I hear tell of George Osborne applying for the Evening Standard vacancy only after other people came to him for advice on their applications. What a charmer. Still, his landing the editorship of London’s biggest free sheet is as shocking as it is audacious. How is it someone barely able to string a sentence together, let alone lacking journalistic experience of any kind, can simply drop into and run one of the country’s biggest titles, and carry on doing another five jobs, including the nominally full-time role of representing the good people of Tatton?
Connections, of course. Standard proprietor, Evgeny Lebedev said “I am proud to have an editor of such substance, who reinforces The Standard’s standing and influence in London and whose political viewpoint – socially liberal and economically pragmatic – closely matches that of many of our readers”. Lebedev is the son of an oligarch who got stinking rich thanks to the plundering of Russian industry after the fall of the USSR, and has basically spent his entire life swanning around the jet set and organising parties for celebrities and other chums in London.
Osborne and Dave are previous attendees of these lavish jollies, which is pure coincidence, of course. For Lebedev, buying the former chancellor for the pocket change of £200k a year ensures he has an ‘in’ where the future of the Conservative Party is concerned. Favours rendered always come with the expectation of favours to be conferred.
Of Osborne himself, this move nakedly demonstrates the incestuous character of our elites and, fundamentally, how they work. It shows how the dispositions, networks, and cultures of our gilded rulers form a social mesh that automatically qualifies them within the terms of that social world for the privileged positions of running our most powerful and influential institutions when such opportunities arise. It doesn’t matter that Osborne isn’t and has never been a journalist, his social weight and inertia helps ensure it is not a matter of plugging a square peg into a round hole. This process of fitting, of integrating individuals was something the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu spent his career exploring. Permit me a moment of self-plagiarism:
His basic ideas are that each of us are endowed with a set of dispositions and preferences acquired throughout our lives (the habitus), and this acquisition is always overlaced by patterns of domination and (relative) privilege. My working class Tory background, for example, is part of my being and conditions my interests, dispositions and position-takings in ways I am aware and not aware of. And it will always be the case. More obvious examples are how the physicalities of our bodies, the genders, ethnicities, and disabilities condition and shape the habitus. The habitus is socially acquired and is irreducibly social. Bourdieu also argued that societies can be understood as if they are great meshes of overlapping fields. All human endeavour, from the operation of culture, through to the internal doings of institutions and right down to the pecking order in the local bowling club can be understood as if they were economies. The marketplace is typically a scene of competition (and collusion) between actors to secure market share, hence profits, hence economic capital for themselves. Other human activities can be understood the same way. Education systems see pupils compete through a battery of assessments for grades, i.e. cultural capital. Literary fiction is a competition among authors for the cultural capital specific to that field – prizes, critical acclaim, recognition. Politics the acquisition of political capital, and so on. What Bourdieu does is to link up habitus and field. Through socialisation, education, extra-curricular interests, work and so on one’s habitus acquires social and cultural capital, and the more one possesses the better fit there is between the individual and a greater number of fields. It’s not that Oxbridge graduates are especially brainy, it’s that their acculturation and networks disproportionately favours their chances of succeeding across a greater range of social fields. They have the strategies and know how to get on that puts them at an advantage vis a vis the rest of the graduate population … This, however, is not a theory of unproblematic social integration. It’s a theory of best fit.
What the ownership of large quantities of cultural capital does is endow an over-exaggerated sense of one’s self-worth as well as entitled expectations. Osborne, having effortlessly done the Member of Parliament thing (the benefit of having staff who can do the job for you!) and undermined the position of British capitalism from Number 11, again without breaking a sweat, for him the editorship of the Standard is merely just another set of meetings he will attend to, a few bits of documents to shuffle through, and a few decisions to be made for others to carry out. This mode of working is pretty standard among our social betters. For ridiculous money and wedges of prestige, their actual responsibilities barely extend beyond reading and commenting on briefing notes. These are hyped up as difficult, complex tasks that only the super-talented can do, but all their discharge actually requires is acculturation and a bit of front.
The politics of the move are more than foolish. Osborne, hailed as a genius by people who can’t tell the difference between it and deviousness, could well end up harming his prime ministerial ambitions and the standing of Lebedev’s comic. While most people who read papers know they have a political affiliation and editorial line, the legitimacy in part derives from their formal separation from the parties they back. The little bit of critical distance confers authority on editorials, and also means that politicians themselves pay attention. Because Theresa May and Sadiq Khan know the Standard is a vehicle for Osborne’s views, neither are going to take its criticism and cajoling at all seriously. Indeed, in Khan’s case – despite his ill-judged congratulations – they can be publicly dismissed with virtually no electoral backwash from Standard readers.
And so, George Osborne. The move into journalism, if it can be called that, is certainly a hubristic one. But we all know what follows on after.