Owen Jones’s new book should be called The Consensus: And How I Want to Change it

A review of The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It, by Owen Jones. The analysis is better when it is ideological rather than historical

6 September 2014

9:00 AM

6 September 2014

9:00 AM

The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It Owen Jones

Allen Lane, pp.368, £16.99, ISBN: 9781846147197

Owen Jones’s first book, Chavs, was a political bestseller. This follow-up skips over the middle classes and goes to the other end of society, the ruling class. On the cover of The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It the cod-philosopher and comedian Russell Brand endorses the author as ‘this generation’s Orwell’.

Jones’s concept of the Establishment is more than Henry Fairlie’s matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised through social networks; it is a state of mind, ‘the ideas and mentalities’ that govern the way certain people behave. The Establishment is made up of ‘powerful groups that need to protect their position in a democracy’; its existence is, in the abstract, something upon which both left and right are agreed. Jones likens the perception of the Establishment in practical terms to the inkblot in the Rorschach test: it depends on where you are on the political spectrum as to what you see as the Establishment.

He is sufficiently self-aware to anticipate that some critical readers will regard him as a ‘participant observer’. He was an undergraduate at Oxford with those who have emerged as pillars of the establishment; he is a columnist on the Guardian, the house journal of the public sector establishment; he regularly appears on the BBC; and he admits to knowing some powerful people on first-name terms. But he disqualifies himself from being a member of the Establishment because he challenges the powerful — though the Times columnist David Aaronovitch apparently only granted him an interview because they were both members of the same ‘media universe’. ‘Welcome to the elite,’ chuckled Aaronovitch.

In his introduction Jones opines that ‘“The Establishment” is a term that is often loosely used to mean “those with power who I object to”.’ He then goes on to prove this to be his own working definition. Detailed in chapter after chapter are all the left’s bogeymen — the aristocracy, the police, the City, the House of Lords, Old Etonians, Rupert Murdoch and the Daily Mail — together with their crimes against democracy.

Jones’s partisan history, from the founding of the Labour Representation Committee to the MPs’ expenses scandal and News of the World hacking trial, together with the 2008 financial crisis, is the least illuminating part of the book. The histories of the miners’ strike, Hillsborough disaster and the Wapping strikers are conventionally Marxist, with the police characterised as tools of class oppression.

The analysis is better when it is ideological rather than historical: ‘The Establishment is a shape-shifter, evolving and adapting as needs must’ — for instance when change — such as universal suffrage — can no longer be resisted. But what Jones depicts as a self-perpetuating Establishment is really the prevailing orthodox political and economic consensus. He traces the change in the consensus views of the ruling class from 19th-century laissez faire liberalism to postwar mixed-economy socialism, up to the neo-liberal counter-revolution of the 1980s.

He correctly credits Hayek’s founding in 1947 of the Mont Pelerin Society for providing the intellectual heavy-lifting to shift, over decades, the political elite’s collective mindset. He writes admiringly of the influence of Westminster’s contemporary free market think tanks in setting the climate of ideas for their campaigning allies in the media. There is some truth in this — and being someone whom he identifies as ‘an unapologetic outrider for the wealthiest elements of society’, I am flattered to be seen as so influential.

This, however, is not the Establishment of legend; it is the intellectual consensus that has been won in the battle of ideas over the previous decades. Press barons and industrialists are not natural free marketeers; they are merely men who are susceptible to intellectual fashions. Such people saw merit in fascism and corporatism before their grudging acceptance of the Thatcherite settlement.

Jones lives and writes to reverse that settlement, mesmerised by the concept of the ‘Overton Window’ — the political theory that there is a narrow ‘window’, or range of ideas, that the public will accept. The Establishment, he believes, now successfully constrains the Overton Window. In fact it is the other way round, The ideas that govern the way the Establishment behaves are determined by the Overton Window every day in politics, the civil service, newsrooms, universities, think tanks, workplaces and boardrooms.This is the Overton Window’s operating system for the Establishment.

Jones’s unsurprising conclusion is that we need a democratic revolution. But his book is mistitled. He should have called it The Consensus: And How I Want to Change It.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £14.49. Tel: 08430 600033

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Show comments
  • tjamesjones

    Good review, great point about industrialists and media barons simply working with the mood, consensus, of their time. I wouldn’t read Owen Jones – as you say (and he says, bizarrely), I consider him very much a part of ‘the establishment’.

    • Matthew

      And yet you’re happy to read a paper and writer who openly admit they’re part of it? You must have a better reason than that, surely.

      • Doctor Mick

        Perhaps if they also denied it, he wouldn’t.

      • P_S_W

        Maybe the reason he doesn’t read him is not because he is part of the establishment but because he writes complete rubbish.

      • tjamesjones

        yes I would be pretty surprised if the Spectator tried to publish some critique of the establishment from the posture of an outsider. (But it also doesn’t help Owen Jones case that he’s a tw&t)

      • whs1954

        I’d far sooner read a writer who admitted they were part of the establishment, than a self-righteous hypocrite who is just as much a part of it yet masquerades as a valiant outsider on the side of truth, justice and good, and portrays his fellow establismentarians as wicked.

        • donkeypunch

          Agreed. It is increasingly difficult to have any credibility as someone who writes ‘from the perspective of the only man to enter parliament with honest intention… to blow it up’ when you go to the Leaders Christmas drinkie poos and take coin from News International. Hardly the marque of a radical, on the right or the left. Decent review of this book, though.

    • David davis

      They need the money. They’ve by then got very very well past the amounts of money that their customers can routinely supply, to keep them inside the Ruling-Power-Yacht-plus-Escort-Girl-Class, which is astonishingly expensive to stay in – ask Russians. It’s simple, because if they think someone else will keep the tap on, they’ll pay him.

  • Dom Aversano

    “great point about industrialists and media barons simply working with the mood, consensus, of their time.”

    There is a mountain of evidence that this is not the case, and that the media works to form a consensus, and repress dissident thoughts. Just look at any recent war from Iraq onwards, and you will see that elite opinion is always more in favour of conflict than “ordinary” people are.

    Organisations such as the Sutton Trust, have detailed evidence that not only do the media have unusually elite backgrounds, but they are more elite than politicians’. It is therefore impossible for the media to act as a mirror to society, when the glass has been bent in such a fashion.

    • obbo12

      Blah blah blah. Turns out that you need to be able to read and write well to gets jobs in the newspapers. Something the British state education system has signally failed to do for the 40 years. The Suttons trust point is the the state education system is bad and thats why the media dominated by the elite.

      • Dylan Wilby

        What an absolutely absurd comment. I can read and write perfectly well and I was educated at the local comprehensive.

        • Ben Kelly

          Great for you, unfortunately that is not true for thousands upon thousands of others, especially the swelling underclass.

          • Dylan Wilby

            I think you’ve missed the point, I was taking issue with obbo12’s sneering suggestion that only people from private/public schools could read and write well. Education and intelligence have nothing to do with each other.

          • obbo12

            Well you better tell the OECD that they are wrong. In 2012 the gave the same test to adults and children around the planet. In this county the over 55s did better the today’s children. One of the very few countries in the world that happened in.

            It does not matter how intelligent you are. If you have never been taught how to add up you can’t be an accountant. A job in the media requires the knowledge and understanding of grammar and syntax. If you have not been taught that you are not going to get that job in front of some that has.

            I went to state school too. In my school one of the teachers stood as labour MP and was later expelled from the labour party for being a member of militant. Another spent his taxpayers funded time between being the NUT local rep and being on the central committee of the British Communist party. That was the best state school in the area and the labour county council tried to shut it down and keep open the worst state school in the area. The poor performing school eventually shutdown when its intake annual intake fell to 48 from 175. The plan was backed by current Lib dem chief whip back when he was a member of the labour party and NUT activist.

            Instead of playing self indulgent left wing politics teachers did the job they are paid to do, you wouldn’t see public school boys in such a dominant postion

          • Dylan Wilby

            I’m sorry, I really don’t understand what you’re getting at.

          • obbo12

            You understand precisely what I am getting at but you don’t want to admit that facts show that state education has got worse over the last 40 years. As demonstrated by an arm of the UN.

            Facts are not sneering and, as usual with the left, you result to personal insult rather than dealing with reality

          • Livia

            Scroll upwards and you’ll see plenty of people on the right resorting to personal insults of Owen Jones, Will Self. Click on any other report on here and you’ll see comments from rightists insulting people on the left. The idea that people on the left are united in any way is nonsense, the idea that the left is more prone to insult is borderline madness. People get annoyed and insult each other, it’s childish but human, not leftist.

          • Ben Kelly

            Ah, fair enough.

          • Mboyle1888

            The Uk has some of the best literacy rates in the world, and Scotland in particular’s education system is regarded as one of the world’s best.

            This “swelling underclass” of illiterate, feckless, scroungers exists mainly in the perceptions of daily mail/ telegraph/ spectator readers who have a warped sense of reality.

  • Nick Booth

    Owen Jones is one of the Guestablishment (along with Polly Toynbee Medhi Hasan and Penny Dreadful). They seem to be the only people allowed a view on the media.

    He makes a fortune just from TV appearances. Mainly as a cute, squeaky voiced sock puppet. He’s not this generations Orwell. he’s this generation’s Orville.

    • obbo12

      Thats unfair to Orville.

    • agneau

      Just because it is your TV in your house doesn’t mean it always has to agree with you. Grow up.

      • rugby god

        which is why he may not listen to Orville/Owen wittering when he shows up ion the TV.

      • MrVeryAngry

        Fair enough. But why should he then be coerced into paying the wages of the little git by way of the Telly Tax?

    • Jhb

      Is this a joke comment?

      • george

        slightly satirical perhaps.

        • Jhb

          It’s bloody hilarious!

    • sarah_13

      “this generation’s Orville”, brilliant.

    • A ‘fortune’? How much is that?

  • Mark Green

    Your very subjective review ought to be called ‘The Establishment – and how I’m going to try to protect it no matter how much our democracy is damaged.’

    You’ve outed yourself. You don’t believe in democracy, do you? There again, you take the name of a religious terrorist for this blog…

    • Mark Green

      Oops! You’ve gone up in the world and are writing for the ultra-establishment The Spectator. Now there’s a shock…

      • Bill Quango MP

        Out of interest why is The Speccie a part of the establishment. But the Guardian isn’t?

        • Mboyle1888

          No one is arguing that though?

          They both clearly are, but happen to occupy different ends of the narrow definition.

  • NJH

    It would surprise me if Russell Brand had actually read any Orwell, but then he could call Owen Jones “this generation’s Dostoevsky” and I still wouldn’t want to read anything by him.

    • Dylan Wilby

      You’ve neatly surmised nothing more than your own bigotry here. I don’t necessarily love him but I think Russell Brand is probably well read, he’s certainly articulate enough. Also it’s often a good idea to consume material by others in spite of their opposing political beliefs, perhaps a reason why I read this review.

      • NJH

        Do you really find Russell Brand articulate? I don’t think we’re likely to agree on much, then.

        • Dylan Wilby

          Of course he’s articulate, he doesn’t struggle to get ideas across and he has a particularly good command of the English language. Perhaps you’re wrongly conflating ‘articulate’ with some other trait. He’s not necessarily the most thoughtful or informed person all of the time and I don’t always agree with what he says but suggesting that he’s inarticulate seems churlish at best.

          • Gareth Rees

            Indeed – he’s unquestionably articulate. Concise or succinct? Probably not. Over-verbose and self-indulgent? Occasionally.

            Regardless, I quite like his almost ridiculous verbosity.

      • RaymondDance

        “I think Russell Brand is probably well read”

        You surprise me. I’d have thought the back of a cereal packet might be a challenge for him.

        • Dylan Wilby

          Why? What a ridiculous thing to say, judging by his command of the English language I expect he’s read a lot of books. I don’t see any reason to suggest not.

          • Peter Grimes

            Do be different! When Brand can drop ‘paradigm’ inappropriately about 6 times in one of his frothy outpourings he can hardly be considered learned.

            I bet you fell for Blair as well.

          • Peter Grimes

            I know it’s the Torygraph but just google ‘Telegraph Russell Brand’ and you will find a wealth of perceptive comment about Brand’s inarticulate, juvenile posturing. And the only swearing will be Brand’s own, in quotes.

          • Dylan Wilby

            Why would I have fallen for Blair? What a strange and patronising comment. Blair and Brand could hardly be more different. I was only 3 when Blair came to power anyway.

          • DRXL44

            Not much experience of the real world then?

          • UKSteve

            TBH, it shows. You hold up Russell Brand as some kind of well-read, eloquent commentator.

          • Dylan Wilby

            Well he’s definitely eloquent and I see no reason to think he’s not well read. It’s just ridiculous snobbery to assume otherwise.

          • UKSteve

            No, it’s nothing of the sort. It was ludicrous – and ignorant to describe him as “this generation’s Orwell”.

          • RaymondDance

            “judging by his command of the English language I expect he’s read a lot of books”

            I suspect most people ‘ judging by his command of the English language’ would conclude that this Mr Malaprop is entirely illiterate.

          • UKSteve

            Now THAT was a completely ridiculous thing to day.

          • Dylan Wilby

            Oh of course, how right you are. What convincing arguments and evidence you have to support your claims.

          • UKSteve

            Yes, I thought so. That’s why I typed it. It was a howler.

  • madasafish

    Owen Jones: a nonentity who comments on the Establishment.

    How ironic: if there was no Establishment , we would never have heard of him..

    And as proof of that, what original thoughts does he have? None: he spouts the doctrine of others.

    And he writes a book! How very Establishment. If he wanted to break the mold, he would publish a series of essays free for all to access on the internet. But then, that is not his intention. He’s a member of the elite.

    • Jhb

      If he is such a non-entity, why are you so cross about him? Why are you even commenting on him?

      • madasafish

        Cos he’s in this website of course.

        Even you should know people are allowed to comment on websites?


        Or are you another troll?

        • Jhb

          He has written a best seller, he has a column in a national newspaper, his latest book is being reviewed here in The Spectator, he makes frequent appearances on the telly and the wireless, lots of people listen to him, and he appears to be giving you a coronary. That, Mr Mafasafish, regardless of what you think of Mr Jones’ Politics, does not constitute what most people would think of as being a nonentity. People like you and me on the other hand, who go round posting anonymously on sites like this, now WE are nonentities.
          Keep your pecker up old bean!

          • madasafish

            I would rather be a nonentity than a prig like Mr Jones.

          • global city

            We are all nonentities, but some of us are allowed Dachas!

          • obbo12

            You missed out that he is paid lobbyist of Unite the Union.

          • Jhb

            Is he? Evidence please.
            Are you implying that that’s a good thing or a bad thing? Either way, what has that got to do with whether or not he’s a nonentity. If, as you claim, he is then aren’t you just proving my point that whatever you think of him, he is not a nonentity.

          • obbo12

            His think tank is funded by unite. This funding caused Jones to lose his House of Commons pass after the most recent rule changes.

          • global city

            It’s a bad thing.

            It’s actually an outrage that it is seen as natural for organisations to protect workers’ rights can pursue this through a mad Marxian perspective of how these aims are achieved.

            I am astounded that this has been allowed to carry on.

      • global city

        why are so so in love with him… he’s such a Petit bourgeois faux-iconoclast and wannabe Trot that you can see the aching etched in his childlike face.

        • Jhb

          Read my comments. At no point have I even said I LIKE the bloke, never mind love him. I’m only pointing out that it’s a bit rich for people on here to call him things like a nonentity, when he clearly isn’t, and whilst they’re getting so annoyed about how successful he is.
          Ps I see you’ve been reading your mum’s thesaurus again. It helps if you know what all those big words actually mean before you write them down.

          • Colonel Mustard

            Oh, I don’t know:-

            “A person regarded as being of no importance or significance” – (the regarding is subjective but no less valid)

            “Something that does not exist or that exists only in the imagination” – (the socialist utopia basically)

            Whenever I have encountered the Owen Jones of this world I have always thought of Ecclesiastes 9:11:-

            “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all”

          • global city

            I suppose that they mean an intellectual nonentity, but still he is still fated by the left loving meeja as today’s Orwell.

            If you can point out just one of those words that I have used incorrectly then I will scrub the whole post. It was obviously a yah-boo sentence but the words were obviously also the right ones to use, especially given their use for comic/satirical effect.

            I am well old enough to be able to afford a thesaurus of my own. What a strange thing to write?

    • Dom Aversano

      “If he wanted to break the mold, he would publish a series of essays free for all to access on the internet.”

      He has. Everything he has written on his blog, The Indy, and The Guardian is free. Not that that is breaking a mould.

      • RaymondDance

        Not free. Paid for by advertising.

        • Livia

          Free for all to access. You don’t pay for the advertising, the writing is free to access. Wipe that drool away from your neck beard, lad.

          • RaymondDance

            You need to stop for 30 seconds and think about what you’ve written. ‘You don’t pay for the advertising’, eh. What bollocks!

          • photon

            Only if I buy the goods.

      • whs1954

        In that case practically no journalist whatsoever is part of the establishment, at least in the UK.

      • UKSteve

        The Indy and Guardian are free these days? Blimey!

        • Lydia Robinson

          The Guardian is free but comment ist nicht frei as you may have discovered if you try and post on their heavily censored CiF website.

          • UKSteve

            Indeed, and have, Lydia.

            Censorhip is everywhere these days, one of my posts on teh Telegraph site was deleted this weekend, it was only one word plus weblink – which was for a TELEGRAPH webpage!

    • Mboyle1888

      That’s a nice opinion you’ve formed based solely on the title of the book and without having engaged with any of the points within it.

  • Peter Grimes

    Russell Brand is not only a cod-philosopher, he is at best a cod-comedian as well.

  • Peter Grimes

    That other gobby Leftist cod-philosopher Will Self reckons Orwell was mediocre.

    Probably miffed because Orwell was thought to be a rabid Leftist but spilled the beans regarding how they achieve and retain power.

    Presumably the pompous oaf Self thinks that he and Boy Owen are better than mediocre.

    • Bill Quango MP

      Dismissing popular opinion? Can’t get much more establishment than that.
      Orwell was a genius. Will Self, a bit less so.
      Will’s books are quite a hard read. Hard to stay focused on his ideas without drifting away. Orwell is riveting.

      • Bel-Shammaroth

        I think Will Self was right to say that Orwell was a mediocre novelist. However, not all writing has to be Literature. Orwell’s journalistic style suits his subject matter and arguments brilliantly. We don’t need O’Brien or Napoleon the Pig to be well-rounded characters.

    • The Masked Marvel

      More like that’s one more move in the Progressive Left’s attempt to undermine everything that was ever decent or useful about British society. Which is one reason why the BBC love him.

      • Jhb

        Why do the bbc love him? I don’t understand.

        • The Masked Marvel

          Class war is a much-cherished issue at the BBC, and he holds all the approved thoughts. Self is probably friends with a number of BBC insiders, and one wouldn’t want to speculate on the sharing of illicit substances.

          • Jhb

            James Harding, Nick Robinson, Jeremy Paxman, John Humphreys, Andrew Neil, Sarah Montague, Victoria Derbyshire, Gyles Brandreth, Michal Hussein, David Attenborough, Ken Bruce, Radio three, Radio Four, All BBC Local Radio Stations, Radio Five Live, BBC 4, Matthew Parris, Dominic Sandbrook, Quentin Letts, etc etc…… They are all obsessed wiv da kidz.
            As well as class warfare.
            Hang on, what about BBC 3? That’s 4 da kidz. Oh they’re making it internet only.
            Best wishes
            An old geezer.

    • obbo12

      Every time I see Will Self I have the urge to punch him. Its nothing to do with politics, he has such a punchable face.

      • global city

        and a whiny, nasal voice and an accent that makes him sound like he’s sneering, probably even when he’s telling his Mum that he loves her!

        • Bill Quango MP

          His sneery voice suits him. When he’s espousing one of his theories on Question Time you can practically hear him drawing down a lungful of Gauloise and take a glug of red wine between each pause.

          His contemptuous tone also suits him when he disagrees with another panelist. “Sorry..but you are completely and utterly wrong”

          and you can hear in the tone “..and you are are dumber than a cheeseplant”

          • global city

            Quite. Sums him up well.

      • shebamurphy

        Every time I see Owen Jones I want to tuck him up with his teddy bear and tell him to go to sleep like a good boy.

    • UKSteve

      “In intention, at any rate, the English intelligentsia are Europeanized. They
      take their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow. In the general
      patriotism of the country they form a sort of island of dissident thought.
      England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of
      their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is
      something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to
      snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is
      a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English
      intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during ‘God save the King’ than of stealing from a poor box.”

      — George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn.

    • Oops. You got there first. No harm in saying it often enough, as Joseph used to say:) Especially when true.

    • A 29 year old is not a ‘boy’.

  • Seldom Seen

    A level politics from a silly little attention-seeker who has no experience of the world whatsoever; it’s all theory, theory, theory. Just like the entire left, in fact.

  • Livia

    I read a lot of history, a lot about politics, some about economics. I don’t understand it all, because a lot of it seems deliberately to be buried under a million tonnes of jargon. There doesn’t seem to be any great political consensus, though, other than the idea that politicians are at best dimwits, and at worst self-serving liars. Perhaps there is a favorable consensus regarding neo-liberalism, but it seems a tad optimistic to assume there’s one that stretches beyond the richest ten percent.

  • tolpuddle1

    However much Paul Staines may dislike the thought, the consensus is constantly changing, and the Thatcherite consensus that has controlled Britain since 1979 will soon “be one with Nineveh and Tyre” And people will laugh or spit at it.

    As for the wealthy of our time (and their hangers-on, like Staines) – they will be one with Ozymandias. And sooner than they expect.

  • Lina R

    The left always bang on about Old Etonians, but the real domination across politics and the media is Oxbridge. Strangely they keep quiet about that.

  • CortUK

    The Orwell comment says more about Jones than Brand – Jones would have OK’d it for his cover.

    Vanity or what?

  • CortUK

    I have a much better definition of “establishment” in this context:

    “The people and organisations that hold the power, tools and influences that I want for myself.”

    Beat that.

  • shebamurphy

    I bought Jones’ first book because I was intrigued to see what this middle class little twerp knew of people like me. Maybe I had misjudged him, I thought. I read the book and knew that I had judged him just right.
    He is like the middle class twits who write the scripts for Eastenders. He thinks he understands what it means to be working class, but he doesn’t have a clue. And, of course, as he is now part of the establishment, he never will.

  • paulus

    He is a very inteligent young man and if he ever breakes free of perception and ideology, he will be very formidable. He has gone as far as he can regugtating other peoples ideas. Time to think it thru himself.

  • McClane

    The book’s on Amazon at £8.20. It’ll be at £0.01 in a couple of weeks.

  • Lydia Robinson

    The left wing politically correct establishment to whom he belongs are the ones who hold sway in this country. There can be no other explanation for the left leaning BBC and the left wing council of Rotherham allowing rape of minors for the past thirty years. The Establishment always cover up misdemeanours and crimes like this when their own people are involved.

  • Zebedee Pathfinder


    I thought that the article above was well written. But the analysis of many in this comments section ( a cute, squeaky voiced sock puppet…the little git…marxist…etc etc) is totally, like, dumbing it down. Can’t you be a little more… articulate? Insults are for the playground, not for the comments section of what is supposed to be a magazine for the right wing intelligentsia.

  • AnusRodendum

    Anything with an endorsement from Russell Brand must be literary diarrhoea.

  • “Russell Brand endorses the author as ‘this generation’s Orwell’.” That’s Will Self’s nose well out of joint right there.

  • Alexander

    Consensus implies support from some kind of majority. Probably not the correct term to use in this instance.