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Do you want to be in my gang? David Cameron and the government benches during Prime Minister’s Questions (image: PA Wire)

Throw away Bagehot. Pick up Sergeant. That is my advice to anyone who wishes to understand the driving force now in British politics.

King George V is reported to have been taught how British government worked by first reading Walter Bagehot’s great book on the British constitution. Today Harriet Sergeant’s book on teenage London gangs would be a better guide. Among the Hoods (Faber & Faber, £14.99) tells us more about how political leadership emerges and is sustained in this country than any other commentary I have come across, even if this was not Sergeant’s objective.

Bagehot’s Victorian commentary gave a two-dimensional view of politics. It was about power and the institutions through which political power operated. These two dimensions should never be ignored, for political power will be exercised over time through different institutions captured and adapted by owners of new economic power.

The monarch’s supremacy was first challenged as the holders of economic power, based on the ownership of land, wished to share with the sovereign the role of governing. But with the rise of industrialism, that landowning economic power base was in turn challenged by a new industry-owning class who also wanted political recognition. So political power moved again, as it had from the monarch to the landed gentry, to industrial power centred in the House of Commons. And it was this state of power play that Bagehot described as our constitution.

It was, in fact, a picture of a very short period in our political history that is now described as the “Liberal view of the constitution”. The House of Commons made and unmade governments. This was the age of the independence of MPs. Whether this pivotal role of Commons is to be resurrected by a multiplicity of parties after the general election, we have only to wait until May 7 to find out.
 
Power was soon on the move again, first to the select few in the House of Commons who managed, as Disraeli did, to climb to the top of the greasy pole of political ambition and then into the Cabinet. Today, this group comes almost exclusively from the Commons, with only a handful from the Lords. It is at this point that the limitations of Bagehot become apparent, and it’s time for Harriet Sergeant to step forward and take a bow.

When is the little gang that reaches the top of the greasy pole formed?

It is a question which is rarely asked. But it is of profound importance. By locating where the political gang’s leadership is formed, we learn how a political power base is formed and how it might be sustained. The formation of a power base also tells us much about the degree to which our political society is open or closed.

We are currently being run by the gang of Cameron. It was not formed in the House of Commons, as an unsuspecting observer might guess, but at Oxford. Some of the gang members had already met up at Eton; however, the deputy gang leader—George Osborne—was not schooled there, but at St Paul’s. And Michael Gove, who is the best example of meritocracy in action, was educated in what we need to recognise since the Scottish referendum as a school north of the English border.

The formation of the gang of Cameron is far from uncommon. It is not the first time that a top team has come from university to the House of Commons, lock, stock and barrel, and ready to wrestle for political power. More remarkably, possibly, was the Cambridge-based cabinet that emerged under Mrs Thatcher’s stewardship. The majority of her cabinet—Geoffrey Howe, Kenneth Clarke, Leon Brittan, John Gummer to name a few—are captured in a Cambridge University Conservative Association photograph in the early 1960s. All that is missing from this photograph is the leader herself (who went to Oxford). 

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