The Establishment

Owen Jones' new book has put the topic back on the table, that ethereal, undefinable, untouchable thing which everyone yet knows. So what is it?

Geoffrey Heptonstall
10 September 2014

Eton college. Flickr/J.Salmoral

Stating the obvious is what reports seem to do. The Social Mobility Commission finds that the obstacles are as great as ever. ‘It’s all writ out for you.’ Everyone knows that, don’t they? But commissions are less easy to ignore than grumbles at the bus stop. Owen Jones’s sustained polemic The Establishment: and How They Get Away with It will be read with interest, especially in The Guardian’s extracts. It will cause diminishing ripples of unease. But it will take more than that, however necessary and welcome Owen Jones may be, to make the decisive change. We’re a long way from complaints and polemics cohering into political action.

The Establishment: does it exist? Is there a network of influential people acting not as a class but as a process within society? A class is readily identifiable. Archive photographs of Etonians in top hats offer one way of illustrating, Beano-style, the Establishment. But it’s outmoded and hackneyed, and not really what is meant by the Establishment in an age of demotic speech and manner. We are dealing with something more subtle, a chain of influences, a circle of knowingness. We are, oh yes, in the realm of Things Understood. We are speaking of those who discern whether or not you are one of us. And if you are not you will be sure to hear the sound of doors closing quietly but firmly.

If there is an Establishment it is not somewhere with official premises. You cannot fill in a form to join. You are not invited formally. It is something that happens to you by meeting the right people, by saying the right things. These of course may be left-wing things. But they are not too much so. Nothing is immoderate. Caution is the watchword. Because to be in the Establishment you must adhere to the rules, unwritten and unacknowledged as they are. And that is another point: everything that is said is deniable. When times change the rules change. What was once thought and said is voiced no more. It never happened. What is has been for always, and is obviously so. That is how continuity is maintained.

When something is established it is settled and permanent. There is no doubt of its right to be there. It is accorded respect and privilege not only for what it does but also for what it is. Mistakes readily condemned in others may be forgiven the privileged. This is of course is within certain limits. Significantly, when established privilege is withdrawn the condemnation tends to be led by the established. The closing of ranks is one of privilege’s surest survival tactics.

Privilege was the central target of the French Revolution. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity were not the abstract ideals they are taken to be. In 1789 they had precise meanings. Equality meant the end of privilege and a privileged class. Authority and respect were attributes to be earned rather than conferred by right, and by law established. The storming of the Bastille was no more than a symbolic gesture. Its powerful hold on the popular mind is its dramatic ability to illustrate the revolutionary mood. The real work was undertaken in the more prosaic Estates General. The symbol remains the more potent. Privilege after the events of Quartorze Juillet never can be entirely at ease.

Privilege, however, did not go away. It went sideways. The nineteenth century became the era of the self-made. This has continued. Even in a class society the myth of opportunity, of self-reliance and getting on has proved a more successful dynamic than appeals to hereditary privilege. One of the techniques of the establishment is to disclaim membership. One method is to stress membership of a cultural minority. Another is to stress elements of unprivileged ordinariness in a kind of double bluff. Gender is always a useful card to play. And if all else fails remind everyone you’re from Wales.

Privilege is always relative and dependant on context. The house of the doctor or schoolmaster in a mining village would be anonymous in Godalming. Because the circumstance determines the subjective nature of privilege a change of circumstance may change the sense of privilege. Not everyone within the Establishment will be entirely conscious of membership. An individual may be neither especially rich nor especially powerful. But the collusive power of the network confers access denied to other individuals. When things go wrong there are people who can help out.

The Establishment’s informality is its strength. It is not readily identifiable. It is fluid, flexible. Like Macavity the Mystery Cat, it is never there when the door opens and the torch is shone in the darkness. So does it really exist?

One thing it is not is a conspiracy, although at times there are elements that may conspire. A moment of acute crisis was the Hutton Report of 2004. The BBC made the grave error of taking on the state. I remember a television reporter saying ruefully that it was ‘a clash between two great institutions in society.’ Actually, no, it was a challenge by a media organization not to just one government but to the whole system of governance. The BBC, given enough rope, had over-reached itself. The network of influence succeeds by not making its aims and purposes known. The Establishment works in society by remaining in the shadows. The things understood are not stated openly. Macavity is never there. The Establishment is a network of influence rather than an arrogation of power. There are boundaries that must not be crossed. Privilege is not divine right.

The result of the affair was a permanent diminution of respect for the BBC. It is no longer the authoritative voice of the Establishment, and may never be again. In defeat it accepted obeisance to government, not to any particular party but to the governing principles of the state in all its overwhelming magisterium. The BBC didn’t bounce back because the network of influence is always understated.

Where is the voice to be found now? Here and there. Social media is gaining tremendous influence. It’s more than teenagers telling the world how wonderful they are. It’s about communication between the like-minded. What is not said says more than what is said.

It is a habit of mind that impedes democracy. We do not have a culture where careers are open to talent. We have this curious hierarchic system to which entry is restricted. Outsiders can be included on merit. But that is the case with hierarchies. Even imperial China could admit low-born talents. Ability with ambition given the least opportunity will tend to rise. There is always some marginal shift possible. But the general understanding remains that admission depends on connections: the right family, the right school, the right university, the right contacts. Our institutions at the core are run by people who understand the connections.

Personally, I resisted this view for a long time because it always sounded like the whine of the resentful outsider. But now I think it is more than that. Hidden in plain sight is the reality of a society that is not running at full speed. Society is run by the Right People, sometimes irrespective of ability. Not so much a class as a cabal, it is too exclusive, too restrictive and too self-referencing to meet the demands of cultural democracy. We all have the vote. But not everyone has a voice. There may be room at the top, but only internal applicants need apply for a vacancy.

This was not how it was supposed to be. The 1945 election, the postwar consensus, the social contract were all progressive (in both senses) stages towards a reconstruction that would erode and dismember the privilege of wealth and status, inherited or acquired. We were to know commonwealth again. It’s a word never heard now except to describe former imperial possessions.

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