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18 January 2023

Letter of the Week: The new aristocracy

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Michael Lind’s new take (The Ideas Interview, 13 January) on James Burnham’s classic sociological thesis, The Managerial Revolution, provides much insight into the decay of traditional industrial, class-based economy and party politics in liberal democracies, but certainly for the UK omits one central element – the emergence of a new aristocracy.

This is based (as it always has been) upon asset inheritance, with a modern tax system that focuses on everything but the real source of inequality of opportunity. This version of aristocracy is deeply entrenched demographically and politically, and is predominantly a metropolitan and super-affluent suburban phenomenon. He does not even mention the extent to which access to fortuitous (not entrepreneurial) wealth – inheritance, premier higher education (and its principal conveyor in Britain, fee-paying schools and state schools accessible mainly to asset-rich people) – is protected and justified by the technocratic and managerial classes in the UK. This multi-generational entrenchment is, of course, mostly family-based.

John Crawley, Beverley, East Yorkshire

The old aristocracy

Andrew Marr (Cover Story, 13 January) describes the monarchy as the apex of a class system based on land and bloodline. It survives as part of the archaic institutions of the UK state, of which the House of Lords is the exemplar. The UK has more of the characteristics of an oligarchic monarchy than a democracy. Michael Lind’s comments on democratic pluralism (“The new class war”, 13 January) are pertinent.

John Bishop, Edinburgh

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Andrew Marr should read Walter Bagehot’s The English Constitution. The monarchy is the ancient and dignified part, important to the continuity of our history. Cabinet government is the efficient part which really rules. We are a republic in disguise.

Edward Greenwood, Canterbury

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The presumption of primogeniture isn’t confined to royalty. There is an obvious parallel between the princes and the Miliband brothers, and the media’s faux horror when the younger brother, Ed, dared to enter the Labour leadership race in 2010 after David had declared his candidacy. Though a longstanding Labour member, I am unaware of any primogeniture rule.

Sue Lloyd, Bristol

Business failure

Wolfgang Münchau (Lateral View, 13 January) is right to say that “one way to raise productivity growth is through higher public investment”, but another is through private investment, the lack of which since the 2008 financial crisis is a main reason for the UK’s 15 years of low productivity growth. British businesses’ short-termism has seen them concentrate on profits and rewards to CEOs and shareholders, while keeping wages low and failing to invest in new technology and training. It makes sense to use corporate taxation to introduce some long-term planning into big business.

Bernie Evans, Liverpool

Moral obligation

John Gray (The Critics, 6 January) writes, “the belief that acting morally means obeying a universal imperative” is an “inheritance from monotheism”, and that without that foundation it collapses. He concludes: “Morality should be part of the art of living, not a dictatorial authority ruling over us.”

What his view does not account for is the mysterious sense of obligation we humans can feel. “I ought to keep my promises. I ought not to humiliate someone who is vulnerable,” and so on. Of course it is possible to give a psychological answer for why such feelings exist. But there remains the philosophical dimension of the question. The fact is that these “oughts” come to us with a sense of authority that is congruous with what in our better moments we feel we both want and ought to be. As the agnostic George Eliot put it, duties are”‘peremptory and absolute”.

Lord Harries of Pentregarth, London SW1

Social care crisis

As a social worker in the voluntary sector, I appreciated Anoosh Chakelian’s article (“Inside the crisis in children’s social care”, 2 December). Over the past four years the media has been largely silent on the thankless task performed by local authority social workers during and since the pandemic and the years of austerity.

Social work is a vocation for many of us but, as the article states, workers are leaving in droves. We can’t shout about our many successes because of confidentiality restraints, and are only really heard of when there is a catastrophic failure which, more often than not, is systemic.

I also share Chakelian’s suspicion that “building communities” is a not very well veiled attempt to emulate David Cameron’s “Big Society”, the insubstantial forerunner to the equally vapid “levelling up”, which sought to shove the responsibility for meeting people’s basic needs onto charities and local communities that have been continually stripped of resources.

Marie Donnelly, Newcastle upon Tyne

What’s Moore

While agreeing with Andrew Marr that the Elgin Marbles should be given back to Greece (Culture Notes, 13 January) I question the claim that had they not been accessible in London “there would have been no Henry Moore”. Moore’s work drew on many sources including medieval church carvings and modernist sculptures, and he had a lifelong fascination with the shapes and textures of pebbles and bones. Had the marbles stayed in Greece, Moore would surely still have become a great artist.

John Boaler, Calne, Wiltshire

No small matter

Kevin Maguire (Commons Confidential, 6 January) referred to “a pint-sized premier… standing knee-high to a Subbuteo player”. Not being a manly six-footer is not strictly relevant to ability, is it?

Geoff Scargill, Stockport

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This article appears in the 18 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, How to fix Britain’s public health crisis