The long read: Aeron Davis has spent 20 years researching Britains elite, interviewing more than 350 leaders in business and politics. His conclusion? Their failings are not only damaging society, but undermining the foundations of the establishment itself
In his 2014 book The Establishment, Owen Jones explained how and why Britains unequal, class-ridden system would always prevail. It was written at a time when the elite seemed to be thriving, despite having recently helped to trash the global economy. After a few lean years for Davos man, bank debt had effectively been nationalised. No one in power had gone to jail, while most of them seemed to be getting richer and richer. As Jones explained, the establishment was as dominant as ever.
Developments since then have sorely tested that view. After the vote for Brexit, David Cameron and George Osborne were suddenly cast adrift, while the Bank of England and captains of industry found themselves wondering who to support. The Conservative party their political party, the only one they had ever supported was following a course of action they thought would wreck the economy. Sterling and the FTSE 100 index plummeted. Shareholders began revolting and bankers relocating.
A year later, the establishment seemed to be recovering once again. And then came the snap June 2017 election. The Conservatives, with all their resources and an initial 20-point poll lead, lost their majority. Theresa May was outperformed by a badly dressed, pacifist republican with no money, no media support and a shadow cabinet that could fit in a phone box. The Tory party was left negotiating a Brexit deal with a dead duck leader, a hung parliament, and no idea of what outcomes the establishment wanted.
All of which suggests that it might be time to question whether the British establishment still functions as it once did. Yes, some members of the elite have become very rich. They are still united in their fear and loathing of leftwing ideas and ordinary people. They are still highly skilled when it comes to pursuing their self-interest. Their decisions still have powerful consequences that are widely felt. But they seem to be less able to exert control or predict what those consequences will be.
As an academic studying how power operates, I have spent the past 20 years researching elite figures in five areas associated with the modern establishment: the media, the City, large corporations, the Whitehall civil service and the major political parties at Westminster. After interviewing and observing more than 350 people working in or close to the top during that time, my sense of this evolving long-term crisis has become clearer. I have come to believe that the establishment is no longer coherent or collective or competent. Its failings are not only causing larger schisms, inequalities and precariousness in Britain; they also threaten the very foundations of establishment rule itself.
The idea of the establishment was popularised in the 1950s and early 60s. According to its key chroniclers, such as the historian Hugh Thomas and the journalist Anthony Sampson, most members of this elite network went to one of seven Clarendon boarding schools such as Eton, Rugby or Harrow. From there, they moved on to Sandhurst military academy or Oxbridge. They then glided effortlessly into a variety of powerful positions in private or public organisations. Political control operated through the great state institutions of the Church of England, Westminster, Whitehall and the armed forces. The economy was a stitch-up, coordinated through a public-private partnership of the Treasury, the Bank of England, the City and business leaders. The BBC and national press ensured that the common people accepted this state of affairs.
These elites reproduced and maintained their collective identity via exclusive social circuits. These included membership of expensive London clubs such as the Garrick and the Athenaeum. If they hadnt already inherited a title, they would get one soon enough, ending their days in that gilded care home (or finishing school) known as the House of Lords.
Over the decades, the shape of the establishment changed. In accounts written in the 1990s by Jeremy Paxman, Andrew Adonis and Stephen Pollard, the power and influence of the Church, monarchy, aristocracy and army had clearly waned. Anthony Sampson wrote several surveys of the British establishment over five decades; in 2004, his final one recorded the stark decline of many Victorian-era institutions, and the power grabs made by new, abrasive business types and unassimilated foreigners. But despite these changes, other things remained the same the prevalence of the Clarendon-Oxbridge conveyor belt, that same sense of shared elite interests, and so on.
What these authors did not notice was that beneath the surface, the social foundations and institutions of power were slowly weakening. Many of the traditional elements that once held the establishment together are degenerating, with little to replace them. This isnt just a matter of a new establishment replacing an old one. It may be the end of the establishment as we have known it. (This, of course, will not mean the end of elites.)
This started to become clear to me when researching the civil service and business world in the later years of David Camerons coalition government. Interviews with former career mandarins revealed just how much Whitehall had changed. The service they had joined in the 1960s and 70s was the preserve of the establishment amateur. The vast majority had come from Oxbridge, having previously studied history, classics or something else that failed to equip them for managing an archaic state bureaucracy. Generalists ruled and specialists occupied the lower rungs.