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International Socialism, Autumn 1963


Ioan Davies

The Leadership


From International Socialism, No.14, Autumn 1963, p.36.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The British Political Elite
W.L. Guttsman
MacGibbon & Kee. 50s.

Sporadic attempts over the last few years to analyse the power structure in this country have been barely successful. The efficiency-experts on the one hand and the constitution-mongers on the other have failed to relate the political system to economic structure or the use of theory. It has been easier to gibe at the public schools because they are inefficient than to analyse the structure of institutions, and much simpler to produce catalogues of pressure groups and reprint the Directory of Directors than look at the problems of democratic government. W.L. Guttsman takes us much further than most, partly because he goes further back (to 1832) and partly because, unlike S.E. Finer and Anthony Sampson, he tries to relate his study to economic movements and the relationship between theory and action. He begins by dealing with the foundation of modern politics in the patrician oligarchy of the 18th and early 19th centuries. There is a detailed analysis of both the composition and political philosophy of the Victorian elite, the Whig-Tory theory of government, the property-basis of political decision. In the late 19th century there is the challenge of the middle class, the breakup of the Whig party, the transformation of the Tory, and the emergence of the new professional political elite.

n the 20th century, Guttsman shows how the aristocracy lost its commanding economic and political power yet how the peerage has remained representative of the ‘upper ranges of our society’, how the Conservative party has not only ceased to open up the leadership to the ‘new’ middle classes but actually closed its ranks and how the Labour elite has become progressively detached from the mass movement. It is perhaps here that the most useful points are made. Ever since Beatrice Webb tried to create an ‘aristocracy of labour’ in the 1920s the Labour Party has seen the growing power of the professional politicians of the Fabian Society. Guttsman notes how this ‘hampers communication between leaders and followers. Thus in the political field the Labour Party seems to he creating or maintaining a static system of stratification which it is seeking to destroy in the economic and social field’.

Guttsman’s study of elites (unlike Mackenzie or Sampson’s realpolitik or cult of power) is an attempt to explore the possibilities of democracy. It thus is compelled to relate the machinery of power to the economic sub-structure and the content of policy decisions. If there is any fault it is that the relationship is not always clearly shown and that a great deal of statistics of marginal relevance on peripheral groups unnecessarily intrudes. But, at least, here is a beginning to the systematic study of our political system and a vital contribution to socialist theory. No socialist can afford to, miss it.

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