The Establishment

Monday, September 1st, 2014

The Establishment was established in 1955, in Great Britain — or at least the term was established then, by a Tory journalist named Henry Fairlie:

What attracted his attention was a scandal involving two Foreign Office officials, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who had defected to the Soviet Union. Fairlie suggested that friends of the two men had attempted to shield their families from media attention.

This, he asserted, revealed that “what I call the ‘establishment’ in this country is today more powerful than ever before”. His piece made “the establishment” a household phrase — and made Fairlie’s name in the process.

For Fairlie, the establishment included not only “the centres of official power — though they are certainly part of it” — but “the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised”.

This “exercise of power”, he claimed, could only be understood as being “exercised socially”. In other words, the establishment comprised a set of well-connected people who knew one another, mixed in the same circles and had one another’s backs. It was not based on official, legal or formal arrangements, but rather on “subtle social relationships”.

Fairlie’s establishment consisted of a diverse network of people. It was not just the likes of the prime minister and the archbishop of Canterbury, but also incorporated “lesser mortals” such as the chairman of the Arts Council, the director general of the BBC and the editor of the Times Literary Supplement, “not to mention divinities like Lady Violet Bonham Carter” — the daughter of former Liberal prime minister Herbert Asquith, confidante of Winston Churchill and grandmother of future Hollywood actor Helena Bonham Carter.

The Foreign Office was, Fairlie claimed, “near the heart of the pattern of social relationships which so powerfully controls the exercise of power in this country”, stacked as it was with those who “know all the right people”. In other words, the establishment was all about “who you know”.

(Hat tip to Outsideness, who describes it as so upside-down it almost gets it.)

Leave a Reply