Publication: Soundings
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 78733
ISSN: 13626620
Journal code: SOUN

Analysis and resistance David Beetham, Unelected Oligarchy: Corporate and Financial Dominance in Britain's Democracy Democratic Audit 2011 (

Democratic Audit has long been one of our most valuable sources in assessing the adequacy of democracy in the UK, and indeed elsewhere. It works by what might be called the technique of immanent critique: more simply, by just taking at face value the claims to democratic practice made by key institutions in the UK system, and asking the plain, but often devastating, question: do they live up to those claims? David Beetham has been one of the most important figures in the history of democratic audit, painstakingly pursuing the vocation of a true public intellectual: that is, a vocation that unites a commitment to serious research with a commitment to principled advocacy. Undected Oligarchy is particularly timely. It appears at a moment when a key part of the business elite - finance - has recovered its confidence and its capacity to exercise influence following the blip that was the great financial crisis of 2007-8. Thirteen years of pro-business New Labour has been succeeded by a coalition whose two formally leading figures, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, are offspring of the City 'working rich'. The symbolism of that connection is matched by substance: they head an administration that is committed to responding to the crisis by a programme of public sector austerity and market deregulation.

Unelected Oligarchy, though, is only tangentially about our immediate condition. This is a study of the power of business in British politics. Business as a system of power has long lived in a tense marriage with democracy. But Beethams case is that this tension has become more acute in the last three decades or so. He begins with a famous examination of the tension, Charles Lindblom's Politics and Markets (Basic 1977), which argued that property rules under a market economy, combined with the lobbying power of business, seriously circumscribed the decision-making capacity of the democratic state. Developments since then have further enlarged the power of business. Beetham documents the changes under four headings: the increasing dominance of free market ideologies; the rise of global corporations freed from the constraints of the nation state, coupled with the rise of financial intermediaries that have displaced productive functions by financial engineering; the increasing sophistication of the tax avoidance industry which allows corporations legally to escape their tax obligations; and the colonisation of public institutions themselves by corporate interests, in the guise of advisors, consultants and lobbyists.

This is superbly constructed in the finest tradition of radical argument based on serious inquiry. Moreover, in the best Democratic Audit tradition, it is presented with economy and exemplary clarity. Anyone who needs briefing on what has happened to corporate power in British democracy in the last generation need look no further.

Yet there is a strange silence here. Democratic Audit is an advocacy organisation with a distinguished history of arguing its corner; Beetham is one of the most distinguished examples of the tradition of the radical public intellectual, a figure often marginalised now in the world of professional social science. We might therefore expect some advocacy in this paper. Even Lindblom's gloomy account of a generation ago left slightly ajar the door for more effective regulation of the business enterprise by the democratic state. But the end point of Beetham's analysis is almost despair, or at least complete silence on what, if anything, might be done. Now Beetham might reply that a short paper cannot cover everything, and that his report is designed to sound the alarm bells about this unelected oligarchy, so that others might start thinking about how to curb it. But I also think there is something in the way the argument has been framed which leads to a kind of fatalism. Everything Beetham says about the forces underpinning the new power of business is convincing. But the traffic is not all one way, and only in a single grudging sentence about civil society critics ('strong civil society organisations have at best been able to generate embarrassment and achieve cosmetic changes') does he admit the existence of countervailing forces.

But these forces are surely more significant than Beetham allows; and because they are more significant there is more scope for action than he is prepared to envisage. Here are four examples. First, we can argue endlessly about the difference between a change of substance and a cosmetic change, but civil society organisations in the UK, notably in the public health domain, have had real success in beating back the power of big tobacco in the last generation. It has been hard, only partial, subject to circumvention, but the curbs on power have been real. Second, despite the rise of a market, pro-business ideology, business has found it increasingly hard to cash this: the evidence of opinion polls over a long time period now shows big business in particular has lost the battle for trust and approval among the population at large. Third, at the heart of the democratic state, the experience of political parties is more ambiguous than Beetham admits. He simply refers to inner-party democracy being 'stifled'; yet in all three leading Westminster parties the last generation has seen the growth of rank and file voice over candidate and leadership selection. Finally, while business has indeed colonised the state, the worlds of the public service - the conditions under which outsiders are appointed, the conditions under which contracts are awarded - are much more transparent and regulated, notably following our seventeen-year experience with the Committee on Standards in Public Life. None of these examples dents the main body of Beetham's argument. But dismissing the countervailing tendencies to corporate power has led him to a kind of fatalism. There is a lot to do to control this unelected oligarchy; but enough is being done to indicate that we need not despair.

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