Who Runs This Place?

Anthony Sampson, long-time dissector of Britain’s political anatomy, has trouble working out where the head is these days.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

Every few years since 1962 journalist Anthony Sampson has dissected Britain’s ‘anatomy’, laying out the workings, habits and interrelationships of the institutions that run the country.

Who Runs This Place?: The Anatomy of Britain in the Twenty-First Century is his latest. As Sampson returns to his old haunts he finds institutions that are ‘hardly recognisable’ – from parliament to the monarchy, from trade unions to the Bank of England.

In Anatomy of Britain in 1962, Sampson captured the charge that surrounded parliament: MPs thought that they belonged to ‘the best club in Europe’, and tried to live near the House so that they could rush back for divisions late at night (1). Today Sampson finds MPs ‘reading out prepared speeches word for word’, often addressing ‘a minister who is not there’, and knocking off at 7pm. Where parliamentary debates once carried some weight, prime minister Tony Blair openly bypasses both the Commons and his cabinet, preferring to leak policies to the Sun and make decisions with his personal advisers.

Sampson argues that the leading institutions have been blanded out, and tend to be populated with the same managerial types. The treasury is now run by economists rather than classicists, and has gone from dingy green corridors to open-plan offices where the head ‘Gus’ Macdonald sits on full view. The City’s gentlemanly capitalists have been replaced by ‘professional and ruthless’ businessmen.

Sampson claims that the Trades Union Congress (TUC) conference today resembles an ‘assembly of managers’, in comparison to the ‘earthier’ language and characters of the past. Parliament’s new Portcullis House looks more like a company headquarters than a place for political debate, and MPs approach politics much as they would any other day job.

Some institutions have been reduced to little more than their formal architecture. The green benches and strange rituals of the House of Commons, annual seaside party conferences, or the ‘sumptuous rooms of the Admiralty’ in Whitehall – all these are now vestiges, with little power or content.

It is common knowledge that Britain is a very different place today. But contemporary society takes a day-by-day approach to events, which means that it is easy to forget just how much has changed. Public debate gets stuck in the intricacies of the Blair-Brown rivalry or the latest scandal, forgetting that politics was once about something different to this. As a long-time observer of the British establishment, Sampson provides some perspective.

When it comes to explaining what has replaced these old institutions, however, Sampson is on less firm ground. He complains of an increasing centralisation, with Number 10 either ordering other institutions about or just ignoring them. Blair decides on war without consulting the Foreign Office, abolishes the position of Lord Chancellor without informing the Queen, allows Alastair Campbell to publish the ‘dodgy dossier’ on Iraq without consulting the intelligence services. Number 10 has also tried to bring a wide range of institutions within its purview, setting detailed targets for academia, art galleries and the National Health Service (NHS).

But it doesn’t work to see Blair as Britain’s master planner. While he bypasses formal institutions, he does so in an incoherent way. There is no Blair blueprint for Britain, and no agenda or set of interests to guide his decisions. Perhaps because he is looking for patterns of power, Sampson misses the contradictions in New Labour – which centralises power, but also devolves to the regions, sets up quangos, hands over the appointment of judges to an independent commission, and put itself in the dock before Lord Hutton. Britain seems to be governed by an unstable system of overlapping authority, where it is not clear who is responsible for what and where Blair seizes the reins one day but then hands them over the next.

Today’s Britain isn’t a good subject for an ‘anatomy’ because the way power works is so fluid. While Sampson portrayed the old British establishment as a series of interlocking rings, each representing a specific institution, today’s elite has more idiosyncratic ways. Blair works through personal contacts and makes decisions on the hoof, rather than dealing with established interests and procedures. He decided to announce a new position on the Middle East crisis just before walking in to deliver his speech to the 2002 Labour Party conference (2); he made a flip decision to support a referendum on the European Union (EU) constitution while he was on holiday. As a result, it is difficult to explain why things happen as they do, or to predict what could happen in the future. As Mick Hume argued on spiked, ‘politics seems to have become a more arbitrary affair – unpredictable, unstable, adrift and out of control’ (3).

This is perhaps why Sampson often slips into a hasty retelling of events, particularly around the Iraq war and the controversy between the BBC and the government. Because there was little logic behind these events, all Sampson can say is: this happened, then this, then this. While his 1962 Anatomy of Britain was forensic, calmly taking apart the way things worked and decisions were made, Who Runs This Place? has a sense that the country is being run away with.

Pointing a way forward was also much easier back in 1962. Anatomy of Britain was essentially a call for the elite to open up and innovate. Sampson complained that the establishment then was ‘stuck in postwar complacency and imperial nostalgia’, which left it ill suited to cope with the challenges and pressures of the twentieth century. But Sampson wasn’t calling for the abolition of the monarchy or anything radical like that; he was merely calling for more dynamism from the ruling class. He saw advantages in the British elite’s historical ability to balance tradition and innovation; the fact that government was carried out behind the veil of tradition meant that the British elite enjoyed a greater stability, and more flexibility, than its Continental counterparts.

By contrast, Who Runs This Place? flips between suggesting that the elite needs more openness, and that it needs more tradition. At points, Sampson calls for institutions to be more accountable and open to public scrutiny and participation. At others, he defends the worst excesses of tradition – lamenting the replacement of hereditary peers by London-based professional types, because the peers were ‘deeply rooted in rural areas’. Clearly, neither a bit more tradition nor a bit more innovation will do the job for the ruling institutions today; their problems go deeper than that.

Although something of a critical fellow traveller, Sampson was very much tied to the old elite, and this blinds his analysis of the present. Who Runs This Place? sometimes slips into outrage at all these young upstarts marching in and taking over. We hear about how ‘fair-minded’ and ‘independent-thinking’ individuals have been pushed aside by egoistic New Labourites. Sampson also objects to the influx of foreign moneymen, who in his view shoved out the old English family firms and replaced their geniality and public spirit with naked aggression. The English don’t run anything anymore, he complains – and the Docklands looks more like America than London. This is just a lament for all the decent chaps – chaps rather like him and his friends, in fact – who no longer run the show.

Sampson admits, however, that it was ‘the weakness of countervailing institutions’, rather than the strength of Tony Blair, which explains the increasing power of Number 10. It is because parliament is no longer a hothouse of debate that Blair feels no need to consult it.

So who does run this place? Nobody much – and those who do, do so by default. It is clear that the old elite has had its day. Perhaps this place could use some new political and intellectual leaders, who might actually take it somewhere.

Who Runs This Place?: The Anatomy of Britain in the 21st Century is published by John Murray. Buy this book from Amazon UK.

(1) Anatomy of Britain, Anthony Sampson, Hodder & Stoughton, 1962

(2) Blair’s Wars, John Kampfner, Free Press, 2003 (buy this book from Amazon UK)

(3) Blair’s EU-turn: British politics all at sea, by Mick Hume

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Topics Politics


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