Non-fiction Book of the Month: The Establishment
At first and second glance, forty‑seven‑year‑old Paul Staines is not the most sympathetic of characters. With a shock of white in the side‑parting of his black mop, he has the appearance of a sort of male, politico Cruella de Vil. Over a glass of wine in a posh Islington gastropub, the king of the right‑wing blogosphere casually – almost as an aside – tells me: ‘I’m not that keen on democracy.’
Back in the 1980s, Staines was a young zealot inspired by Margaret Thatcher’s crusade. ‘I think I loved her,’ he told me, in a rare lapse into human emotion. ‘I loved her,’ he reaffirms. He has long been driven by an unapologetic hatred of the left. ‘I think your creed is evil,’ he says, with no sense of irony. He means it.
After reading Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies as a thirteen‑year‑old in 1980 – regarded by admirers as a blistering defence of liberal democracy against totalitarian ideologies – Staines decided that he was a libertarian, or someone who believes that government and the state are inherent threats to individual liberty. Even as a teenager Staines was, he says, ‘in close proximity to quite a lot of powerful people’. He became ‘bag carrier’ – or personal assistant – to David Hart, an advisor to Margaret Thatcher whose activism was partly funded by Rupert Murdoch. Hart, Staines boasts, ‘financed the smashing of the NUM [National Union of Mineworkers]’ during the 1984–5 Miners’ Strike, a decisive victory for Thatcherism. Both Hart and Staines loudly championed the selling of US arms to the Contras, brutal right‑wing paramilitaries who committed atrocities as a matter of course during their fight against Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government in the 1980s.
For years, Staines worked as a broker and a trader in the City of London, until in 2004 – after suing the financial backer of his investment fund – he was forced to file for bankruptcy. He needed a new venture. With blogging still in its infancy, he seized on what would prove to be a lucrative new niche – setting up a website that would expose politicians in a way that made even tabloids look tame. In homage to a man who once tried to take down the political establishment in the most literal sense, Staines adopted the pseudonym Guido Fawkes. ‘My anger against politicians is genuinely heartfelt,’ he explains. ‘I hate the fucking thieving cunts.’
Little was off bounds for Guido Fawkes. In 2009 he published email exchanges between one of the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s most trusted aides, Damian McBride, and the former New Labour spin‑doctor Derek Draper, in which the pair plotted to spread rumours that would smear political opponents. It is unclear how Staines came to access the emails. He destroyed his computer hard drive in the aftermath of the scandal, and he jokes to me that his source was the ‘Irish Secret Service – you laugh at them, but they’re the best in the world.’ The repercussions of his exposé were sensational. McBride was forced to resign in disgrace, and the already besieged Brown was sent spinning into political crisis.
Yet Staines protects himself from potentially crippling libel claims by locating Guido Fawkes’ server offshore, in – as he puts it – a ‘sunny corporate tax haven’. No wonder he inspires genuine fear among politicians. It’s a reputation in which he delights: ‘I think it reflects badly on me that I quite enjoy it.’
But it would be a mistake to see Staines as leading a crusade against Britain’s ruling elite: far from it. In fact, he is an unapologetic outrider for the wealthiest elements of society. Or, as Staines describes it, he is ‘standing up for the plutocrats of the world: “Haven’t the plutocrats suffered enough?” is my view.’ And this uncompromising support for the interests of the wealthiest lies at the heart of his contempt for democracy. ‘Undermining politicians delegitimizes what politicians can do,’ he says. ‘Fundamentally, it suits my ideological game plan.’
For this mouthpiece for the ‘plutocrats’, democracy is a potentially mortal threat. ‘It doesn’t get me the result I want, and the have‑nots vote to take away from the haves, and I don’t think that’s a fair way of doing things . . . So democracy always leads to – if you have universal franchise – those who don’t have are going to take from those who do have.’
To explain his objection to democracy, Staines makes a comparison that many would find troubling. ‘Look at Apartheid. It was obvious that the whites who were on top of Apartheid were going to arrange affairs to suit themselves. It’s clear, and they did that, because they took away political power from the blacks. It’s clear to me in a system where everybody has a vote and you have an unequal distribution of the shares, that those who don’t have are going to vote to take away from those who do have.’ Not that it’s entirely that simple, he concedes, but only because ‘capital finds ways to protect itself from the voters. The American system very clearly does that, where money dominates politics and it means that even when slightly‑to‑the‑left Democrats get in, the system tempers that urge to redistribution.’
Although his views might lead people to dismiss Staines as an irrelevant crank, to do so would be a mistake. He is well connected with senior ministers and high‑profile right‑wingers. Guido Fawkes is consistently ranked Britain’s number one political blog, while Staines has a column in the country’s most read newspaper, the Sun on Sunday. His crusade against the political establishment – not to increase accountability, but seeking to undermine faith in the democratic system itself – is part of a much broader ideological movement. In the last three decades, wealth and power have been taken away from the broader population and systematically redistributed to those at the top. It would not have been possible without the determined efforts of their outriders.
To understand the guiding principles of today’s Establishment, we have to go back to 1947 and the sleepy Swiss village of Mont Pe`lerin. A visitor would have been awed by the beauty of the surrounding landscape: the expansive waters of Lake Geneva and the towering mountain ranges of the Dents du Midi. In this idyllic setting, it might have been easy to forget the death and destruction that had raged outside neutral Switzerland just two years earlier.
Mont Pe`lerin was the unlikely birthplace of a counter‑revolution that would one day sweep the globe. For the first few days of April 1947, nearly forty intellectuals from across the Western world – academics, economists and journalists among them – descended upon the town’s Hôtel du Parc. After a week of rigorous and often heated debate, the assembled group convened to pass sentence on a new global order that had emerged from the rubble of World War II. ‘The central values of civilization are in danger,’ read the group’s damning Statement of Aims. ‘Over large stretches of the earth’s surface the essential conditions of human dignity and freedom have already disappeared.’ To these thinkers the roots of the crisis were clear; they had ‘been fostered by a decline of belief in private property and the competitive market’. With the stage set for a generational struggle in defence of an increasingly besieged free‑market capitalism, the Mont Pe`lerin Society was born.
The Society was the brainchild of Austrian‑born British economist Friedrich Hayek. As the Nazi empire crumbled at the hands of the Red Army and Western forces, Hayek published a deeply pessimistic indictment of the world he believed had been emerging for a generation or more. The abandonment of laissez‑faire economics – or the belief that the state withdrawing itself from economic life was a guarantee of prosperity and freedom – had, he claimed, threatened the very foundations of liberty: ‘We have progressively abandoned that freedom in economic affairs without which personal and political freedom has never existed in the past.’
Published towards the end of World War II, Hayek’s seminal book The Road to Serfdom was a sensational success. Hundreds of thousands of copies were sold in Britain and other Western countries, and a condensed version was published in Reader’s Digest in April 1945.
The book’s popularity was of little comfort to Hayek. Despite the huge interest in his work, he wrote to a co‑thinker, ‘I am by no means optimistic about the immediate future. The prospects for Europe seem to me as dark as possible.’
Hayek and his adherents were ‘reactionaries’ in the truest sense of the word. They aimed to turn the clock back to a supposed golden age that had been swept away by the trauma of economic depression in the 1930s and global war in the 1940s. They were unabashed in describing themselves as ‘old‑fashioned liberals’. As Hayek put it to the opening session of the Mont Pélérin Society, one of the chief tasks at hand was to purge ‘traditional liberal theory of certain accidental accretions which have become attached to it in the course of time’.
Buried in this rather dry academese was a revealing statement about how the members of the Society saw themselves – as the ideologically pure on a mission to cleanse their own corrupted belief system.
Until recently, Hayek believed, the West had been ‘governed by what are vaguely called nineteenth‑century ideas or the principle of laissez-faire’, the model to which he and his followers advocated a return. This, however, was not the liberalism that became associated with social reform and state intervention in the second half of the twentieth century. For Hayek’s close associate, the US free‑market economist Milton Friedman, their form of liberalism was a movement that emerged in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which ‘emphasized freedom as the ultimate goal and the individual as the ultimate entity in society’. What their idea of liberalism stood for, above all, was ‘laissez‑faire at home’ and ‘free trade abroad’ – or, to put it another way, the diminishing of state intervention in economic affairs.
But in this new post‑war world – years that have been aptly described as ‘the nadir of capitalist ideology’ – Hayek, Friedman and other backward‑looking liberals were ideological pariahs. They were regarded, quite simply, as ‘cranks’. Blamed for causing the Great Depression in the 1930s and the global conflict that followed, and further undermined by the success of state wartime planning, laissez‑faire economics appeared to be ideologically bankrupt.
Across Western Europe, millions of workers radicalized by the experience of total war demanded far‑reaching social reforms in peace time at the expense of big business and the wealthy. Socialist and Social Democratic parties swept to power either as part of coalition governments or – as in Britain, Sweden and Norway – as governments in their own right. Threatened by powerful left‑wing forces, the right had little choice but to abandon its traditional embrace of laissez‑faire economics – which it did until, nearly three decades later, a small group of ideologues in the 1970s seized an unmissable opportunity. And at the heart of the project that would remould the entire British Establishment was a young man named Madsen Pirie.