The Establishment

In a couple of previous posts I have looked at the effects of Brexit and possibilities for LibDem positioning and policy that may emerge. In many ways the EU is a distraction from the key political battles we face. The most pressing problem we have is inequality in its many manifestations and an economic and social system that works very hard to maintain and increase inequality while we try to redress the balance. That is the case whether we are in the EU or out of it. This is an opportunity to consider some key parameters of our policies without having to look at everything through the prism of the EU debate.

One constant in the debate is the thing called the establishment, a word as much misused as used. I cannot think of anyone more “establishment” than Nigel Farage, who has managed to make a career out of selling the lie that he is anti-establishment. Like many insurgent politicians he has no intention of changing the way the system works. He just wants to change the personnel at the top.

The nature and function of the establishment remains the same though its form has changed in recent decades. Whatever it is, it needs to be a focus of LibDem policy making so we need to consider clearly what it is, what it does and how to deal with it.

The establishment is a very conservative thing. Its primary purpose is to maintain stability. While that remains true, the way in which it does it has changed markedly, just as the world has changed in the last thirty years. It encompasses the higher echelons of most professions and social strands in the country – MPs, the civil service, judges and the legal profession, administrators, scientists, writers and producers, editors, educators, land owners, gentry, business people, the armed forces and security services.

Establishment people are usually born to establishment people, because the establishment is very good at reproducing itself. But it is not a defining indicator. To be establishment, what matter more are a) your instinctive answer to any political question b) what you actually do.

Every decision they make, every policy they endorse, has to pass a stability test. Will it upset or not the country’s great social and economic pyramid?

Tony Benn asked the best questions of all:

  • What power have you got?
  • Where do you get it from?
  • In whose interests do you exercise it?
  • To whom are you accountable?
  • How can we get rid of you?

We could do worse than make these the touchstone of our policy deliberations – nothing should get into our policies if it cannot answer all these questions satisfactorily.

The key question here is “In whose interests do you exercise your power?” It has always been on behalf of the elite. But the elite has changed. Prior to the 1980s, the elite’s key principle was also stability. They had no belief in equality, but they did believe that, in order to maintain stability, a significant proportion of the cake had to be shared. Today’s elite is utterly different. It is no longer a national, but a global elite, and it no longer believes in stability, at least not in the same way. It relies on a global process of continuous disruption. So the establishment has to tolerate disruption and do its best to paper over the cracks. The EU referendum was the biggest such crack to date, and already the papering over has begun.

So when we consider what to do to ensure that nobody is enslaved by poverty, conformity or ignorance, our primary concern must be to redress the extraordinary power wielded by the elite. In order to do that, we will have to address the extraordinary power wielded by the establishment on their behalf. It will be a big struggle, but that is why “establishment busting” is included in Caron Lindsay’s memorable summary of the LibDems: “planet-saving, freedom-loving, internationalist, establishment-busting, forward-thinking, optimistic”.

 

* Rob Parsons is a Lib Dem member in Lewes. He blogs at http://acomfortableplace.blogspot.co.uk

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16 Comments

  • Errr, not sure what to make of this.

    It managed to sound rather ”tin foil hat” wearer, but there is some elements to this that make sense (but not to the extent suggested). It reminds me of the complaint by Tony Blair that he got in to office and found there were not the levers of power he expected. He assumed that they actually sat somewhere else, with newspaper barons or somewhere else. Given the reality UK media market this would make the BBC DG the most powerful person in the country, not quite credible.

    The reality is that things are very diffused and the ability to get things done is not just a small cabal of people who sit about and decide how things are going to be. What power does the author think the UK military have in running the country?

    A “greater power” mentality is very attractive as it gives a feeling of control and that there is something to blame. If we could just get those levers then everything would be ok and we could fix it all. The world isn’t like that.

  • It is helpful if you want to make a case that the world exist how you believe it does to give examples, really specific ones. We are back in the general conceptual ideas that comes up all the time, but lack specifics.

  • Peter Bancroft 25th Jul '16 - 4:31pm

    I’m also sceptical of the idea that when you consider the size of the deficit and the very possible decimation of the economy due to Brexit that it’s how income is redistributed which is more important than productivity and right-sizing public services. It is a traditional criticism of the centre-left that the focus is always on how to cut the cake rather than on being able to afford a nice one, and I feel this is a trap which has been fallen into here.

    As others have pointed out, portraying the whole range of “establishment” and “global elite” as a single actor with one point of view is simply factually incorrect. The establishment and global elite range from communists through to fascists and libertarians and everything in-between. This is an obvious attractiveness of an outside-in analysis which doesn’t have to consider knowledge of those being blamed for the UK’s problems, but it is unlikely to be factually accurate as a result.

  • Rob Parsons 25th Jul '16 - 5:26pm

    Here are some specifics. http://highpaycentre.org/blog/the-revolving-door-how-business-has-colonised-uk-politics

    This one calls it corruption, but is talking about the same thing: http://www.democraticaudit.com/?p=19223

    One example that springs to mind very quickly about the judiciary – a minor example but telling. Man swims in the Thames to disrupt the boat race, gets six months jail. Upper class sport. Men repeatedly disrupt a Tottenham UEFA cup tie for the purpose of publicising a brand name – get minor fines and community service orders. Lower class sport.

  • Simon McGrath 25th Jul '16 - 5:43pm

    ‘I cannot think of anyone more “establishment” than Nigel Farage’

    Would that be the Nigel Farage who more than anyone else is responsible for our leaving the EU, a course of action opposed by virtually the entire establishment ?

  • Rob Parsons 25th Jul '16 - 6:13pm

    Peter: “It is a traditional criticism of the centre-left that the focus is always on how to cut the cake rather than on being able to afford a nice one, and I feel this is a trap which has been fallen into here.”

    No I have not fallen into that trap, Peter. Here and now we live in a country with easily enough wealth for nobody to be reliant on food banks. And yet a million people are. We *must* address the inequality that makes that happen. I also think that to rely on continued economic growth, apparently for ever, is complacent. The planet’s resources will set limits to growth before we know it and there will be considerable trouble in store. In addition, a lot of issues are not about a conflict between distribution and growth. The housing market, for instance, is out of control in terms of prices irsing beyond affordability, even for middle class people. That is not aout economic growth, but about finding a sensible way to run the housing market, a way which is blocked lrgely by land owning and baning interests.

    Peter: “As others have pointed out, portraying the whole range of “establishment” and “global elite” as a single actor with one point of view is simply factually incorrect.”

    I may have given the impression that that is what I think, in which case I should express myself more accurately. First of all, my post makes it clear that I see the elite and the establishment as two separate entities. Within them there are any number of individuals with differeing interests, but there is also a massive overlap in interests. For instance, the entire global elite is served by the existence of tax havens, at everyone else’s expense. That needs to be tackled.

  • Rob Parsons 25th Jul '16 - 6:16pm

    Simon: “Would that be the Nigel Farage who more than anyone else is responsible for our leaving the EU, a course of action opposed by virtually the entire establishment ?”

    Yes. The establishment does occasionally have conflicts of interest. Once we leave the EU (I’m assuming we will), the establishment will re-form itself in the new world, and the inequalities which blight the lives of so many people in this country will not be affected one jot.

  • Tony Dawson 25th Jul '16 - 6:32pm

    The wig of the one in the middle is SERIOUSLY better than Michael Fabricant’s.

    Of course, to paraphrase David Cameron, she was the Lib Dem future once. 🙁

    http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/politics/2012/07/liz-truss-iron-lady-20

  • Tony Dawson 25th Jul '16 - 6:34pm

    @Simon McGrath

    “I cannot think of anyone more “establishment” than Nigel Farage’

    Would that be the Nigel Farage who more than anyone else is responsible for our leaving the EU, a course of action opposed by virtually the entire establishment ?”

    . . .and who handed the campaign to Leave the EC over to the ultra-establishment (Eton, Oxford, Spectator, Telegraph) Boris Johnson, without whose efforts it would never have been won ?

  • Yellow Submarine 25th Jul '16 - 6:37pm

    Why does the site use a photo of the first ever female Lord Chancellor , a post that’s a millennium old , to illustrate an article on the Establishment ? How odd.

  • Leave The EU 25th Jul '16 - 6:42pm

    “Simon: “Would that be the Nigel Farage who more than anyone else is responsible for our leaving the EU, a course of action opposed by virtually the entire establishment ?”

    Yes. The establishment does occasionally have conflicts of interest. Once we leave the EU (I’m assuming we will), the establishment will re-form itself in the new world, and the inequalities which blight the lives of so many people in this country will not be affected one jot.” – Rob, I am not quite sure I follow – how is Nigel Farage part of “the establishment”, when he diametrically opposed it for decades and resulted in Cameron etc., losing office?

    Peace and all the best.

  • Rob Parsons 25th Jul '16 - 7:01pm

    Leave the EU: he has opposed certain elements of the estabishment while never querying the basis on which they became part of the establishment – as I said, there can be intra-establishment conflicts. But Farage, while determined to reclaim sovereignty, whatever that is, has never sought to change the way things work in the wider scheme. He has no interest in doing so.

  • Rob Parsons 25th Jul '16 - 7:03pm

    Yellow Submarine: I didn’t choose the photo, but I think it illustrates the issue rather well. The establishment has never been entirely inbred. People in power know that the power will occasionally be contested and that things must occasionally change. What better way of dealing with it than to co-opt the very people who agitated for change. We have a female Lord Chancellor. Wonderful. Do we have 50% female judges? No.

  • A wonder why this title was chosen for this article?

    As liberals we should always question where the power is.

    The answer is the multi-nationals. And they are only accountable to their shareholders.

    The problem is how can multi-nationals be controlled?

    The best solution would be for there to be one world government which governed in the interests of the poor and so reduced inequalities year in, year out. But I can’t see this happening in my lifetime.

    Another problem is that the majority of the governments of the world do not govern in the interests of even their own poor, they govern in the interests of rich and powerful.

    With these huge problems the answer in the short-term is to restrict the power and influence of multi-nationals within your own national borders. And this must mean that the government has to be involved in this and so reduce the liberty of multi-nationals to increase the liberty of the ordinary people.

  • Simon Banks 26th Jul '16 - 5:10pm

    This is interesting, but it verges on caricature. If the establishment is people comfortable at the high table, pally with other powerful people and so on, over the last century or two it’s included some very radical people – Gladstone, Keynes, the Pankhursts, that stiff-upper-lip-public-school type Major Attlee, some truly radical judges, Roy Jenkins, David Attenborough and female leaders of both India and Pakistan. Within a group of leading people comfortable with power and standing, there will always be conflicts. Challenge such a group, certainly. Try to widen its base in all sorts of ways. Make it accountable. But I don’t see how David Cameron (quintessially establishment) is less accountable than Margaret Thatcher (non-establishment) and nor does non-establishment necessarily mean pro-equality or even pro-change.

  • Michael BG

    “The answer is the multi-nationals. And they are only accountable to their shareholders.”

    Not really, in several senses. They have to obey laws, often laws are badly written with terrible loopholes (like tax law) but that is the government’s fault. Also multinationals are often very bad at being accountable to shareholders.

    “The problem is how can multi-nationals be controlled?”

    Control is not so much the problem as what are the pressures that make being such a vast monstrosity attractive, and how to change incentives.

    “The best solution would be for there to be one world government”

    Ahhhhh, a global concentration of power from which there would be no escape! Wow not a “best” anything for most people.

    “Another problem is that the majority of the governments of the world do not govern in the interests of even their own poor, they govern in the interests of rich and powerful.”

    Most governments respond to short term stimuli. The rich and powerful are often able to respond more quickly and effectively to take advantage of opportunities.

    “With these huge problems the answer in the short-term is…”

    To correctly diagnose the problems and have longer term plans to address them so we are not stuck doing one short term response after another (though obviously you need a short term plan while you implement anything else).

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