This summer’s guilty pleasure is watching and reading about the phone hacking scandal rocking the British establishment. The story reveals a world of dodgy policemen, powerful press barons wielding huge power and pliant politicians overeager not to offend the press. The revelation of the heartless hacking of a murdered girl’s phone allowed public revulsion to turn into public scrutiny of the tight nexus of interest between press, politicians and police.
The scrutiny reveals a world of overlapping connections: prime ministers very friendly with senior News Corporation executives; the revolving door between working for the press, politicians and police; senior police officials investigating a news agency then when finding nothing wrong going to work for that agency; and a press willing to pay corrupt police for tips offs and information. It is all so cozy and tight with little gap between the police, the press and politics. The boundaries between these institutions are porous. The different institutions feed off each other.
In Georgian England the ruling elite were known as the "ton". Over three hundred influential families owned and ran the country. Things have changed. The traditional landowners no longer set the tone of fashion or establish the beat of politics. But things have not changed. There is still a small group of people with overlapping ties, connections and friendships that own and run the country. Democracy is a thin veneer over this arrangement. While the members of the ton have changed, the ton itself remains, its resilience aided by the concentration of power and influence in just one city. Whereas political and economic power in the US is spread across cities such as Washington, New York and Chicago and states such as Texas and California, Britain is essentially one giant urban region centered on London.
Britain can be summarized as “London and the rest”. The city and its extended metropolitan area squat over the nation just like a Third World primate city. The wealthy, the influential, the movers and shakers live in the city; it is home to Royalty, the political elites, those who manufacture the dominant forms of representation and those who control much of the making and moving of money. It is in this small shared space that the elite move and interact. The public scrutiny of scandals reveals the overlaps, the connections and the tightness of it all. The speed of the scandal and the knock-on effects as senior police resign and powerful executives are arrested, is a function of the small shared space in which these elites operate and interact.
The term ton arose from the phrase le bon ton, in the fashionable mode. Perhaps we need a new phrase to refer to the contemporary elites occupancy of the same shared space. Suggestions please. The agglomeration and concentration of national power by a small minority in one city is more reminiscent of an empire than democracy. But then Britain is still more of a crumbling empire, firmly anchored in central London, than a resurgent national democracy.