The British establishment has split in two, each convinced they are the underdog


BORIS JOHNSON is besieged on all sides. The stories of “tory sleaze” multiply. Constituencies in northern England are furious over plans to cut high-speed rail. Yet the Prime Minister nonetheless found time on November 15 to don a white tie and tail and address the Lord Mayor’s annual banquet at London’s Guildhall. Filled with people far more powerful than mere politicians, it had all the hallmarks of an establishment affair. The procedures were incomprehensible to foreigners; dullness and high theater mingled. Mr Johnson started by checking the names of dignitaries: aldermen, sheriffs and the commoner chief (whose title was once rendered in Chinese as “peasant chief”) and progressed to quantum computing and AstraZeneca vaccines.

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Henry Fairlie, who coined the term ‘establishment’ in 1955, argued that ‘the exercise of power in Britain … can only be understood if it is recognized that it is exercised socially’. Watching the majestic procession of sea bass and grass-fed beef Monday night (Monday night!), He would have been certain that nothing had changed. Still, the self-satisfied surface hid a split. For the British establishment is no longer unitary, but divided – a pair of rival, hostile and mutually incomprehensible centers of power.

One, centered on the Conservative Party, includes vestiges of the old establishment such as the armed forces and large public schools. It extends to public relations firms, government contractors and right-wing newspapers. The city, once content with New Labor, has been pushed towards the Tories by former far-left Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn. At the heart of this establishment are the provinces, where small business owners complain about their taxes and trade political correctness gone mad.

The other center of power is progressive-liberal. He is less focused on a political party (although he liked New Labor) than on cultural institutions: the civil service, universities, publishing houses, the BBC, the Observer and Guardian newspapers, the artistic bureaucracy and, increasingly, the legal profession. It is so metropolitan that the divide between the two echoes the split between the Court and Country factions of the 17th and 18th centuries.

The conservative establishment believes in the primacy of the nation state; the liberal establishment in cosmopolitanism. This divide was both reflected and reinforced by the fight over Brexit. The Conservative establishment believes in the Queen’s primacy in parliament (much of Mr Johnson’s legislative agenda is driven by a desire to undo New Labor’s constitutional falsifications); the liberal establishment by dividing power among many institutions. The Conservative establishment regards British history as a treasure trove of achievement (David Cameron, Mr Johnson’s penultimate predecessor, said Henrietta Marshall’s ‘Our Island Story’, published in 1905, was his favorite book. when he was a child, and he often has The liberal establishment believes that “the arc of history leans toward justice”, with justice defined as diversity, equity and inclusion.

The most irritating tendency of the Tory establishment is to justify its actions by the will of the people, as if the leader of Tory philosophy is Jean-Jacques Rousseau rather than Edmund Burke. The liberal establishment, on the other hand, thinks it knows what is good for people. The Tories see the man in the pub as a source of wisdom; more and more the Liberals think he is a fanatic.

Having two establishments is not that bad. Whoever is out of power can act as a counterweight to government, helping to compensate for Britain’s lack of constitutional checks and balances. It can be argued that Britain is now in better political health than at the start of New Labor, when government and cultural institutions sang the same hymn.

But there are many drawbacks, one of which is institutionalized irresponsibility. Because the two elites refuse to recognize that they are what they are, rather considering themselves as heroic rebels. Mr Johnson (trained in Eton and Balliol) sees himself as the leader of an army of revolutionaries against what he calls “the blob”, meaning officials and anyone else who seeks to thwart his will. Panjandrums of the liberal elite, such as the directors of Oxford colleges, a surprising number of them excluded from the civil service and BBC rather than distinguished academics, see themselves as freedom fighters against a dictatorial government.

Another downside is the triumph of extremism. You cannot enter the Conservative establishment without approving Brexit, or the liberal establishment without praising diversity. Thus, the Conservatives have lost moderates like Rory Stewart, a former diplomat and leadership candidate. Liberals have exiled heterodox thinkers such as Kathleen Stock, a philosopher who questions liberal piety about trans identities, and who recently left the University of Sussex after harassment from students and colleagues.

Power without responsibility

Yet another downside is a strange combination of blame rejection and tail pulling. The government is adept at blaming crises on civil servants, hence the unusually high number of permanent secretaries to resign since the 2019 election. The liberal establishment attributes all the harm to the Tory cuts. The Tory establishment rejoices in forcing hard-core Brexiteers on the liberal establishment, hence the attempt to install Paul Dacre, former editor of the Daily mail, as chairman of Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator. The Liberal establishment is never happier than when it portrays the other side as racists hating women, even though the Conservative Party has produced two female prime ministers and Labor none, and the cabinet is full of members. ethnic minorities.

The great virtue of the old Fairlie establishment was that, for all its pomp, it brought a serious adult to British life. His twin successors, on the other hand, are addicted to youthful feuds. It would be bad at the best of times. When the country is faced with such serious problems, it can turn out to be catastrophic. â– 

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This article appeared in the Great Britain section of the print edition under the headline “Who’s Running the Country?”