On Owen Jones and being too angry

Owen Jones' new book The Establishment aims to show us "who really rules us, and what they're up to". But does he fully succeed?

Tom Sperlinger
24 September 2014

Over the past few weeks, I have heard several people, on both the left and right, criticize the Guardian columnist Owen Jones for being “too angry”. This phrase has a long and ignoble history. As Teresa Córdova has written, in a different context: “We [working-class Chicanas] are told… that we are direct and confrontational, that we are difficult, that we are irrational, too emotional – too angry.” Cordova points out that these are all ways of silencing dissent.

Owen Jones’s anger is what I like most about his columns. His plangent voice sometimes appears to have more in common with Pete Seeger than with Polly Toynbee. It was the unifying force in Chavs, an uneven book that made a compelling case for how the working classes have been marginalised and demonised in contemporary Britain.   

Now Jones has written The Establishment, which aims to shows us “who really rules us, and what they are up to”. This involves re-telling some stories that have already received considerable play in the media, including the phone-hacking scandal, MPs’ expenses, and the bailout of the banks. On these issues, there is a risk that Jones tells us too much “shit we already know”, breaking the second of Michael Moore’s rules for documentaries.

However, fuller and more original material is provided in chapters on the police, the privatised utilities, and the City. For example, Jones gives a detailed account of how the Police Federation was created in 1919, as part of a deliberate strategy to destroy a police trade union movement that had been “enraged over poverty pay and bullying management”. This chapter weaves together an effective narrative out of historical context and recent events, including the death of Ian Tomlinson, the Miners’ Strike, Hillsborough, and the role of undercover police officers. Jones quotes former Metropolitan Police chief Peter Kirkham, who notes plaintively: “The police have forgotten their place. If you go into the history, the police are of the people… They are not a state authority.”  

Similarly, in a chapter called ‘Scrounging off the State’, Jones argues persuasively that “socialism flourishes in modern Britain, but it is a socialism for the rich and for corporations”. In a telling example, Jones skewers the work of A4e, a private company tasked with helping the unemployed into work. He notes that A4e’s former chair, Emma Harrison, is a “self-described entrepreneur”, but that the company is “dependent on the public purse”, profiting from work that used to be undertaken in the public sector. The results are not encouraging: 

“Twenty-six-year-old Cat Verwaerde… was granted an interview [via A4e] with a hospitality company that apparently sold tickets for corporate events – which just happened to be in the same building, indeed on the same floor, as A4e… At the end of it, Verwaerde was offered a job that was below the legal minimum wage. A4e would later ring her, upbraiding her for not taking the job – which wasn’t true: she had merely requested written confirmation of the salary and hours… In the first year of the Work Programme alone, 2011-12, A4e were given £45.9 million [in public money]. In that year, they had found short-term work for 94,000 people; but six months later, after each of those claimants left A4e, just 4 per cent were still in work.”

If anything, there is not quite enough of this sort of anecdote in the book, with insights from people who are well placed to tell the story of the establishment, as its members or victims. Instead, there are too many interviews with reticent establishment figures, as the prefaces to these encounters start to make clear: “I meet the maverick MP in a parliamentary café”; “We meet in Soho Theatre’s noisy bar and, over a couple of pints of lager…”; “When we meet in a Soho café”; “I meet him in an office near the House of Lords”; “Over a glass of wine in a posh Islington gastro-pub”… Presumably, Jones wishes to highlight the haunts of the establishment, but there are limits to this as a method of investigative journalism.

Jones’s definition of the establishment also seems too narrow. For example, there is no sustained discussion of the monarchy, the judiciary, the aristocracy, the civil service, the arts world, or academia. More puzzling is that there is little acknowledgement that secret services (our own or those of other states) play a significant role in British life. This is a problem, in a book that claims to expose the “shadowy” networks that govern our lives. Perhaps the most revealing moment in the book is a quotation from the Green MP Caroline Lucas: “As an MP, in terms of really having power, I feel that I have very, very little. I feel like I’ve spent my career trying to find out where power is – wherever I am, it always feels like power is just somewhere else and I’m constantly chasing this thing.” It is a reminder that power often survives out of sight or in unspoken networks and influences. By focusing on its most explicit and visible aspects, there is a risk that Jones’s book lets the real establishment off the hook.  

Yet it is an anecdote from Lucas, quoted by Jones, that reminds us why the anger in The Establishment is urgent and necessary. Lucas recalls a conversation with a local council officer about a cut in benefits for low-paid workers: “Usually, apparently, when this kind of change is made, the people who are literally going to be making the phone calls have a bit of training about how to deal with people being very angry – understandably, legitimately angry, and how you deal with that. [The officer] was saying that what really struck her was that people weren’t angry, they were just so ground down by it all. It was like they’d lost the will to fight.” Jones has been criticized for becoming a member of the establishment himself, and for writing about such experiences from a safe distance. But his book is a reminder that those who have energy, and the privilege of time, also have a responsibility to others.

Raymond Williams once wrote that it is “terrible” to be “vulnerable to the imbecilities of the system”, but that an equal danger lies in remaining wilfully ignorant about how things work: “It is like being a prisoner can come to seem common sense”. Williams saw two different ways of responding to such ignorance: 

“One way [is] by pitying the person… But there is also another way… And that is to say: 'You are a prisoner, and you’ll only get out of this prison if you’ll admit it’s a prison. And if you won’t call it a prison, I will, and I’ll go on calling it a prison, whatever.'”

Williams was thinking of Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, which is fired through with this sort of didactic rage. Owen Jones is committed to overturning the prevailing common sense, which is not quite the same task as unearthing the establishment. The Establishment is a patchy book, and Jones indicates that he found it painful to write. It reads like the polemicist’s equivalent of a difficult second album, a prelude to greater complexity and range. Whatever he does next, let’s hope Jones doesn’t mellow with age.

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