Spectating or doing: the challenge for the UK's ruling clique
Updated: Jan 15
The most powerful clique in the UK at the moment are linked to the Spectator magazine. They congregate around it and the Telegraph, living in a dense web of networks, friendships, dinner parties, affairs and marriages. Boris Johnson is their most prominent member but most of the Tory leadership of the last decade - Cameron, Osborne, Gove - were part of this group (Theresa May was an exception). So too was Dominic Cummings, whose wife worked for the magazine.
Reading the Spectator has become essential for anyone interested in understanding how this group thinks, why Brexit became such a defining issue for them, or why many were so hostile to lockdowns durng the pandemic.
Their power derives from a lock on two key institutions: the Conservative Party itself and the print media, thanks to the strong support of the ‘offshore establishment’ of media barons, Murdoch, the Barclay brothers and Rothermere. Elsewhere they are much less influential. They have relatively few backers in business, science, the arts, civil society or academia. But the Party and the print media are enough to control the government, at least for now.
The biggest challenge for this ruling group is perhaps aptly summed up in the title of their base: the Spectator is good at spectating, offering witty, ironic and often well-written commentary on the world, traditionally with the tone of a rather embittered ageing man, a bit drunk in an upmarket London bar, lamenting the ways of the world. It has attracted talented writers and editors, including the current one, Fraser Nelson. But it is much less well-suited to action or ideas, let alone solving problems.
Indeed if you analyse the Spectator through the lens of history, or political economy, four problems stand out that could matter a lot for what happens to the UK in the next few years. All suggest that the clique risks being seriously out of sync with the country they now rule.
The first is summed up by their (dropped) attack on Marcus Rashford. They dislike multiculturalism and all aspects of ‘woke’ culture, whether in relation to race, sexuality or anything else. Their’s is very much the world view of ageing, privileged white men and over the years they have given voice to this stream of opinion, agitated about 'cancel culture' and very uneasy with movements like #metoo or BLM. Unfortunately for them, although their views have significant support, they remain a minority in the UK - as became glaringly apparent in their many missteps in relation to the England football team.
The second problem is being ill-at-ease with professionalism, expertise and attention to detail. The Spectator is a literary culture where the most valued skill is being able to write a clever essay. By contrast most of the fields where the UK is most successful now (science, some sports, business) are ones that demand deep knowledge, precision and care, rather than 'busking it'. Anyone who aspires to be world class has to be rigorous and expert. Michael Gove's much quoted dismissal of experts stuck because it reflected a deeper truth, the world view of a certain kind of journalist (both Gove and Johnson are journalists by profession, but journalists of commentary rather than news or investigation). Their metier is words rather than deeds and with words you can get by with wit and sheen, rather than depth and substance: the doers by contrast can't afford to ignore facts, details and expertise. So this stance often puts the Spectator people at odds with the professionals and experts - as will become painfully clear in any future COVID inquiry.
The third challenge is economics. The Spectator circle are mostly quite rich and move in circles of the wealthy. They can get ‘levelling up’ as a political strategy, but not emotionally. They live in a world of private schools and country homes that is very distant from most of their fellow citizens. This occasionally becomes evident (as with the sneers at John Lewis earlier this year). It may explain the continued gap between the rhetoric and the plans on levelling up, and between the political logic of shoring up the Conservative's new support in the north and the cultural instincts of the leadership.
The fourth problem is that the Spectator doesn’t really do ideas. It’s much better at commentary and critique than prescription, again reflecting its literary base. The magazine played little part in any of the more fertile periods of intellectual creativity on the right: Thatcherism in the 70s and 80s, or the attempt to create a new liberal Conservatism in the 2000s under Cameron. Its pages are remarkably thin on any proposals or prescriptions for solving the UK’s problems. You can look in vain for serious debates about care, net zero, industrial strategy or combatting poverty – hence the reversion to culture wars to fill the gap, a classic comfort zone for poeple who are happier being spectators rather than doers.
The group's key strategy has, of course, been to hide these gaps and weaken potential centres of opposition. The BBC was a primary target. It now has both a Chairman and a Director-General with strong Conservative links and has markedly toned down its criticisms. Civil society and the arts are other targets – hence the move to politicise appointment to boards and quangos – a big, historic shift away from meritocratic appointment: from ‘what you know’ to ‘who you know’. At some point they may turn to others - like the universities.
That is one option - to follow the kind of strategy pursued in Poland and Hungary where conservative leaders have moved aggressively to entrench their hegemony. But my guess is that Boris hasn't quite got the determination to do this, and in any case such a strategy could easily backfire in the UK, a country with much longer democratic traditions than eastern Europe.
Instead some may conclude that they need to escape from this cultural base if they're to thrive. The Spectator clique is just too narrow, too out of touch and too bereft of ideas to provide energy for a political project. It looks stronger than it is mainly because of the consistent backing of a few media barons.
This is an odd position for the Conservative Party to be in. In the past it had deep, organic links to business, management, science and other fields. It prided itself on practicality and pragmatism. Being dominated by wordsmiths is quite a new phenomenon. So is its remarkable financial dependence on a small number of property developers (and a surprising number of donors linked to Putin).
Looking ahead, it's possible that the status quo is sustainable. In a post-modern era it may be possible to thrive for a time with a gulf between words and reality. But this is hard to maintain: in the end reality bites.
If I'm right there will be no such thing as 'Johnsonism'. Moreover, any potential successors, such as Rishi Sunak, will need to build an alternative base, one that is more in sync with the UK as it really is in 2021, and one that is also more in tune with much older Conservative traditions that tended to value action more than writing, doing more than spectating.
POSTSCRIPT: I placed a bet in January 2020 that Boris would no longer be Prime Minister by the end of 2021. I assumed that his tendency to chaos and self-destruction would have kicked in, along with the contradictions of the Spectator approach outlined above. I lost my bet! But Boris has proven adept at self-immolation and it will be wonderfully appropriate if his career is ultimately brought to an end by parties rather than policies.