The Spectator political commentator Henry Fairlie, in his column of 23 September 1955, famously identified the Establishment as the mechanism through which power was exercised in this country. His analysis, though at once recognised as authentic, was written as the British Establishment was about to collapse. Today it enjoys some residual notoriety (manifest through former ruling-class institutions such as White’s Club) but no political significance.
Though the eclipse of the Establishment is well-documented, the Political Class which replaced it is so far poorly understood. This is regrettable because the Political Class has come to occupy the same public space that the Establishment was supposed to until the end of the 20th century. This new class now stands at the pinnacle of the British social and economic structure. It sets social conventions, and demarcates the boundaries against which both public and private behaviour are defined. Unlike the old Establishment, the Political Class depends directly or indirectly on the state for its special privileges, career structure and increasingly for its financial support. This visceral connection distinguishes it from all previous British governing elites, which were connected much more closely to civil society and were frequently hostile or indifferent to central government. Until recent times members of British ruling elites owed their status to the position they occupied outside Westminster. Today, in an important reversal, it is the position they occupy in Westminster that grants them their status in civil society.
The Political Class is distinguished from earlier governing elites by a lack of experience of and connection with other ways of life. Its members make government their exclusive study. This means they tend not to have significant knowledge of industry, commerce, or civil society, meaning their outlook is often metropolitan and London-based. This converts them into a separate, privileged elite, isolated from the aspirations and the problems of provincial, rural and suburban Britain.
Before the emergence of the Political Class, the conventional mode of leadership was based on a vestigial idea of gentlemanly conduct. The style had been laid down by the Duke of Wellington in the early 19th century, both as a leader of men on the battlefield and later as Prime Minister and national icon. It was based on understatement, sobriety both in personal conduct and in speech, self-sacrifice, restraint. Wellington eschewed displays of private emotion, downplayed his personal achievements, and showed a studied indifference to public opinion.
This sub-fusc personal style was consciously or unconsciously copied by successors who would often deprecate their own work and were clear about the dividing lines between public and private life. Margaret Thatcher, in certain of her leadership techniques, such as the use of methods and personnel drawn from commercial advertising, marked a turning-point. Her successor John Major attempted to revert to an earlier style, and was not successful. Tony Blair, however, exchanged this old school of leadership for a Political Class methodology which favoured display, self-promotion, knowingness and ostentation. In effect we are seeing a reversion to a pre-modern mode of leadership where the life of the ruler, often down to the most intimate details, is lived out in full view of his subjects.
Interviews with Establishment politicians and others dating back to the 1960s and before often seem droll. This is because they are using ordinary methods of serious conversation, with all the eccentricity and quirkiness that involves. The Political Class, however, has deliberately cast aside this homeliness of language.
It has now evolved two novel methods of communication, both of which estrange its members from the voters they are supposed to represent. The first is the kind of language used when they talk among themselves. This has become arcane, always self-referential, often concerned with the techniques of voter manipulation and relying on the anti-democratic assumption that there are matters which ordinary people are either incapable of understanding, or which it would be too dangerous for them to know.
The language used by modern political leaders when they talk direct to the voters is, however, even less transparent. The emergence of the Political Class has coincided with the use of short but artfully constructed sentences which create in the mind of the hearer the impression of being easy to understand, but which are designed to mislead. These so-called soundbites have become one of the most effective weapons in the hands of the Political Class, used unsparingly by the Tories and Labour alike.
The British Establishment is supposed to have been notoriously prescriptive in matters of dress. However, the sumptuary laws of the Political Class are no more relaxed, and in certain intriguing respects even more formal, than the conventions formerly observed by members of the Establishment. Our political leaders continue to wear suits (and women members of the Political Class almost universally wear the same workplace uniform as high-level business executives). Furthermore, they are notably more smartly turned out than the pre-Political Class generation of leaders. It is only necessary to compare Gordon Brown to Harold Wilson, or David Cameron to Edward Heath, to see that party leaders in the era of the Political Class take far more trouble about personal appearance than the earlier generation. This point becomes clearer still when one examines casual dress. The Political Class, even when not at work, finds it hard to relinquish official sartorial codes.
But note this: Gordon Brown has normally chosen to wear a dark suits when receiving visitors at home over the weekend or even relaxing in front of the TV in the evenings, but he is notorious for not dressing up in formal clothing for great public events such as the Mansion House speech. Here Brown is displaying the duality that lies at the heart of the Political Class method of expressive public behaviour. On the one hand it is in rebellion against established customs, traditions and modes of social control which challenge its own dominance. On the other hand, by adopting its own very severe dress code, it is showing an awareness of the need to assert its own authority, and distinguish itself against the ambient population. This Political Class insistence on the dark suit, the daily uniform of corporate life in the Western, capitalist world, gives away its preference for conformity, homogeneity, and control.
The pure and disinterested quality which lies at the heart of friendship is alien to the Political Class. Personal courtesies do exist, but they are tailored to power. Casual acquaintances with something to offer — holiday villas to stay in, celebrity endorsements, expensive gifts, or cash for party machines — are rapidly treated as close friends. However the Political Class is negligent when it comes to people of no utility. They are avoided as if they possessed some kind of infectious illness. When the politician Fiona Jones, who served as a Labour MP from 1997 to 2001, died earlier this year, apparently from alcoholism, not a single MP attended her funeral.
Nobody is more lonely than out-of-favour members of the Political Class. This is why their parties are demeaning and inhumane affairs, little more than expressions of naked power. The largest circle of ‘friends’ automatically assembles around the dominant person in the room. However conventional or humourless he or she in reality is, it can be guaranteed that party guests will find their remarks more interesting than anyone else’s. This syndrome explains why even very dull or obvious jokes made by really powerful Political Class figures are always met by gales of respectful laughter.
The British Establishment was founded on the Christian religion. Religion provided the o
verriding justification and legitimacy for the social and moral order of the British state. As a result, members of the Establishment understood and surprisingly often sought to live up to the Christian values of humility, duty, forbearance, truthfulness and service. The Church plays no meaningful role in the formation of Political Class beliefs.
Although a number of individual members of the Political Class believe in God, or claim to do so, they are careful to place a barrier between their faith and their political convictions. However muddled and self-serving it may often seem, the philosophy of the Political Class is always based on a basic assumption about the supremacy of human reason and will. The Establishment, in sharp contrast, subscribed to a system of thought which stressed the fallibility of human beings, and emphasised that there were limits beyond which the human intellect finds it unable to stretch.
The Establishment existed through institutions. Judges, ambassadors, civil service mandarins, bishops, generals, the Queen, the secretary of the MCC were all by definition Establishment figures. So were trade unionists, referred to by Winston Churchill in 1947 as ‘pillars of our society’. The powerful presence of these institutions deprived the British Establishment of a group identity. One of the most interesting findings of Anthony Sampson’s famous survey of how Britain was governed, The Anatomy of Britain, published in 1962, was its demonstration that the British Establishment lacked a common consciousness.
‘The rulers are not at all close-knit or united. They are not so much in the centre of a solar system, as in a cluster of interlocking circles, each one largely preoccupied with its own professionalism, and touching others only at one edge,’ wrote Sampson, adding the vital observation: ‘They are not a single Establishment but a ring of Establishments. The frictions and balances between the different circles are the supreme safeguard of democracy. No one man can stand in the centre, for there is no centre.’
This fundamentally heterogeneous and decentralised structure of British government has since come under brutal attack from the Political Class. For instance, the Political Class is deeply hostile to the rule of law. It constantly strives to undermine the judiciary, instinctively preferring to govern through executive fiat, repeatedly showing anger when the judges thwart illegal decisions made by ministers. Likewise the traditional civil service insistence on the necessity of due process, note-taking and the importance of precedent fills the Political Class with rage. In general the Political Class is infused by an unbending hostility to all centres of power or values which it cannot control or manipulate.
Members of the Political Class, even when they come from apparently rival parties, have far more in common with each other than they do with voters. They seek to protect one another, help each other out, rather than engage in robust democratic debate. This is why the House of Commons is no longer a cockpit where great conflicts of vision are fought out across the chamber. It has converted instead into a professional group, like the Bar Council or the British Medical Association.
The most important division in Britain is no longer the Tory versus Labour demarcation that marked out the battle zone in politics for the bulk of the 20th century. The real division is between a narrow, self-serving and increasingly corrupt governing elite and the mass of ordinary voters. The distinction between those in and out of ministerial office has become blurred, and general elections have become public stunts, whose primary purpose is an ostentatious affirmation of Political Class hegemony.
Peter Oborne is a contributing editor of The Spectator. His book The Triumph of the Political Class is published by Simon & Schuster on 17 September.