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).
Here we see that a political gang can operate with a “hostile” headship although, in the end, it was this Cambridge gang that brought down Mrs Thatcher. Even so, what was remarkable was that Mrs T was the outsider in every sense to her cabinet, both by gender and by not being part of this Cambridge-based political gang.
The gang, of course, like the ones described in Among the Hoods, can adopt new members. But such membership is based on the additional services or skills the gang needs to survive, and the new members rarely, if ever, rise into the leadership’s inner ranks. Most suffer the indignity of being spat out once the emergency or crisis that has given rise to their membership has passed.
The gang formation of political leadership revises, if not undermines, one of the key roles of the House of Commons, which has been viewed in the traditional text as being very much concerned with the formation of a government.
The functions that still reside with the monarch—the right to be consulted, to advise and to warn—are functions that she now shares with the House of Commons. The Commons has the right to be consulted on what the gang is up to, and to advise and warn them. The monarch’s advice is given in private, and remains so.
The Commons’ advice used to be similarly relayed privately through the whips. Not so any more. Much more often, if this Parliament is anything to go by, the advising will be very public and sometimes, when public diplomacy has failed, it will be delivered in the voting lobbies.
A further function of the House of Commons has only recently been acquired—to conduct a continuous election campaign. Each side tries to promote their best image and, likewise, the worst image of their opponents. Here the gang rule depends on the election outcome and they therefore attempt to control that debate in their favour. Fortunately they do not always win.
One sees this now over the issue of immigration, which is likely to dominate the election and last into the next Parliament. Independent MPs on both sides of the House have been warning their respective leadership of the impending disaster of the rise of UKIP that would primarily represent an anti-immigration stance, if they continue to refuse to engage seriously with the issue. On the immigration issue the Cameron gang is showing greater ability than the Miliband gang to listen and act on such advice.
Should Cameron stumble, his gang will do their very best at choosing their next leader. After all, the importance that George Osborne has given in promoting trusty lieutenants in the formation of the Cabinet, and then in every reshuffle, should not be lost. Whatever Theresa May’s abilities, she is likely to gain the leadership only if the power of the gang is broken by electoral failure. The breaking of a gang’s power doesn’t, however, automatically follow an election defeat. Look at Neil Kinnock succeeding Michael Foot, and Ed Miliband taking over from his boss, Gordon Brown.
A Labour failure at the polls will be followed by a swift change in leadership. What remains of the Blair gang will move quickly to prevent a succession from within the existing gang hierarchy.
Those politicians working to influence who succeeds this time will do well to observe the role of the political gang in modern political leadership and how rare and difficult it is to overthrow its power. The greatest danger to the gang comes after the big street fight that is formally known as a general election. Those wishing to break the power of either of today’s ruling gangs need to be ready to strike on the morrow of May’s general election. The gang leaderships will need no warning on this score.