The current issue of the Spectator claims to be investigating the political and social elites that form the "new establishment" in the UK. Yet this leading conservative journal has no interest in mapping the wider networks of real power and privilege of which it is a part.
We live in more than merely interesting political times: an age of scandal, powerlessness, fluidity, paradox and mainstream collective groupthink about the world. The Cameron-Clegg coalition has proven to be a personification of all of this, and one publication I read carefully to gain understanding of it is ‘The Spectator’. But with the Conservatives leading the Coalition government this is becoming like an exercise in reading the runes.
I like The Spectator. James Forsyth is a fascinating and emerging voice, Fraser Nelson a decent editor, better than the myopic Blairite warmonger Matthew d’Ancona, if not in the same league as Boris Johnson. The things I like most about it are the idiosyncracies which reigned supreme in Boris’s time: things like ‘Dear Mary’, Taki’s parallel universe, and Marcus Berkmann’s endearing take on aging, family life and music.
Which brings me to this week’s special issue – boldly claiming to offer an in-depth guide to the ‘The New Establishment’ - the forces of power and influence in contemporary Britain. The finest minds and luminaries of a new generation have been gathered together: Toby Young, Quentin Letts, Rachel Johnson, Rod Liddle and Douglas Murray. Funnily enough all of them (bar the last) are themselves figures and players in the ‘New Establishment’ if it exists. Yet strangely not one of them reflects on this fact, even once.
Toby Young, self-appointed leader of the middle class urban guerrilla movement for ‘free schools’ whose aim is to liberate areas of city life from the stultifying repression of the brutal leftist regimes still holding out in large parts of our country, is one of this would be new elite’s key spokespeople.
Young addresses the background, personalities and make up of our new governing class writing:
Their sense of entitlement doesn’t stem from good breeding, but from their conviction that they’re meritocrats. And in a sense they are. (1)
A length explanation then follows of the young George Osborne’s march through the institutions. In the Darwinian struggle that is life he actually had to win a place at St Paul’s School, then god forbid sit an exam to get into Oxford, and then do well enough in his finals to land a job – guess where – in Conservative Central Office. The ignominy doesn’t stop. He has to persuade the ungrateful types of Tatton Conservative Association that they were doing him a favour selecting him. All on merit. Young doesn’t seem to realise the irony, for his description of Osborne's struggle echoes, indeed clangs, with the sound of an ‘entitlement culture’ centuries old, which long predates the welfare state.
Young reflects on the new class:
The important thing to bear in mind, though, is that the leaders of the New Establishment nearly all possess impeccable meritocratic credentials, even if their path to the top was eased by their parents’ privileged status. Psychologically, this makes them very different to their Old Establishment predecessors. They’re not plagued by the need to prove themselves – that crippling sense of duty ….
This fascinating reflection is made all the richer for the misuse of the term ‘meritocracy’. The word was invented by Toby’s father, Michael Young, as a negative, narrow form of measuring worth that constricted social change and created a new form of social ossification.
The concept of ideology as a competition over ideas and values doesn’t get a look in. Young states flatly, "Today, ideology is a by-product of the will to power". But this is another way of saying that ideas themselves, and whether they are true or false, does not matter; which simply reproduces the philistinism of the old Establishment at its worse (although it was at least experienced enough not to laud notions of "the will to power"). This, he concludes, makes the coalition "a more genuinely conservative government than that of Margaret Thatcher". For in the past conservatives generally have held their views "because they believed in nothing": a point Young seems to think is a fitting and flattering description of the coalition. We have been warned!
There is then a strange, aimless piece by Rachel Johnson, one I imagine written between firing the last remaining staff on ‘The Lady’, being filmed for a TV programme doing it, and writing up the experience in her diary. The new class Johnson tells us is not about privilege:
On the surface, where and what they eat, where they go, what they drive, is not too encrusted with privilege. It’s designed to look right in the Daily Mail. (2)
They go to places like ‘Lord and Lady Rotherwick’s ‘Poshfest’ music festival (seriously!) which sounds like something from a bad Richard Curtis film.
The best piece in the issue is by the ubiquitous Quentin Letts, prolific Daily Mail parliamentary sketchwriter and part-time comedian (3). He writes on the rise of the special adviser in Whitehall and while there’s nothing really penetrating in it at least it is connected to a wider reality outside of the new class, and probes the corridors of power with a semi-critical eye. Special advisers were invented by Harold Wilson, Labour Prime Minister off and on from 1964 to 1976, and have become one of the ways politicians have tried to circumvent and control the civil service; in 1997 and the advent of Blairism Letts writes there were 38 special advisers, by 2002 this had risen to 81, and of these 26 were in No. 10.
There’s a map about connections to Cameron which shows that the Cameroons are a ‘close knit group’, which doesn’t seem to really reveal very much (4). The intersection of some of the new powerful elites it supposedly exposes fails to mention a single member of the Murdoch family in a two-page spread. How disappointed will they be?
Finally, passing over Rod Liddle’s portrait of ‘the Tories’ lost leader’ David Davies (5), there is a bizarre piece by Douglas Murray on how he became a "Tory pariah" for daring to challenge Islamistic imperialism which earned him "excommunication from David Cameron’s Tories" (6). It gives us a fascinating insight into the world of right-wing paranoia – a world well worked by zealots like Melanie Phillips, who lives in a horrid parallel universe of her mind fueled by a tiny element of truth of the type that keeps all paranoia burning long into the daylight.
In a key section of his essay, Murray explain the Cameron strategy of "detoxing the brand", a completely misguided, mistaken and unnecessary approach in his eyes. He summarises the Cameroon thinking thus:
While Cameron was growing up, left-wing views were steadily ingraining themselves. To be a Conservative carried a stigma: the mean, bad, ‘nasty’ party. Cameron and his colleagues to varying degrees assimilated these opinions. Rather than realising that the left is the cause of many of our society’s problems, they instead awarded the opponents of conservatism the right to be the sole arbiters of moral credibility.
This is a brilliant exercise in half-truths and half-lies. Oh, yes, you remember the decade of the 1980s: that decade of three landslide victories of Mrs. Thatcher’s revolutionary government. A decade when it was glorious to be alive and left-wing. Like Melanie Phillips, he simplifies hideously all the complex problems of society – and pins many of its problems on the power of the left.
Yet, there is a grain of truth in part of this. The counter-story of the 1980s to Thatcher and ‘the me generation’ was Ben Elton, Saturday Night Live, ‘Loadsamoney’, Red Wedge, the Smiths and a generation who felt smug and self-satisfied in expressing their global conscience at Live Aid and even Charter 88. And yet it was hardly the dominant influence of the decade, given those three Thatcher election victories, the Falklands, the crushing of the miners and Scargill, privatisation and the City ‘big bang’.
In ‘The Spectator’ editorial that opens the special issue, Fraser Nelson writes that the limits of the "new Establishment" coalescing around the coalition can be easily pointed out, "The problem is obvious; this globalising elite is a small world" (7).
Another problem is more immediately obvious. The sloppy misuse and misinterpretation of the English language in a magazine which prides itself on its standard of writing. It is not just Toby Young misrepresenting his father on ‘the meritocracy’, but the whole idea of ‘the Establishment’.
The term, ‘the Establishment’ was used in 1953 by A.J.P. Taylor in a book review of a biography of William Cobbett in the ‘New Statesman’ (8). Two years later Henry Fairlie in ‘The Spectator’ gave the term its modern meaning in the aftermath of the defection of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean to the Soviet Union. Fairlie defined ‘the Establishment’ as being "not only the centres of official power – but rather the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised" (9). Taylor later thought the term ‘the Establishment’ did not fully capture ‘the complacency, the incompetence and the selfishness of those who ran things’ (10).
‘The Spectator’ is of course part of ‘the new Establishment’ which it claims to be reporting on: the closing of our political and social elites into a ‘meritocracy’ in the baleful sense of the word. From this vantage point, ‘The Spectator’ has no interest in investigating and mapping the wider networks of real power and privilege which it and its contributors are one part - dreaming of greater influence.
Nowhere in this issue is there any mention of the interconnection of political, media and corporate elites. Not one piece of writing or turn of phrase is given to the power of big business, the rise of the corporate class, the emaciation of the public realm and democracy. And no acknowledgment is made of the power of the global media, of Murdoch, the ‘Daily Mail’, and the emerging right-wing movement in the UK which now sees the coalition and crisis as a means to begin the second right-wing revolution of our times.
Maybe that isn’t too surprising, because ‘The Spectator’ has situated itself as one of the central pillars of this movement. It will have to be for others then to track, map and critique this ‘new Establishment’, challenge their ideology, and begin the articulation of a popular alternative. Sad to say, a once independent journal has instead chosen to give voice to A.J.P. Taylor’s view that, "There is nothing more agreeable in life than to make peace with the Establishment – and nothing more corrupting" (11).
1. Toby Young, ‘Different Class’, The Spectator, October 9th 2010, pp. 14-15.
2. Rachel Johnson, ‘How to Spend It’, p. 16.
3. Quentin Letts, ‘A perfect spad: young Cameron was as guided as a Navy missile’, p. 15.
4. ‘Cameron’s Tangled Webs’, pp. 18-19.
5. Rod Liddle, ‘The Tories’ lost leader’, pp. 20-21.
6. Douglas Murray, Blackballed by Cameron’, p. 22.
7. ‘In it Together’, The Spectator editorial, p. 5.
8. A.J.P. Taylor, New Statesman, August 29th 1953.
9. Henry Fairlie, ‘Political Commentary’, The Spectator, September 23rd 1955.
10. Quoted in Gerry Hassan, ‘Anatomy of the New Scotland’ in Gerry Hassan and Chris Warhurst (eds), Anatomy of the New Scotland: Power, Influence and Change, Mainstream 2002.
11. A.J.P. Taylor, 1953, op. cit.