Power play: who really rules today?

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Saturday 28 October, Church House, London


‘Take back control’, the central demand from the Leave campaign’s case for Brexit, posed the question: who should rule? However, today, when frontpage headlines frequently ask why nothing works in ‘Broken Britain’ and politicians blame myriad forces for thwarting democratically decided policies, one increasingly debated issue is: who is really in charge of society?

In his recent book, Values, Voice and Virtue, British political scientist Matthew Goodwin argues that the ‘people who really run Britain’ are ‘a new dominant class’, that imposes its ‘radically progressive cultural values’ on the rest of the nation. The Spectator magazine recently devoted its cover to this ‘new elite’ and how ‘the woke aristocracy’ is on a ‘march through the institutions’. Former government equality tsar Trevor Phillips has written that ‘the political and media elite’ have achieved ‘institutional capture’ across swathes of the UK’s governing apparatus.

But is it as simple as a changing of the guard, a new elite grabbing the reins of power? One confusion is a disavowal of responsibility. Goodwin’s thesis has caused international controversy, with many labelled as the ‘new elite’ denying they have any power.

Once upon a time, it would have been easy to see who was in charge: from the Industrial Revolution onwards, barons of the old aristocracy were gradually replaced by ‘business barons’ owning big companies, aided and abetted by the clergy, among others. During the years of the postwar consensus, the ‘trade union barons’ played a major role, too. And, at its core, was a state apparatus presided over by an elite of politicians.

Yet today’s governing classes have increasingly dispersed and outsourced their authority to third parties – such as consultants, the judiciary, international bodies, public inquiries, stakeholder bodies, diversity specialists, scientific experts, NGOs, charities, political advisers and the ‘Whitehall Blob’. When things go wrong, the blame game sees fingers pointed in all directions.

In this context, some voters are increasingly disillusioned with democracy and conspiratorial thinking thrives. Who is pulling the ideological strings of this new generation of impotent, technocratic politicians? When the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, was asked whether he’d prefer to be in Davos or Westminster, he responded, without missing a beat: ‘Davos’. In other words, the likely next prime minister of the UK prefers the networking opportunities of the World Economy Forum to the mother of parliaments. Is it any wonder so many blame globalist forces for seemingly imposing unpopular policies on nation states with no democratic mandate, whether related to ‘net zero’ or gender identity?

So, who is directing society in 2023, and what binds them together? Why do our elected politicians lack authority today, or are they simply unwilling to exercise their authority? Are the ‘new elite’ as powerful as many would argue or are they simply the public face of the changing interests of the wealthy? Is the intellectual conformity at the helm of society proof of coherence or a lack of ideas and vision? Is it possible to reclaim power for The People?

Pamela Dow
chief operating officer, Civic Future

Professor Frank Furedi
sociologist and social commentator; executive director, MCC Brussels; author, 100 Years of Identity Crisis: culture war over socialisation

Matthew Goodwin
professor of politics, University of Kent; author, Values Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics , National Populism: the revolt against liberal democracy and Revolt on the Right

Harry Lambert
staff writer, New Statesman; editor, New Statesman Saturday Read

Professor Anand Menon
director, UK in a Changing Europe

Claire Fox
director, Academy of Ideas; independent peer, House of Lords; author, I STILL Find That Offensive!