wisdom that Mandelson may ultimately move against Brown in October, as he did not move against him a fortnight ago. In Mandelson’s case, predictions are a fool’s game, and it could yet happen. Certainly he has not been in the habit of ending up on the losing side in the past, including in 1994, or when, after a brief hesitation, he decided not to join the SDP after its formation in 1981.

The idea of being “the last man standing” in the cabinet, as a deeply uneasy Ken Baker was at the time of Margaret Thatcher’s fall in 1990, is hardly appealing. But most of those close to Mandelson – including those who might ideally prefer it otherwise – appear to think it likelier that he intends to stick with Brown to the end, and to use, on the Prime Minister’s behalf, all the political skills he has to keep him in place.

There are several political reasons for this. The unrest in the parliamentary party is dire, though perhaps not much more dire than it was for Blair in the wake of the Iraq War. But there is no clear, obvious successor to the Prime Minister, or at least no clear agreement, not even among the “Blairites” (to the extent that such a term has meaning now that Mandelson has thrown in his lot with the Prime Minister), about the ideal successor. If Brown disappeared, Mandelson would probably prefer David Miliband over Alan Johnson. But there is a lack of confidence – even among those, other than Mandelson, closest to Blair in the past – about whether either Miliband or Johnson would do better than Brown. At least the Prime Minister has the policies and track record needed at a time of profound economic crisis. And while Brown’s supporters may have wilfully exaggerated the inevitability of a leadership contest, it is by no means clear, given the febrile state of the party and the beginnings of the jockeying to determine a post-election scenario, that one could be avoided, possibly with disastrous results so close to a general election.

This is not to say that, if an irresistible revolt materialises, it would not fall to Mandelson, as it did in 1994, to tell Brown how conditions were. Or, if Brown decided to go, to ensure that he withdrew with honour. But it looks much less likely than assumed that Mandelson would be prepared to wield the knife. And the personal reasons for this are at least as potent as the political ones: a commitment not to desert Brown twice and, at least as important, the resulting damage to his reputation if he did.

The former Labour foreign secretary and SDP founder Lord Owen is said to have reinforced this point in a recent conversation with Man­delson, as have others. Of all the twists in this melodrama of internecine strife that has so hobbled the Labour government over more than a decade, the strangest of all would be if it fell to Peter Mandelson to disprove Lloyd George’s maxim that there is no friendship at the top.

Donald Macintyre is the author of “Mandelson and the Making of New Labour” (HarperCollins)

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Iran

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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