David Brooks vs. Daniel Knowles and Glenn Greenwald on British Politics

David Brooks probably didn’t expect the reaction he got when he asserted that British political culture was currently superior to the stateside version which he covers in Washington. Daniel Knowles of the Daily Telegraph slapped Brooks down hard, both for suspect historical analysis (e.g., forgetting the impact of The Great War) and for lionizing the intertwined public school background of the political leadership class.

Brooks particularly ticked Knowles off by saying: “Britain is also blessed with a functioning political culture. It is dominated by people who live in London and who have often known each other since prep school. This makes it gossipy and often incestuous.” Glenn Greenwald also was infuriated by this passage and twists the sword with relish accusing Brooks of being an anti-democratic elitist who wants all decisions made by a small club of insiders of which he is a part.

Yet, speaking as someone who does extensive policy advising in Westminster and in Washington, Brooks’ basic point is correct: British politics is simply working better, for several reasons. First (as Brooks noted), the fundamental ideological differences between the parties are smaller than in the U.S. No one for example believes that a massive tax cut will solve Britain’s public debt challenges. Rather, the argument is about how much spending must go down and how much taxes must go up.

Second, perhaps because British people project their need for celebrities onto the royals, British politics isn’t as celebritized as ours: A lisping, adenoidal bloke with a hairdo that would warrant a refund at Supercuts can still lead one of the major parties and substantive people who don’t come across smoothly on camera can still be elected. This expands the pool of political talent beyond those with made-for-TV faces and smooth but shallow interpersonal styles.

Third, the public school thing isn’t all bad. As I said from the day the government was formed, I had hoped David Davies would get a post because he is the one prominent Tory who grew up in poverty and would add a perspective the Etonians don’t have. Insular wealth and privilege can produce blind spots, and that part of the old school tie bit can be problematic. But on the other hand, the fact that so many of the leadership class “knew each other at school” means, well, they actually know each other as people in a way that members of Congress no longer do, and that makes it harder for them to demonize each other publicly or even in their own imagination.


  1. Anomalous says

    Don’t know much about British poilics but the one big advantage that the UK has over USA is their mandated short time frame for campaigns. The pols get out there, state their case and the voters decide. The US’s interminal slug fests suck the life out of the politicians, require insane amounts of money leading to corruptiion, drive voters to boredom and disillusionment and with all of that destroy rational debate by forcing the constant need to up the ante.
    Another great advantage the Britts have is a press that won’t take BS for an answer. I would love to see American pols sit for 1/2 hour on BBC’s “Hardtalk”. It would give John Bohner something to really cry about.

  2. JDC says

    I think this has far more to do with the political structures of a parliamentary democracy. The governing party in the UK can actually govern (i.e. can implement the platform they ran on) in ways that a President cannot. Individual politicians are essentially impotent when compared with the perogatives of a US Senator for example.

    And much of the “debate” on spending is about how badly to gut essential services. A lot or a whole lot? Just don’t tpouch that aircraft carrier. The apparent desire to reform, or rather malform, the NHS to resemble the American model is striking. Meanwhile the City can go on making billions as usual.

  3. politicalfootball says

    Seems as though the Brits’ advantages, as described in the original post, all come down to one thing: The British lack our Republican Party. If the range of political views in this country stretched from Kucinich to Nelson, our political culture would be a lot less screwed up too.

  4. Ken Doran says

    1. You consider it praiseworthy that in Britain, in the middle of a ferocious recession, “the argument is about how much spending must go down and how much taxes must go up.” It isn’t; if you don’t read Paul Krugman, start. 2. We can’t overlook that the United States is much more populous, more diverse, and geographically larger than the UK. Those differences have more to do with the characteristics of the ruling elite than any simplistic notions of the health of the system.

  5. Bruce Wilder says

    Keith Humphreys, it seems to me, misses the point, when he frames the chief political problem of the two countries, as one of fiscal rectitude and public debt. For the two countries, the obvious parallel challenge isn’t budget-balancing per se; it is a highly dysfunctional and predatory financial sector attempting to run the country in its own interest, after a long period of increasing financialization. In that context, a reference to the period when Britain finally overthrew the rentiers of the old feudal aristocracy seems to have a surprisingly sharp edge hidden in the folds of Brooks’ ritual praise of Thatcher. Brooks even manages a side-long reference to the French Revolution!

    Of course, how we, and they, came to this pass, might be considered evidentiary with regard to the effectiveness of our respective democracies, as well.

    Brooks draws our attention to the impressive achievement of Britain in the “move from an aristocratic political economy to a democratic, industrial one”. That didn’t happen, of course, in a couple of decades at the beginning of the 20th century; rather it happened over the course of a century, beginning after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. But there was a remarkably dramatic turn in that evolution, after the Liberal landslide of 1906, when the outlines of the social welfare state appeared in the People’s Budget and the Lords was stripped of much of its power. As late as the Conservative government, elected in 1895, power in Britain was concentrated in the hands of a largely hereditary, landed class. That all ended rather quickly after 1906. And, while columnist Knowles is certainly correct to bring up the horrors of World War I — the last hurrah of Europe’s feudal aristocracies and Empires — and the proof the Great War provided of the incompetence of the governing elite, Britain’s century of liberal reform had prepared it better than most of Europe to adjust.

    Americans often make much of Parliamentary dictatorship in shaping policy: the alleged ability of a Prime Minister, leading his Party in Parliament, to work his will unobstructed, contrasted with the supposed paralysis of the American system of divided government and checks and balances. But, both countries, for better or worse, have the ability to evolve, politically and institutionally, incrementally, over the long-term. Movement conservatives have demonstrated over the course of the last 30 years that such long-term evolution remains politically feasible in the U.S.

    The rise of the celebrity-apprentice, spokes-model politician is a feature of the government wrought by the conservative revolution. In a plutocracy, elected representatives are not expected to exercise power or to govern; they just have to look pretty.

  6. The Navigator says

    I’m pretty sure Billy Bragg takes Greenwald’s side on this one:

    ‘Outside the patient millions/ who put them into power/ expect a little more back for their taxes
    Like school books, beds in hospitals/ and peace in our bloody time/ all they get is old men grinding axes
    Who’ve built their private fortunes/ on the things they can rely
    The courts, the secret handshake/ the stock exchange and the old school tie
    For God and Queen and Country/ the things they justify/ above the sounds of ideologies clashing’

  7. says

    “British politics is simply working better, for several reasons.”

    Is this actually true? It seems to me that, for all the US insanity, the UK tends to swing even further along the insane dimensions.
    Most recently, for example, I was under the impression that the great Conservative deficit cutback was having an even worse effect on the economy and unemployment than the do-nothing stalemate negotiated in Washington.
    One could go back to the Reagan years to, likewise compare with how Britain fared under Thatcher.

  8. James Wimberley says

    The social recruitment pool for British politics is much narrower than it was in Margaret Thatcher’s day. Her Cabinets included real landed toffs (Carrington, Prior) and self-made Estuary types (Major, Tebbit). Many Labour politicians still had working-clas roots, like Roy Hattersley. Now the leading group of all the parties are just scions of the London professional bourgeoisie. This makes them particularly unable to challenge the dominance of the City over the public discourse. Current UK economic policy is a smoothly controlled flight into terrain. There’s not much to admire IMHO.

  9. says

    It isn’t public schools that make the British governing classes gossipy and incestuous (except for Eton; there really is an Eton mafia). It’s London, Oxford and Cambridge. Lots of the people who go to public schools don’t go on to politically important careers. But people who go to Oxford and Cambridge are both clever and ambitious. There’s also a tradition of political dons who use their contacts with former pupils to place their newer ones. And everyone moves to London. London is the political capital, the financial capital, the legal capital, the media capital of Britain. So City people, media people, senior civil servants, lawyers and politicians who all know each other from University and now all live close to each other in London form a small incestuous group.

    Nothing like this exists in the US.

    Thank god.

  10. Keith Humphreys says

    To correct some incorrect perceptions of the British economy:

    Ken Doran says: You consider it praiseworthy that in Britain, in the middle of a ferocious recession..

    A recession is shrinkage in GDP for two consecutive quarters. British GDP has been growing for 6 straight quarters, they are not in a recession and certainly are not in a “ferocious” one, whatever that is.

    Maynard Handley says: I was under the impression that the great Conservative deficit cutback was having an even worse effect on the economy and unemployment than the do-nothing stalemate negotiated in Washington.

    The U.S. unemployment rate is 9.1%. The British unemployment rate is 7.7%.

  11. matt wilbert says

    As JDC said, surely the main difference is the institutional one. A British government can do what it wants. An American government can bomb who it wants, but otherwise faces endless veto points. This results in the extreme posturing we see in the US today, as in general the parties can neither enact their programs nor be held accountable for the results.

  12. Bruce Wilder says

    The plutocratic party has enacted its program, of judicial conservatism, of financial and economic de-regulation, of low taxes on corporations, capital and the uber-rich, of perpetual war and rampant business corruption.

  13. Ken Doran says

    I didn’t intend to use recession in a technical sense; please substitute “daunting downturn”. If you are of the party (admittedly large and credentialed) that assumes that austerity is the correct and wise prescription for slumping Western economies at this juncture, you are of course entitled to your opinion. You are mistaken, however, and pointing out the existence of consensus on that strategy is not the defense of UK government that you suppose it to be.

  14. Barry says

    Keith Humphreys says:

    “A recession is shrinkage in GDP for two consecutive quarters. British GDP has been growing for 6 straight quarters, they are not in a recession and certainly are not in a “ferocious” one, whatever that is.”

    Please note that by that definition, the Great Depression (in the USA, at least) was over in 1933.

  15. Skip Intro says

    I think it’s worth saying that the relative sizes of the US and UK play a role. It’s simply more difficult for a nation of 305 million to achieve some sort of consensus than a nation of 62 million, not even mentioning the much greater diversity of the US. Our political culture is less “functional” than the UK’s at least in part because we are a much more populous and diverse nation.