Who ruins Britain?

Peter Clarke

  • Friends in High Places: Who runs Britain? by Jeremy Paxman
    Joseph, 370 pp, £16.99, September 1990, ISBN 0 7181 3154 1
  • The Sunday Times Book of the Rich by Philip Beresford
    Weidenfeld, 336 pp, £18.95, October 1990, ISBN 0 297 81115 0

As the subtitle indicates, as the author tells us on the first page, and as he reminds us in the last chapter, ‘a simple question’ states the theme and explains the origin of Jeremy Paxman’s book: Who runs Britain? There are fitful efforts to generate a sense of mystery about the answer. Thus at the outset ‘the only serious answer’ is mooted in terms which invite suspicion that we might be in for a counter-intuitive disclosure later: ‘Exaggerated though her influence might be, the hand of Britain’s first female prime minister was seen behind everything from the management of industry to the appointment of professors.’ This turns out, however, to be a double-bluff, setting up the Iron Lady as a straw woman, only to have her high ferric valency confirmed by analysis. No whodunit, this book belongs in another popular genre which has taken up an awful lot of shelf-space in recent years – the shedunit. Margaret Thatcher’s paramountcy remains ‘the only plausible answer’ after more than three hundred pages which have tracked the experience of the Eighties. ‘Scarcely any of the great institutions remained untouched by Thatcherism in its various manifestations, and when even museums and opera houses are talking the language of the marketplace, there can be no doubting the depth of its influence.’ Paxman’s theme is how this irresistible force met a hitherto immovable object – the Establishment – and succeeded in denting it without, however, permanently replacing it.

The term ‘Establishment’, in its secular modern sense, seems to have originated with A.J.P. Taylor in 1953. He stretched its provenance from the Established Church to cover the governing classes in general. What Henry Fairlie did two years later in a famous article in the Spectator was to gloss the term as identifying a particular sort of informal power network, which included not only the Prime Minister, of course, but also ‘such lesser mortals as the Chairman of the Arts Council, the Director-General of the BBC, and even the Editor of the Times Literary Supplement’. It should be remembered that this was written well before the London Review of Books was founded (not to say established) which is one reason why this particular map looks like a period piece. Another, more recent reason is, of course, Jeremy Treglown’s abrupt ‘resignation’ from the editorship of the TLS. Fairlie’s is a sort of late-imperial Mercator’s projection, with lots of disproportionately prominent bits duly coloured red, though they are now only distantly recognisable under outmoded names, for which it is sometimes difficult to supply the contemporary equivalent.

Fairlie’s attitude towards a concept with which his name was henceforth indissolubly linked was one of petulant possessiveness. He quickly came to regard the widespread plagiarism of the phrase, in which his own light fingers had played such an exemplary part, as ‘a pity’, and thought that there was ‘much to be said for the view that it should have been left to ferment in the more obscure vats of A.J.P. Taylor’s writings.’ Instead, trading on our national fondness for snobbery and conspiracy, it became the indispensable shorthand for everything that was wrong about the old country over which old man Macmillan presided, surrounded by his old friends, who were usually old Etonians, leavened only by his younger aristocratic relations. Not until 1988 was the contrapuntal term of art introduced by John Lloyd. ‘Britain is no longer run by an Establishment,’ he wrote in the Financial Times. ‘In its place is a Disestablishment comprising men and women whose values, assumptions and habits are those of outsiders.’

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