Anatomy of Britain; Anthony Sampson; Hodder and Stoughton 35s.

“I have written this book,” Sampson states baldly in his conclusion, “without the academic equipment of a social or political theorist.” It is symptomatic of the state of our social studies that the first attempt at an account of the power elite in Britain should have been made by an “enquiring journalist”, whose credentials are his gossip column in a Sunday newspaper. The book bears all the marks of its origin. Theory is, of course, completely absent; the emphasis on “particulars” which form a “picture of the metabolism of the anonymous institutions which settle our daily lives” has produced a jumble of trivia held together by vague references to Bagehot (“as a kind of yardstick for developments”); such statistics as are given are rarely explained, and frequently irrelevant. Although Sampson claims to write “in a deliberately detached and analytical way”, such assumptions as he has colour the whole book, without being debated at any stage. The book is a monument to the dilettante: its level is the whimsical anecdote, the mass of board-room chatter, the hastily-produced vade-mecum for the socialite. The bulk of the book is a conducted tour round “Sampson’s ‘living museum’” with its Pendennis conversation-pieces and its cult of leadership. Instead of analysing the structure of power, Sampson is mesmerised by the fact of power: no wonder the top 200 were so eager to talk— Sampson might act as their ambassador. Were it not for the fact that the book is likely to get a wide circulation, it would be pointless to review it. But it is also typical of a trend in popular sociology and approach to politics that is increasingly influential: if the book itself is not important, the political thinking which it represents is.

The major problem in analysing power elites lies in locating the seats of power. The analyst has to assess the various claims of government, parliament, the political parties, business, organised labour, and the majority of the unorganised. He has to work out the relationship between these groups, and indicate the effect of these relationships on decision-making. To do this effectively in Britain may be more difficult than in some countries: as Sampson notes, there is a sham elite (aristocracy, monarchy, parliament, etc.) which has in the long run to be discounted because, although it provides the ruling mythology, it is not in itself the system of control. In other words we have to separate these in whose name power is legitimized from those who actually control the machinery. In Britain, tradition and continuing institutions provide an easy cover under which the power elite can endure. This observation is not new and has been made by political thinkers on the left and right. Conservatives have generally claimed this as a position of advantage; Labourites have been unsure, attacking some institutions in theory while accepting them in practice. Consequently a vast mythology of the state has grown up which, in the classic case (Ivor Jennings) conceives of the state almost exclusively in legitimizing terms.

“You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.”

When any division between the practice and the theory of institutions is admitted, it is only a technical division. The institutions are the summit of a historical process, parliament the temple of democracy.

Much of this is attacked by Sampson. Parliament is not supreme (and, one may add, never has been). The gilded layer merely provides the “controllers” with their credentials. The elite, though not exactly a public school club, lies somewhere between the Cabinet and the top executive strata of Commerce and the Civil Service. But so concerned is Sampson with documenting the number of garden parties given at Buckingham Palace and the cash taken by the Duke of Bedford at Woburn, that he scarcely begins to relate the decision-makers to the content of decision-making. A power elite cannot be studied adequately without some analysis of the social structure of the country and of what the elite does with its power. Sampson apologises that there “has been no time or space to cover the broad fields of art, medicine, religion, or provincial life or culture.” Nor was time found for nuclear and foreign policy. Instead it was spent on the most ludicrous trivia (“Dunlop’s London office is very rubbery, rubber tiles, rubber floors”; “In the beautiful Gothic divinity school, under TV arc-lights, the votes were counted and the results were declared in Latin which few of the graduates present could understand”; all this is done merely to attack the idea that the best men hold the best offices, and to add “human interest”).

Sampson’s ideal society dominates his account. His alternative is a society of manager-businessmen. Britain has, with her empire, lost her ability to compete. Consequently there is a power-vacuum: to keep in the technological stakes we have to look at Sweden, Germany, USA and the USSR. As Professor Eldredge of the University of Columbia has put it, we have three tasks: (i) to train an intellectual elite; (ii) to preserve a political hierarchy to maintain efficient government; (iii) to make Western “democracy efficient to meet the challenge of Soviet efficiency”. Quoting Bagehot, Sampson says that Britain is likely to fail by “not comprehending the great institutions which (she) has created”. In his survey of the top 200 the greatest praise is for Dr. Beeching, the directors of Unilever and Shell, and Ernest Marples. When he complains of “malaise”, the fault is with the “few thousand managers of our society who have failed to communicate new challenges and new ideas. The British are quite capable of surrendering to the facts provided they are told them.” (My italics). Rarely have contempt and manipulation been expressed as crudely as this. The elite must be related to the demands of technological competition: the failure of the present system is that the division between the covert and overt controllers is too great. Parliament and government are unprofessional: they do not accord with the demands of a specialist society and thus cannot control the economy effectively. When Sampson quotes Professor Titmuss’ The Irresponsible Society he concedes part of the argument (that the insurance companies have too much secret power) but he does not even consider limiting this power. Instead he notes that “the insurance companies. . .are aware that their image is not too good: and they have spent some money on advertising their service to the public, with coy fables about animals and bees and a TV hero called Fred.” It is not surprising that Marples, the businessmanadministrator is his political ideal.