Whoever wins the election, the terms of national discussion will still be set by what people euphemistically call The Establishment – so it’s a good idea to have a sense of who really belongs to it and what they believe in.
A recent, much-promoted book by the young, much-promoted Guardian columnist Owen Jones offered British readers an analysis of “The Establishment” that was equal parts fantasy, ignorance and ideologically-motivated dishonesty.
It took no note of the way power in the UK long ago shifted away from landowning peers, bowler-wearing toffs and other targets of early 1960s satire and into the hands of a new establishment increasingly dominated by a metropolitan bourgeoisie whose attitudes and aspirations are not in the least deferential to the old upper classes and their way of life.
It certainly did not admit the remarkable cultural power of the marketing and branding world, the growing media hegemony of the BBC, the increased influence of lawyers, and the wealth that now accrues to the people at the top of all three sectors.
It ought to be obvious that if the Establishment really did resemble Jones’ time-warped cartoon, then foxhunting, that favourite pastime of the rural wing of the old ruling elite, would not have been made illegal. The armed forces would not have been shrunk by three quarters in as many decades, with ancient regiments going to the wall. Oxbridge colleges would probably be actively recruiting rather than overtly discriminating against candidates from public schools. The City would still be a cosy little world dominated by British companies exploiting regulation to keep out global competitors
In any case if you really want to know who belongs to the real Establishment of today, and what that Establishment believes in and cares about, it’s pretty easy to find out, and without resorting to conspiracy theories involving Friedrich von Hayek, the House of Lords, the IMF and various Masters of Foxhounds.
All you have to do is identify those individuals whom our System rewards with sinecures and other unelected official positions that bring with them prestige, power and money.
Many of those positions are to be found in “ Quangos” (quasi-autonomous-non-governmental organizations), those 900-odd uniquely British, peculiar institutions that might have been designed to keep influence in the hands of the Right People.
Quangos cost the taxpayer some £170 billion per year, employ almost a million people, and exercise vast power without democratic accountability. The few thousand people who run the “Quangocracy” are almost the very definition of an Establishment. Especially given the fact that once you’ve been appointed to a Quango, you’ve basically made it into the magic circle, and you’re in forever. Moreover, so long as you don’t break with Establishment mores or bien-pensant political codes, further boons in the form of more board memberships and leadership positions (some of them high-paying and influential) are likely to come your way .
But there is another kind of Establishment position that is even more Establishment than the leadership of the top Quangos, namely being appointed overseer of an Oxbridge College.
The symbolic import of being made Master, Rector or Principal of an Oxford or Cambridge College is tremendous.
Not only are College Heads by definition Establishment Grandees, they run distinguished institutions whose very purpose is to inform and shape future members of the Establishment. And because those institutions were Establishment Bastions long before Quangos came into being, the prestige they offer, especially for Establishment folk nearing retirement age, is unparalleled.
Accordingly, if you want to see how power has shifted from one class to another, or rather away from certain professions, communities, fields of economic and cultural activity and into new and different ones, just take a look at some prominent recent appointments from outside academia.
Fairly typical of this was the elevation of Will Hutton, now Principal of Hertford College, Oxford. Hutton is a well-known former newspaper editor, journalist and Labour party grandee. His articles and books (especially “The State We’re In”) and advocacy of socialist/anti-free market policies made him so influential in the party at a certain point that some called him the “Godfather of New Labour.”
Then there is Helena Kennedy (Baroness Kennedy to you), Principal of Mansfield College. This radical QC personifies the upper reaches of the New Establishment in many ways. Not only do her Quango appointments and memberships outnumber even those of Suzi Leather, she’s been a Booker Prize judge, Chair of the British Council, President of SOAS, Chair of the Human Genetics Commission, Commissioner of the National Commission for Education, and for years has been one of the BBC’s preferred interviewees on almost any subject of public interest.
Both are bound to have a long-standing relationship with the incoming Master of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, Alan Rusbridger. The current editor-in-chief of the Guardian, Rusbridger is already a visiting Fellow of Nuffield, Oxford, a visiting Professor of History at Queen Mary University, London and was for some years Chair of the National Youth Orchestra. Now, apparently exhausted by his efforts to destroy the Murdoch empire and (more successfully) to disseminate worldwide the Western intelligence secrets stolen by the American cyber-traitor Edward Snowden, he wishes to take up a more relaxed post appropriate to his station in life.
All of them are likely to be on familiar terms with Mark Damazer, the recently appointed Master of St Peter’s College. Damazer is the former controller of BBC News, where despite (or because of) his own impressive educational career (a first in History at Caius, Harkness Fellowship to Harvard etc) he was said to have tried to dumb-down and “yoof”-up public broadcasting.
Damazer will find that the dons of St Peters are habituated to the notion of a media figure being given a top academic job thanks to the presence in the University of Tim Gardam, formerly of the BBC, Channel 4 and then the board of OfCom, who was appointed Principal of St Anne’s College in 2004.
At Cambridge, there are fewer metropolitan media figures in positions of power, but those who have been appointed to head colleges tend to come from the same background and to share the same limited range of political opinions. They include Dame Patricia Hodgson, Principal of Newnham College from 2004 to 2014, who was a BBC producer, presenter and executive before joining the BBC Trust and other quangos, and . Jackie Ashley, formerly of the Guardian, the BBC and New Statesman, who will be President of Lucy Cavendish College beginning in October.
Of course, there is an argument that it might not be a bad thing for the universities to bring in celebrities and media folk to dilute the academic fustiness of their leadership and to inject some worldliness, ruthlessness and money-hunger into their culture.
The problem is that the powerful, well-connected media folk who are given these positions invariably come in the same ideological colours and tend to move in the same North London circles.
The equivalent figures from the centre-right just don’t get offered college masterships, no matter how distinguished they are. It is not as if there are no former newspaper editors as qualified as Rusbridger – but of different ideological persuasion — who ought to be in the running. However, if you’re, say, Charles Moore, Max Hastings, Dominic Lawson or even Sir Geoffrey Owen, who left media to become a distinguished academic, it’s simply not going to happen.
That is because the Sinecural Apparatus really only works for the truly Salonfähig – the people whom the New Establishment considers ideologically as well as socially acceptable. Which means that Owen Jones, author of The Establishment and putative Outsider is more likely to find himself on various important public commissions and then eventually heading an Oxbridge College than just about any Old Etonian, foxhunting man, or member of Whites Club that you can think of.
(1) Take for example Dame Suzi Leather, sometimes nicknamed “the Quango Queen” who has enjoyed a sparkling career based on having the right connections and the right opinions. Her first Quango position was deputy chairmanship of the Food Standards Agency.
She then became Chair of the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (apart from her degree in Politics, her only apparent qualification for this post seems to have been membership in was what passes for a good reputation among the Great and the Good) and was simultaneously head of the School Foods Trust. She gave up both positions to run the Charities Commission (where she was paid just under £105,000 pa for a three day week). Subsequent appointment include chairing the Exeter and District Community NHS Trust and board membership of the General Medical Council).