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.’

It is useful to have this glossary set out as our sedentary introduction to the busy legwork which sustains the rest of Friends in High Places. As an updated handbook on the Establishment. Paxman’s exercise in the higher journalism has distinguished predecessors. As he paced the corridors of power in Whitehall, as he tripped up the steps of the clubs in Pall Mall, as he strolled through the quadrangles of Oxford and the courts of Cambridge, as he processed through the cloisters of Canterbury and York, as he marched across Horse Guards Parade and trod the gilded pavements of the City, he must often have glimpsed the footprints of Anthony Sampson, who blazed this trail nearly thirty years ago for his Anatomy of Britain and subsequently retraced his steps more than once. Measured by the Sampson standard, which is a severe one, Paxman’s investigations appear more perfunctory and subjective: but Friends in High Places is bursting with interesting information, briskly and brightly conveyed. Although the skills of a television journalist and those of an author may not be identical, there is a lot to be said for economical exposition in any format and many of the direct quotations from interviews sink home with the incisiveness of sound-bites. Some of this may be little more than off-the-record background bitching, but a number of splendidly tactless remarks are explicitly attributed.

There is a particularly revealing section on the social frisson provoked by the intrusion of arriviste Thatcherism. Peter Jay, with his impeccable pedigree in the aristocracy of Labour, appointed by his father-in-law to the Washington Embassy in the era that closed in 1979, speaks with peerless assurance about the lower middle class who were subsequently to supplant him and his kind. ‘We felt nothing but hostility for them. We thought they were silly and selfish, with narrow, primitive, semi-educated attitudes. We grew up viewing them with contempt.’ Here was the recruiting ground for the shock-troops of Thatcherism. Tim Bell, an advertising man who came up in this elevator, had rejected higher education because ‘the students were all blokes in duffel coats, listening to trad jazz and being irritating.’ It was a decision he never regretted. ‘The universities sidelined themselves, with their totally archaic way of working,’ he tells Paxman. ‘They spend a lot of time teaching useless subjects. They operate a ridiculous, old-fashioned élitist society.’ Hence his sympathetic appreciation of Mrs Thatcher’s view that ‘all the problems of Britain were the direct consequence of two things. One was socialism; the other was the Tory Grandees.’ Sir John Hoskyns, another insider, supplies a thumbnail sketch of the circle around the new prime minister.

They are characterised by low boredom thresholds and an inability to work for other people. They’re impossible, unattractive people. The basic premise is that they think they know better than anyone else. They aren’t team players.

This surely points to a crucial explanation of their failure to emerge as a convincing Disestablishment.

Paxman has little trouble in showing us how much of the old country has survived intact. In a chapter called ‘Etonians and Estonians’, the home team emerge as comfortable winners. Julian Critchley, that eloquent chronicler of a ‘peasants’ revolt’ among Conservative MPs during his own career, is brought on to recite his party piece about how he was reprimanded in the late Fifties for wearing suede shoes in the division lobby. The punchline is: ‘Today we are all wearing suede shoes.’ Yet if 35 per cent of Tory MPs in the Parliament elected in 1951 had a background in business, by 1987 the proportion had only risen to 37 per cent. Paxman finds that ‘the public schools account for seven out of nine of the Army’s top generals, two-thirds of the external directors of the Bank of England, 33 of the 39 top judges, all the ambassadors in the 15 most important overseas missions, 78 of the Queen’s 84 lord lieutenants and the majority of the bishops in the Church of England.’

Admittedly, it becomes rather difficult to sustain the sense of breathtaking shock which such revelations occasion. The judiciary turns out to be ‘almost entirely made up of upper-middle class, late middle-aged, white men.’ Not only women but blacks and Asians are ‘notable by their absence’. So the legal profession, it seems, ‘is not the multi-racial, equal opportunity society in which the rest of Britain is living’. But when the rest of Britain is in turn investigated, the picture of the top echelon is just as black (or non-black). In 1988 the eight hundred members of the Administrative group in the Foreign Office were over 90 per cent male; they ‘included one black person’, and also one candidate who had been accepted from a polytechnic. How about the Household Division of the Brigade of Guards? ‘During the 1989 Trooping of the Colour, four of the five company commanders were Etonians,’ Paxman tells us. ‘There was not one black or Asian face to be seen on the entire parade ground.’ To cap it all, ‘there are no women, or any black or Asian faces, for that matter’ around the Sheraton table at which the Court of the Bank of England sits.

Whatever did Paxman seriously expect to find in such places, each one of them a byword for exclusivity? It is easy to send up observations like these, which surely only a Martian could repeat quite so often while keeping a straight face. Yet, if only as a Martian perspective, there is a serious point to be made – or rather several distinct points. If they are distinguished, they cannot so easily be rolled away with the kind of dismissive worldly cynicism which apologists for the status quo so effectively exude. It is unrealistic to apply a yardstick of utopian egalitarianism to institutions which are of their nature élitist. It is more pertinent to ask how these particular élites have been recruited, given the available reservoir of qualified talent, and whether there have been significant changes in recent years. The immediate questions here, in short, are not those of Marx about the putative overthrow of all élites but those of Pareto about the circulation of élites. At any rate, if this is an inquiry about whether the Establishment as we have known it has now capitulated to the impact of Thatcherism, the question ought to be restricted in this way.

What we are seeing is a version of one of the most familiar kinds of historical conflict: between the old money and the new. ‘Even the bold, thrusting entrepreneurs who have become such folk heroes have failed to cast aside old money’ is how Paxman puts it: ‘of the 200 richest people in Britain, 35 were educated at a single school, Eton. Reports of the death of the class system have been greatly exaggerated.’ His source for this statement is the famous Sunday Times survey, now usefully published as The Sunday Times Book of the Rich. It lists the 400 richest people in Britain, so far as this can be established from painstaking research into records on shareholding, landholding and the ownership of other assets. This fascinating volume starts with the Billionaires, works through the Super Rich (more than £100 million), mops up the Very Rich (more than £50 million), and finishes with your ordinary, small-time, neighbourhood Millionaires (more than £20 million). What is the score now? Well, there are 13 dukes here out of 24, with the list headed by the Duke of Westminster. (‘It always is,’ as Noel Coward almost put it.) The present Duke clocks in at £4200 million – not bad for a lad who left Harrow with two 0-Levels. There are ten other Harrovians in the list, compared with 78 Etonians. ‘By a curious trick of statistics,’ the editors conclude, ‘the balance in the top 200 is an almost equal one between establishment and self-made money: 102 Old Rich play 98 New Rich.’

But it is well to remember that the Old Rich team, as one would expect, has a more stable composition, being recruited through heredity, historically consolidated, above all, in land. Just over a quarter of the 400 richest people are aristocrats, and they are worth £23.3 billion, of which £21.8 billion was inherited. Among the New Rich, there is lot more jostling for places in the team and its composition is much more provisional. Asil Nadir, who built up Polly Peck, has a page to himself with assets listed at £213 million. From what I can gather, he probably won’t make the next edition of the book. The next but one perhaps? Great fortunes still proliferating in the dynamic process of wealth creation thus have an instability which can be seen as the economic counterpart to the social anomie which has already been observed as a Thatcherite house-style.

The Establishment has been defined as an informal network – but one surely parasitic on institutions with a tradition of collegiality. Such as colleges. ‘The common rooms of Britain’s universities were the repository for the values of the Establishment,’ writes Paxman, though he seems unsure what to make of this now. He has a chapter for which the snide title ‘Money by Degrees’ was evidently substituted in place of a coy one (‘And is there money still for tea?’) while the book was in proof. This sets the tone, especially in seeking to disparage the prestige of Oxford and Cambridge as essentially meretricious – ‘(universities like Manchester are more sought-after)’ – so it is not clear whether the alleged supremacy or the alleged supersession of the ancient universities is the problem. Now no one supposes that England is run from All Souls, but the fact is that it retains a corporate presence more significant than the disaggregated impact of even its most individualistic current fellows. Another institution which similarly used to be classed as part of the Establishment is, of course, the BBC. Yet when John Birt arrived there as deputy Director-General in 1987 he went on record with the view that he found it ‘crudely, thoughtlessly anti-Establishment’. To populist Thatcherites, the BBC reflects their conception of an Establishment, which they nightly resent. Like the universities, the BBC has an institutional existence and a corporate style which is readily identifiable whether or not we continue to entertain the supposition that it is powerful and influential.

Talk about an Establishment was never a rigorous discourse but a gut reaction, imputing power and influence to this sort of collegiality – which, insofar as it survives now, does so chiefly as a historical residue. Power is located elsewhere, as Paxman affirms by pointing to the undeniable prominence of ‘a temporary élite of sorts’, loosely allied with Thatcherism. Loosely allied, however, rather than cosily integrated: and this because so many of them remain self-consciously self-made, self-sufficient and self-satisfied, incorrigible loners by temperament and in outlook. If this cultural pattern is common, it makes the failure of the Disestablishment almost a matter of definition. We all know the reason why treason doth never prosper; perhaps the Disestablishment would only prosper through capitulating to the old Establishment code of clubbability – a nemesis it has so far avoided. What about their children, though? The privileged education that only money can buy – old money, new money, no one minds the colour of your money – has historically formed the road to social assimilation in the second generation. In thirty years’ time, when Son of Paxman or Grandson of Sampson is in preparation, will it have a place for today’s new rich who are tomorrow’s old money – for chaps with public school and Oxbridge behind them who now make apppointments for off-the-record background interviews? Your club or mine?