Centre Write
Thursday, 13 April 2017 12:00

Philip Collins: Establishment in transition

The term ‘the Establishment’ is sometimes attributed, probably apocryphally, to the radical historian AJP Taylor. In a review in 1953 of a biography of William Cobbett in The New Statesman, Taylor wrote that “the Establishment draws in recruits from outside as soon as they are ready to conform to its standards and become respectable. There is nothing more agreeable in life than to make peace with the Establishment — and nothing more corrupting”.

It’s a typically pithy thought, and it sounds like a maxim for our times. Britain has left the European Union, against the advice of every expert body that said anything; and the United States has elected Donald Trump over the next Clinton in line to be its next President. This seems like the age in which the people revolt against the established rulers. Sometimes those rulers are disparaged as the “Establishment”, and sometimes they are the ‘liberal elite’. But however they are defined and whoever is a member, this is a club that nobody now wants to join.

The hostility, though, is stupid. All representative democracies are governed by elites. They are bound to be so as there can only be one Cabinet. The institutions of the state and the organs of power in the media only have so many jobs available. Whoever occupies those positions are bound to be few in number and they are bound to be an elite. That is not an interesting political point: It is just arithmetic. On the philosophical accusation that this elite is allegedly ‘liberal’, the first retort is to say that it often isn’t but, second, if it is then so much the better. The death of Fidel Castro is all the reminder we need of what happens when a country is run instead by an illiberal elite.

The more important question is not therefore whether Britain is governed by an elite, but whether that elite is subject to change. Here is the deep stupidity hidden in AJP Taylor’s mock radical formula. The idea of “the Establishment” implies an unchanging body of people (or families, perhaps, to give it some dynamism over time), who run the country in defiance of the wishes of the population. Or perhaps, in the more generous version, with just enough deference to the people that they get away with it. As soon as you start to define the idea like this it yields up its nonsense.

The Establishment is subject to change in two ways. The first is democratic and this works well. One lot gets thrown out with ruthless efficiency. This happens even within parties, let alone between parties. The Blair people were kicked out when Brown took over. Theresa May has got rid of most of the ardent supporters of David Cameron. But of course the same thing happens at General Elections. The dismissal of a Labour government and the election of a Tory government brought to power a new political generation. Of course the top people in the courts and the press stayed the same, but so they should. Democracies do not alter their judiciary and their journalism according to the government of the day.

The non-political ‘Establishment’ is, in any case, subject to the second force for change. An elite is a concern if it is closed. If entry is open and meritocratic then we need not worry about the inevitable fact that it does not comprise many people. This is something worth being concerned about. The passage into the professions is nothing like as open and meritocratic as it needs to be. The Social Mobility Commission’s latest state of the nation report makes that point plain. This is the essential point about the ‘establishment’ - although it must be said that social mobility is not well measured by the numbers of working class people who make it into an elite clustered around a few London professions. This would be entirely the wrong obsession. The first priority for social mobility must be a relevant educational offer to the half of the population that does not go to university.

If we fixed that (and there is no indication that we are about to) then we can stop using the defunct category of ‘the Establishment’. AJP Taylor should have known better. He didn’t, after all, have to look far for an example. William Cobbett was a radical outsider all his life. He was vocal in the campaigns for Catholic Emancipation, the 1832 Reform Act and the abolition of the Corn Laws. He was a pamphleteer, a newspaper editor and a polemicist who cultivated a reputation for being a scourge of established authority. He spent time in prison and was often prosecuted for libel. It is worth remembering that Cobbett began his career as a soldier and in 1832 became the MP for Oldham. He found a way in and it matters that he could.

Philip Collins is a columnist and chief leader writer for The Times. This is an article from Bright Blue’s magazine The End of the Establishment? 

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