The Spider’s Web: Britain’s Politico-Media Caste

The Establishment has evolved into an interlinked politico-media ruling caste

The professionalisation of politics in the last 30 years or so is undeniable. That, though, is decidedly not a compliment to the supposed professionalism of politicians – far from it. When current political comment alludes to the professionalisation of politics, it refers to the way in which the practice of politics has become almost exclusively the preserve of those in Westminster pursuing it as a full-time occupation and career.

They increasingly come to it straight from university without any experience of life and work outside it. Not only that, but they are likely to have studied the same subjects at often the same small number of universities, and in company with their eventual Parliamentary colleagues and media contemporaries.

In the political field, this development has had a number of undesirable effects. It produces a crop of politicians who overwhelmingly have limited (or no) first-hand appreciation of the concerns and priorities of the electorate at large out there in the real world, because they have never worked in it.

It brings to Parliament, in contrast to previous eras when a majority of politicians may have come to politics in mid-career, a cadre of politicians not only with the callowness and arrogance of comparative youth, but without any specialist knowledge and experience of one industry or field of activity which they can contribute to their own or their colleagues’ deliberations.

Because, hand-in-hand with the professionalization of politics, has gone the centralisation of party organisation, it generates a class of politicians perhaps as remote from and unfamiliar with their constituents than at any time since the 18th century: the average MP is far more likely to have been imposed on his constituency association a reward for service as a researcher at Party HQ or as a Special Adviser than through building up a profile and base in the constituency.

It produces a political class with an inclination to focus far more on the tactical gambits and games of the Westminster Village than the business of running the country or holding the government to account as a constituency representative.

But, worst of all, it creates a political class reliant to an unhealthy extent, both as a conduit for feedback about public opinion and a vehicle for communication with the wider electorate, on a Westminster media class which largely comes from a similar background to, and has become almost as specialised and inward-looking as, the political process it purports to chronicle.

That inter-relationship between the political and media classes is one of mutual dependency: each side needs the other for the wherewithal to do its job. But in a modern political atmosphere where both are largely remote from the constituencies they serve, so that they have more in common with each other than they do with their respective audiences, the nature and extent of the links become more crucial to the integrity of the political process.

In this relatively recent world of professionalized politics, members of the political and media classes not only work together: increasingly, and quite probably because of their closeness to each other but remoteness from the rest of us, they think, eat, socialise, sleep, establish permanent relationships and have children together too.

Which is where we, the public observing their doings, come in. For when we hear or read the media commentators, or when we listen to the politicians, shouldn’t we know what links they do or don’t have among the veritable spider’s web of contacts and relationships that extends across the freemasonry of the politico-media class?

The spider’s web runs three ways: media-media, political-political, and political-media: let’s look at just a couple of examples. An opinion I’ve heard expressed more than once is that Sky’s Adam Boulton has moved slightly in a more Blairite direction in his commentary over the years. But what isn’t widely known is that Boulton is married to Anji Hunter, long-time friend of Tony Blair, and his loyal gatekeeper throughout his time at No 10. Am I suggesting Boulton’s coverage is overly influenced by his domestic milieu? Of course not – but if we rely on his analysis of political events for our own knowledge, shouldn’t we at least know?

Because of her impeccable ex-Guardian provenance, Allegra Stratton often gets lumped in with the left-wing mafia assumed (not without reason) to be controlling the BBC’s once-flagship Newsnight. Again, though, what isn’t widely known is that Stratton is married to The Spectator’s political editor James Forsyth, renowned for his impeccable connections to the Cameroon No 10. None of this is to suggest any lack of professional integrity on the part of either – but, once again, shouldn’t we at least have the chance to be aware?

I believe the incestuousness of the politico-media class, which, through the professionalization of politics, exerts a disproportionate influence on public discourse, extends to such proportions that the time has come for a reference facility in the form of a website where any one of us could go at any time, to see exactly what are a particular commentator’s or politician’s links within the politico-media class.

The opportunities available through the internet and social media make this an ideal project for crowd-sourcing information which only a few years ago would have been impossible. A project for BackBencher, perhaps?

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