The old order reasserts itself

February 25, 2010

It is 30 years this month since the death of the journalist Henry Fairlie, who popularized the term “the establishment” to describe -- as he put it in a 1955 Spectator article -- the “matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised”. This was a power that depended more than anything else on social relations forged at public schools, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, clubs and country houses. Fairlie wrote of the UK; the concept came to be applied globally.

His theme was fleshed out by the late Anthony Sampson in successive editions of his Anatomy of Britain, culminating in 2004 with Who Runs This Place? -- a book that, as its title reflects, speaks of Sampson’s bewilderment at where the old powers had gone. His was the generation that had matured in the 1940s and 1950s, when Fairlie’s establishment was confronted by the rise of organized labor to a share in power in many advanced states -- a largely peaceful process that brought new men and a few women into boardrooms, club rooms and cabinet rooms. By the 1980s, both parties to this delicate settlement were in decline. Individualism and entrepreneurialism were pitted against established networks, and power seemed to be slipping from both patrician and work-hardened hands.
In a series for the FT in 1988, I used the concept of “disestablishment” to describe the new people who had taken elite posts in government, business and (above all) media. The articles won me a brief meeting with Rupert Murdoch -- at his initiative -- delighted that he had been included among the leaders of the dis-establishmentarians, even if in a paper he viewed as part of the establishment.
Mr. Murdoch is now part of (for some, is) the media establishment; and, like many establishment people through the ages, he is passing his power on to his family. Today’s trend is more complex than a universal return to past habits: national establishments no longer have their past coherence or confidence. All the same we are seeing, everywhere, signs of what might be dubbed “re-establishmentarianism”, in which the new elites of two or three decades ago age and try to consolidate, and old elite networks seek to reassert themselves.
In post-communist Russia, a disoriented state turned back to the core of the Soviet establishment – the Committee for State Security, or KGB – for its leader into the new millennium. The country’s most powerful man, former (and likely future) president Vladimir Putin, was a KGB colonel, and many of his closest associates were from the same stable.
Many states seek qualities in their leaders once thought to be the preserve of establishments, but now distributed more widely. Technocratic competence, even distinction, is one such: Manmohan Singh, the prime minister of India, is a Sikh from a Punjabi village family with postgraduate degrees from both Cambridge and Oxford – the latter a worldwide symbol of established power. In the world’s largest state, the coming man, Li Kequiang, first vice-premier, has a degree in law and a doctorate in economics from the elite Peking University. There are signs of a hereditary establishment forming: Mr. Li’s father was a regional Communist party official.
In the U.S., a log-cabin background of some kind still helps. Bill Clinton’s cabin was real: he was from the working class. George W. Bush’s was virtual -- his family was presidential and wealthy. Barack Obama’s partakes of both: his mother had a doctorate in anthropology, the grandmother who raised him was a bank vice-president and his absent father a Harvard-trained economist (though he died, in Kenya, in poverty). After a second degree at Harvard Law School, Mr. Obama joined a prestigious Chicago law firm and moved to the upper-middle class Hyde Park area of the city. His part-African roots were massively emphasized: but, as John Judis of the New Republic wrote, after Harvard he moved among “the very upper reaches of professional America and the country’s managers, owners, and rulers”. The Ivy League establishment colleges he attended trained his formidable intellect and rhetorical power more obviously than any other recent U.S. president.
In the UK, the coming election is widely expected to return an Etonian with a first-class degree from Oxford. David Cameron descends from a wealthy and titled family – as does his wife Samantha. Symbolically significant (because of Eton College’s pre-eminence), the Conservative leader’s old establishment education is not so different from that of Tony Blair, whose school was Scotland’s Eton equivalent, Fettes, followed by Oxford. But the generations of wealth in Mr. Cameron’s family do set him apart (Mr. Blair’s father and mother were born poor).
Mr. Cameron has tried, but not too hard, to appear middle class. More significantly, he has tried to reform a party still mired at local level in old establishment practices – telling the BBC this week that he “had had to change the way we select and promote women”, adding: “I have given the party a big shock on this issue.”
Yet in an age where, as Sampson noted in his last book, “the masters of the media are the new aristocracy” -- and these new aristocrats demand ever greater displays of “personality” -- the narrowness of Mr. Cameron’s social base may haunt him, the more so as the country struggles with low growth and high unemployment. It is nearly half a century since an Eton- and Oxford-educated aristocrat -- Sir Alec Douglas-Home -- was (briefly) prime minister: progressive opinion saw him as an insupportable throwback. In considerable part, Mr. Cameron is bone of Sir Alec’s establishment bone; we may soon live to see how far that can give him strength, leech away his authority in mutual incomprehension -- or be irrelevant.
The writer is an FT columnist.
(Source: Financial Times)