Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Toby Young and the Modern Establishment

The idea of the establishment arguably has a more concrete reality than the establishment itself. This is not just because the latter is fuzzy around the edges, but because the former is such a useful line of attack that no one bats an eyelid when an Oxbridge-educated newspaper columnist berates the "liberal establishment" for undermining Brexit. This might lead you to think that the establishment has fundamentally changed over the last half-century, or perhaps that it has fragmented into multiple establishments. Certainly many of the recent studies on the subject have tended towards one or the other view, either documenting a comprehensive neoliberal takeover of conservative institutions since the 1980s or a fragmentation under pressure from globalisation into a set of competing, often supranational elites. In that light, the official report into the aborted appointment of Toby Young to the Office for Students is almost reassuringly old-fashioned in the picture it paints. It is a Hogarthian scene that combines the promotion through political patronage of the unqualified but well-connected with the blackballing of the qualified but politically unsound.

The origin of the term is usually attributed to the British journalist Henry Fairlie, writing in 1955: "By the Establishment, I do not only mean the centres of official power—though they are certainly part of it—but rather the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised. The exercise of power in the United Kingdom (more specifically, in England) cannot be understood unless it is recognized that it is exercised socially". The seminal work on the subject was Anthony Sampson's 1962 Anatomy of Britain, the popular success of which ensured that the topic would be dominated by the "wot I fink" school of long-form journalism rather than by academic sociology, hence recent years have seen chunky books from the likes of Andrew Adonis & Steven Pollard, Jeremy Paxman and Owen Jones. Aeron Davis is the latest addition to the pile, though as a professor of political communications at Goldsmith's College you'd hope for something beyond either nostalgia or polemic. The summary of his thinking that appeared in The Guardian this week doesn't bode well.

While it's unlikely that Fairlie's idea of a matrix of social relations was inspired by Antonio Gramsci's theory of hegemony, which had come to prominence in Italy with the first publication of his Prison Notebooks in 1947, both were symptomatic of a postwar interest in society as a dynamic system in which progressive and conservative elements struggled culturally as much as socially (the war of position, in Gramsci's terminology). This was in contrast to the more straightforward and violent conflict of the prewar years centred on class and national identity (the war of manoeuvre). The context for this shift was the geopolitical stability of the Cold War in Europe and the broad acceptance on the left (most notably by Italy's Communist Party) of a parliamentary road to socialism. Understanding the component parts of society beyond simple class structures became a political necessity. In the UK, the eager misunderstanding of Michael Young's satirical "meritocracy" (and in particular the way that welfare state sinecures were monopolised by the old establishment), together with the uncertainty of Britain's post-Suez trajectory, raised the question of whether the country's governance was any longer fit for purpose.

Davis's approach appears to be firmly in the tradition of Sampson, with a reliance on individual interviews and thus a bias towards the anecdotal. I've not read the book, so the summary may be obscuring a solid foundation of empirical research in order to sex-up the narrative, but the fact that interviews are relied on is not encouraging. While the technique can make sense in a sociological study, where the subjects are usually accessible and other evidence scant, the establishment is surely more suited to a historical approach, given the ample documentary evidence of its doings and the likely inaccessibility of some of its contemporary figures (and that the more accessible ones will be skilled self-promoters). Being able to check facts and interpretations face-to-face is merely a bonus. Davis reports that over 20 years he has interviewed "more than 350 people working in or close to the top". This is not just leisurely in its pace, calling into question how accurate a picture can be formed given the degree of change over two decades, but is vague about the selection criteria. The Molesworth-like "top" and the impression of a series of informal "chats" is close to a parody of establishment values and practice.

The problem at the heart of the study of the British establishment is the model established by Sampson: "In my first Anatomy in 1962 I tried to depict Britain's Establishment as a set of intersecting circles of varying size - each representing a different institution - loosely linked to each other round an empty space in the middle. It was in the nature of Britain's democracy that there was no single dominating centre, and much of the power depended on fixers and go-betweens to connect one circle with another". This Whiggish ideal of collaborating interests placed too much influence on the institutional basis of the separate circles, hence the Church of England could still be considered part of the establishment in the 1960s despite its marginalisation in the postwar years by the welfare state. It also suggested a balance of powers that was negotiated through informal transactions, which fed the popular appetite for occult networks and deep-state conspiracies: that "they" were working against "us". The reality was more mundane: groupthink and mutual back-scratching. The omission in the model - that empty space in the middle - was the hegemon that guaranteed the balance of powers.

The journalistic imagination doesn't have much interest in the structural relationships of institutions (e.g. how the NHS affected organised religion), or the way that institutions evolve (e.g. the professionalisation of politics). It sees institutions as fixed features and individuals as opportunists who seek to exploit them through unmerited occupancy or abuse of power, a prejudice that has been reinforced by Public Choice Theory. To give a current example, foreign aid charities like Oxfam are facing secular decline for a number of economic and geopolitical reasons, but this is being obscured by lurid tales of individual wrong-doing. There is a hint of this (and of the fragmentation theory) in the title of Davis's book, Reckless Opportunists: Elites at the End of the Establishment. The cause of this decline is held to be the triumph of neoliberal self-interest, which has led elites to disown responsibility for any wider coordination and thus the maintenance of the establishment as a normative field. In other words, Davis considers the establishment to have been historically specific to the social democratic era, which echoes Fairlie's conservative spin on a Polanyian double movement: "Men of power need to be checked by a collective opinion which is stable and which they cannot override: public opinion needs its counter; new opinion must be tested. These the Establishment provides: the check, the counter and the test".

Davis sees two key manifestations of the waning of the establishment: "a shift in elite power from the public sector to the private sector" and the breaking of "the automatic links between exclusive education, tradition, status, power and money". Both are questionable. The first is an example of swallowing the Thatcherite myth of a reduced state and a flowering of entrepreneurialism at the expense of anti-commercial institutions. Measured as a share of GDP, the state has not shrunk: large swathes of public goods and services have instead been handed over to private businesses that now rely on tax revenues and thus political influence. Carillion is an obvious recent example. Likewise, the marketisation of institutions has not reduced their social influence. University vice-chancellors may be more venal, but they are no less powerful. As to the conveyor-belt of privilege, Davis cites in evidence CEOs, despite these being unrepresentative of the wider establishment due to greater internationalisation in recent decades and the preponderance of the self-made: "Only a third of those I interviewed – 20 CEOS of FTSE 100 companies, and 10 CEOs from the top 100 private companies – came from a wealthy, upper-class background or had attended a public school". To understand the establishment you would do better to look at the educational background of CFOs and corporate lawyers.

It would also be worth asking how many of those 30 CEOs were paying for their own children to be privately educated. I suspect more than a third. One of the chief roles played by public schools is the laundering of nouveau riche and foreign offspring. While fans talk up public schools as astute operators in a global marketplace, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that they remain dependent on the native rich who still expect social preferment as well as a polished education for their money. As an illustration of changing times, Davis tells of the culture clash between the plebeian Gerry Robinson and Sir Rocco Forte in the 1995 Granada Group takeover of Trusthouse Forte, forgetting that while the latter may have been a Tory donor who liked shooting grouse, he was also the son of an initially poor Italian immigrant to Scotland. The focus on CEOs is indicative of the increased identification of the establishment in the era of globalisation with the City of London and the stateless corporate class embodied by "Davos man", but this tendency confuses the commercial elite, which of necessity has always been global, with the state elite, which of necessity has always been national. While the two intersect, their interests and modalities are distinct. The danger with this focus on business is that the actual establishment, which is always centred on political and state apparatus elites, moves out of focus.

Davis suggests that the growing power of the money-men has "left the various parts of the current establishment more disparate and more antagonistic towards each other", citing Margaret Beckett on her experience of a meeting in the early-90s: "it was almost like the bride’s side and groom’s side – the people from the financial world, and the people from the industrial world, and they almost weren’t talking to each other". As any history of British industry or the City would reveal, this antipathy and mutual mistrust dates back to the middle of the nineteenth century at least. There is little new here. More significantly, this anecdote occludes the other key interest in the room: the political establishment represented by Beckett herself. The supposedly empty space at the centre of Sampson's model has always been occupied by politics. The changing cast of characters doesn't make it any less of a consistent interest. The surrounding circles were, in Sampson's benign interpretation from 2004 "a network of liberal-minded people who could counteract the excesses of autocratic and short-sighted governments". The timing of those words is obviously telling, but it also highlights the weakness of the peripheral establishment, much of which was complicit in the Iraq misadventure. The core political interest remains the hegemon, all too easily able to overcome Fairlie's checks and counters.

My own view (wot I fink) is that the wider establishment was never as substantial or coherent as Sampson and his imitators thought, being more protean in its membership and having a much more uneven distribution of effective influence. That said, I also doubt that the establishment has changed as much as more recent writers like Jones and Davis imagine. A focus on "banksters" risks being ahistorical (fraud and greed are not new), while a focus on ruthless CEOs risks casting the net so wide as to simply equate the establishment with capitalism, collapsing superstructure and base. Neoliberalism has certainly had a dramatic effect, but that is to be seen mainly in the changing attitudes of the hegemon at the centre of what is better described as a set of concentric circles that reflect access to public money rather than inter-personal networks. Politicians at the core, then the state apparatus, then the para-state of contractors and mediators, then the wider circle of business. Some of those circles have expanded or contracted over time, but the core remains constant. Institutions do not always map to a single circle in this schematic and can move between them. The City of London, for example, owes its power to cutting across all four, while higher education is transitioning from the para-state to business.

Much of the rhetorical use of the establishment as a term concerns competition and readjustment between these circles, thus "the liberal establishment" reflects the relative triumph of the para-state over the state apparatus since the 80s, while the increased use of "the political establishment" reflects not only the perceived congruence of interests of the major parties (at least up until 2015) but also the expansion of political appointments to policy areas previously controlled by the Civil Service (the OfS is a case in point). Insofar as we can talk of a decline in the "old" establishment, it is to be found not in the reduced circumstances of the Royal Navy or the Church of England but in the weakened influence of Whitehall as an institution, a development that started well before the appearance of Yes, Minister on our TV screens. Ironically, this was as much down to pull as push, as much of the government machine's senior talent was willingly siphoned off to Brussels. Brexit is unlikely to reverse this decline: the Tories will continue to favour the para-state (they'll outsource the Irish border to Serco) while Labour will probably expand the political core (having read the warnings in Tony Benn's diaries).

Looked at in the round, the establishment is essentially those individuals and groups that enjoy political influence (derived from their economic position) beyond any democratic justification. It currently includes newspaper proprietors and the military, but not trade union leaders or the National Trust. Because it relies on personal networks and loyalties, influence is "sticky", so it tends to dissipate at a slower rate than economic power. This explains why early studies of the establishment, which caught social formations under pressure from the social democratic dispensation, gave too much weight to tradition and the old school tie. There is some evidence that co-option and rejection by the establishment now happens more quickly than in the past, but this probably just reflects the greater social dynamism of late capitalism (or the postmodern condition, if you prefer). In that respect, Toby Young is again an object lesson: a man who has been repeatedly expelled but whose success in gaining readmittance reflects less on his charm than on the growth of the circle of the para-state and its insatiable demand for useful idiots.

1 comment:

  1. Herbie Kills Children28 February 2018 at 19:55

    The establishment is a process that goes way beyond politics I think. I am almost tempted to say the political establishment is merely a front for the real establishment. The political sphere seems to act as a buffer to protect the real lords and masters.

    The establishment, like distribution, springs from the very logic and organisation of production. The rest is an illusion.