It was no accident that in the 1970s the US Ambassador to Britain was Walter Annenberg. Although theoretically representing all Americans - blacks, hispanics, poor Appalachians, hippy Californians - he moved in very rarified circles and represented a very special type of person - like himself.
He owned TV Guide, the weekly magazine with the largest circulation in the world, the New York Morning Telegraph, twelve radio and TV stations and seven cable TV stations. He was also fortunate enough to be the largest stockholder in Penn Central Railroad Company, and an important investor and active director in Gerard Trust Bank and Campbell Soups. Not least he qualified as American Ambassador because of his generous donation to Richard Nixon’s presidential election coffers. Rich and conservative, his political clout came through his pocketbook - and he represented none but the privileged ‘haves’. That was more than enough.
There is plenty such movement by the rich from business into politics and back again. Despite the supposed new broom of Ronald Reagan, fresh from the Californian Sunbelt, five of his first eight appointments on election had degrees from Harvard or Yale; and at least 10 of the 17 Reagan Cabinet officers admitted to being millionaires, Small surprise then, at the largesse of subsequent budgets towards the wealthy.
That same pendulum movement from the top ranks of business to politics occurs in Britain. In 1978 Sir Geoffrey Howe was a director of Sun Alliance together with EMI, London Assurance, Associated Business Programmes and Sun Insurance. Within a year he was to be chief finance minister of the country, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Almost all other members of the present Cabinet are equally closely connected to the upper echelons of business. But the hallmark of British privilege is the educational system. In the first Thatcher cabinet, out of 21 appointments six came from one school - Eton. A total of 19 had been to public’ schools and 16 to Oxford or Cambridge.
Such a privileged background, enjoyed by less than three per cent of the country’s people, was typical of governments in nineteenth century Britain. And there has been little change from 50 years ago in the social background of a Conservative Cabinet, or indeed the background of the rank and file of Parliamentary members.
In the US, too, wealth and privilege translate very readily into political power. According to Michael Parenti the biggest spenders won over 80 per cent of seats in recent US Congress and Senate elections. In 1981 Republican party committees raised over S73.6 million from their wealthy backers. The Democrats, more associated with labor, minorities and the ‘have-nots’ raised only 59.9 million.
Do contributions to electoral coffers buy favours from the winning candidate? It is clear that Ambassador Annenberg’s did. But the system of preferment operates all the way down the supposedly democratic chain. A former assistant to two Democratic senators points out: ‘Any member of Congress who says donations don’t influence him is lying. All of them are corrupt. The only question is the degree of corruption... campaign money has to influence even the most incorruptible, because most people don’t give away money for nothing.’
It would be naive to assume that one person - one vote means we all have equal political power. Affluence means influence; and subordinate classes have always played a distinctly subordinate role in government.
Poor people may be poor, but they are not fools. They recognise politics as a spectator sport which feeds off their powerlessness. Indeed the less subtle spokesmen of the privileged even spell out that the ‘have-nots’ are incapable of controlling their own destinies. US Vice President Spiro Agnew - before he was sacked for having evaded his income tax - suggested that the poor must not presume to know best for themselves but should follow the dictates of public leaders and other ‘experts’, just as the sick cannot diagnose themselves but must look to medical specialists.
Poor Americans have been opting out of the democratic process by the million. Throughout the 1970s, fewer and fewer of them bothered to vote. As the table shows on previous page ‘Opting out’, the lower your income the less you vote. And those who are rewarded least by the status quo simply give up: Hispanics and blacks scarcely registered to vote, while only a quarter of the unemployed of all races bothered to vote. The effect of this increasing absentionism is approximately the same as the nineteenth century laws which allowed only those with substantial property to vote. It guarantees a middle- and upper-class majority. It also meant a 53% turnout for the 1980 US presidential elections, with Reagan winning on 27 per cent of the total electorates’ votes.
Opting Out only creates a vicious circle. It reinforces the power of the privileged, and the well organised pressure groups. It debases the level of politics to school bussing campaigns, purging Darwinist ideas from educational textbooks and persecuting homosexuality. The big issue of whether government resources are directed to the needs of the many, or are used to line the pockets of the few goes unaddressed. And some citizens remain more equal than others.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7