Theme: Political Ideas | Content Type: Book review

Review: Reckless Opportunists. Elites at the End of the Establishment, by Aeron Davis

Anthony Barnett


Gez Xavier Mansfield

| 6 mins read

Reckless Opportunists is an astonishing account of the British ruling class in decomposition. It is the result of twenty years of intense research, over 350 interviews with the heads of corporations, senior civil servants, journalists, politicians and public relations firms.

There are now many books on why Brexit happened, but none like this. Aeron Davis reveals how those in charge have become incapable of exercising a shared sense of responsibility for the fate of the nation. His unique report is a frontline account of the way the political, industrial, financial and media elites are disabled by their own culture and methods from acting in the collective interests of the country.

Davis sets out his argument in nine short chapters, action‐packed with revealing quotes from his many interviews. Particularly interesting is the way he shows how both the worlds of government and commerce are chronically insecure, run on “self‐deception”, much of it embedded in the self‐serving systems of “communication”. While those at the top may be doing nicely in terms of incomes, they face precarious employment just as much as the ‘precariat’.

The safest way to survive and prosper in such an environment is to join with everyone else in playing the system. Davis tells the story of Tony Dye. A top analyst and fund manager, Dye foresaw the dot‐com bubble of 2000, but “too early”. The value of his holdings did not rise with the market when others did. He was fired. When the crash occurred, they lost massively and he was vindicated. Did they laud his foresight and re‐hire him or offer some compensation? Hell no, for that would have meant they'd have had to fire themselves for screwing up. The moral drawn by his colleagues was to play it safe and get it wrong like everyone else.

Davis's gripping account reveals a country and an economy led by rootless lemmings taking the wider public with them over the cliff edge. After twenty years of interrogating the managers and politicians of the UK, he finds their leadership to be “solitary, rich, nasty, brutish and short” when it could and should be “connected, modestly paid, nice, civilised and long”. He provides a two‐page list of reforms that might help.

Reckless Opportunists has changed my mind on how Britain is governed. But its overall grasp of why it has become the way he describes is unsure. The book provides the ingredients for a new analysis of Britain's Lords of Misrule, they are still undercooked and await a historical theorisation. Davis starts Reckless Opportunists with a generous reference to The Establishment: And how they get away with it, by Owen Jones and to Robert Peston's Who Runs Britain?. Both texts are recent, justified diatribes against the extreme inequality being generated by the UK's current arrangements. But neither has any sense of postwar history. Jones is a wonderful polemicist and interviewer, but he simply presumes the existence of a coherent ruling elite that he then assaults. Peston does not go even that far. He uses no concepts at all and does not answer the question posed in his catchy title: Who Runs Britain?.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, ‘The Establishment’, as mapped by Anthony Sampson and others, was almost exclusively white, male, public school, Oxbridge and did run the country. Today, this order has been overturned. Bi‐partisan policies of neoliberalism have undermined public service and hollowed out the support essential to ensure a well‐governed society. Davis illustrates how the City is now driven by rough-necked outsiders alongside public schoolboys in hock to ‘greed and ruthless self‐interest’. The result is an unstable, disunited system far more extensive than the financial sector alone. He observes, “self‐interest and competition has left politicians willing to destroy their parties, civil servants their departments, chief executives their companies, and journalists their publications”.T

The downfall of the system began with the triumph of late Thatcherism and the reforms of Blair. First, there was her confinement of the trade unions and the Big Bang deregulation of the City as well as the full‐scale privatisations of the 1980s. An expanded public sector followed under New Labour but it was crucified by demands for simulated ‘competition’, targets, outsourcing and internal markets.

Davis's systematic account convinces me that it is simply wrong to assume that there is any longer a unifying, governing interest at work across the political, financial, commercial and industrial systems of government in the UK. It is not that ‘The Establishment’ is failing. There isn’t an ‘Establishment’. The individuals involved may be connected in the way of all elites – collaborating as well as competingin the short term. But what he shows with unrivalled detail is that there is no longer an economic ruling order consciously united by a shared view of a larger British interest.

For an outsider, Brexit is the consequence of this non-system having a breakdown rather than the outcome of a well‐governed society choosing which way to relate to its continental partners. Davis has revealed the chaotic, profiteering vertigo of a rudderless system beyond government.

Reckless Opportunists: Elites at the End of the Establishment, by Aeron Davis, is published by Manchester University Press. 149 pp.

This is a short version of review essay published in Political Quarterly journal which can be read online.

  • Anthony Barnett

    Anthony Barnett

    Anthony Barnett is a co-founder of openDemocracy. His Taking Control! Humanity and America after Trump and the Pandemic, will be published in March 2022.

    Articles by Anthony Barnett