The origins of "the Establishment": an etymological intrigue

Was the term really coined by the Spectator in 1955?

“The term ‘the Establishment,’ as it is now popularly used, was introduced into the common language and speech of England on September 23, 1955.” That is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The linguistic arbiter cites as its locus classicus a Spectator article written by the political journalist Henry Fairlie. The above quotation, however, was not weaned from the OED, but from Fairlie himself, writing in the New Yorker in 1968. The etymological memoir is simply entitled, “Evolution of a Term”.

Fairlie sets the scene:

In the week of September 23rd, there was only one possible subject for a political columnist to discuss: the acknowledgment by the Foreign Office of Burgess’s and Maclean’s defection. … As I sat in my room at 99 Gower Street, staring moodily at the blank piece of paper in my typewriter, the whole atmosphere of the Times during the days and months after the disappearance, the memory of hints and pressures to which I had paid only casual attention at the time, returned to me. I went and played a game of bar billiards at the Marlborough, the pub the Spectator used, and returned and wrote. I left in the evening, having turned in a column that appeared to me to be rather mediocre, but understandably so in the circumstances.

He ascribes the popularity of the term to the furious correspondence which followed. The term, he agrees, fulfilled a sorely felt need. The rest of the article deals with the proliferation of meaning that followed, particularly outside of Britain. Fairlie concedes that the term had existed in some form as long ago as 1841, when Ralph Waldo Emerson used it in “The Conservative”. It was bandied about for some years among his coterie, a group of “hungry young journalists, intent largely on enjoying ourselves at the expense of our elders and betters.” An occasional member of the group was the historian A J P Taylor, who “could be heard murmuring that he had used it some years earlier.”

“By October, 1957, in a special number of the Twentieth Century,” Fairlie notes, “Mr Taylor regarded the phrase with as much enthusiasm as if it were a bunch of sour grapes.”

He had every right. Here is the opening to Taylor’s article, retrieved this morning from the New Statesman archive, as it appeared on 29 August, 1953:

Trotsky tells how, when he first visited England, Lenin took him round London and, pointing out the sights, exclaimed: ‘That’s their Westminster Abbey! That’s their Houses of Parliament!’ Lenin was making a class, not a national, emphasis. By them he meant not the English, but the governing classes, the Establishment. And indeed in no other European country is the Establishment so clearly defined and so complacently secure. The Victorians spoke of the classes and the masses; and we still understand exactly what they meant. The Establishment talks with its own branded accent; eats different meals at different times; has its privileged system of education; its own religion, even, to a large extent, its own form of football. Nowhere else in Europe can you discover a man’s social position by exchanging a few words or breaking bread with him. The Establishment is enlightened; tolerant; even well-meaning. It has never been exclusive – drawing in recruits from outside, as soon as they are ready to conform to its standards and become respectable. There is nothing more agreeable in life than to make peace with the Establishment – and nothing more corrupting.

Sour grapes indeed.

In today’s New Statesman, Rafael Behr introduces a new definition of the Establishment. The dead-end bureaucracy which entrapped Joseph K today has “walls marked with Serco and Capita logos”. The guards wear “G4S uniforms.” Power no longer rests with visible institutions, in the settings they once did, he contends, but with the boards of companies very few of us have ever heard of, with quangos and hedge funds, arcane networks of friends and former ministerial advisors. “It no longer makes sense to speak of ‘the establishment’ as it did in the days when the lord chamberlain could strike obscenity off the stage.” As Messieurs Fairlie and Taylor would no doubt inform him, it never did.

A J P Taylor with Michael Foot on Taylor's 70th birthday in 1976. Photo: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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In praise of Keanu Reeves, the nicest of meatheads

The Hollywood star has embraced a life without pretensions. 

The Rolling Stone journalist Chris Heath once asked Keanu Reeves a simple question: why do you act? The star of The Matrix, Speed, Point Break and My Own Private Idaho paused the conversation to consider the matter. And he paused it for a long time. “Forty-two seconds, he says nothing. Not a word, a grunt, a prevarication, or a hint that an answer might come,” wrote Heath. But then an answer did come: “Uh… the words that popped into my head were expression and, uh, it's fun.” When Heath later asked Reeves if he ever wanted to direct, he waited 72 seconds for: “No, not really.”

Both Coco Chanel and George Orwell observed that by 50, we have the face we deserve. The Beirut-born Reeves is now 52 (the same age as Nigel Farage, as tweeters and bored bloggers periodically point out), but he looks pretty much the same as he has always looked: solidly handsome and straightforward, yet somehow vulnerable, like a Boy Scout who wants to do the right thing in a world that doesn’t. Jan de Bont, the director of the 1994 film Speed, called him “an action hero for the Nineties”. By this, I think he meant that, unlike the muscle-bound shit-kickers of the previous decade, a Keanu hero wouldn’t go out of his way to kill for fun. Where Arnold Schwarzenegger could, in Total Recall, shoot the woman he had wrongly believed to be his wife and joke, “Consider this a divorce,” Keanu always seemed somewhat conflicted while taking care of business – as if his eyes were saying, “Sorry it had to be this way.” The Nineties were the age of hunky romantics: Jason Priestley as Brandon in Beverly Hills, 90210, Ethan Hawke in Before Sunrise. Keanu fit that mould. I suppose even guys with guns had to be sensitive.

And even dumb guys, too, with or without guns – for you don’t have to be able to think in order to feel. Reeves began his career describing himself as “a meathead”. “I can’t help it, man,” he said. “You’ve got smart people and you’ve got dumb people. I just happen to be dumb.” He specialised in playing benevolent meatheads, from Ted “Theodore” Logan in Stephen Herek’s Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure to the spaced-out teen Tod Higgins in Ron Howard’s Parenthood (both 1989). Then he traded meathead simplicity for that of the likeable (and, as ever, sensitive) action hero in films such as Speed (1994) and Chain Reaction (1996). The Matrix series followed, as did a few smaller, more indie-ish movies (Thumbsucker, A Scanner Darkly). But the 2014 action film John Wick, whose sequel is in cinemas now, was widely welcomed as a return to form.

Reeves largely plays the assassin of the title as a primitive cinematic archetype, but he can't help but gesture towards something more profound. Wick, in both films of the franchise, is motivated by grief over the death of his wife. (In 2001, Reeves’s girlfriend Jennifer Syme died in a motor accident, a year after losing their child; perhaps the role had a personal resonance for him.) He might stab people in the head with pencils, break necks and shoot guns into crowded rooms like Chow Yun Fat after three espressos, but he’s ultimately a man of feeling.

This narrative of a career of sensitive but slightly dumb simplicity isn’t quite fair on Reeves, however. For he has, on occasion, been capable of delivering complex performances that rank alongside those of his more conventionally actorly peers. In 1991, he held his own opposite River Phoenix in Gus Van Sant’s road movie My Own Private Idaho; he has since appeared opposite Al Pacino as a wily defence attorney (The Devil’s Advocate) and Gene Hackman as a troubled sportsman (The Replacements). He has been directed by film festival favourites such as Francis Ford Coppola (Bram Stoker's Dracula), Bernardo Bertolucci (Little Buddha) and Sam Raimi (The Gift) – if not always successfully.

And he started his career not with excellent dudes, but with Shakespeare. When Reeves was 14 and living in Toronto, he was cast as Mercutio in a local production of Romeo and Juliet. An agent who saw him signed him up and secured for him a string of television roles, which swiftly took him to Hollywood. Reeves’s embarrassingly stilted attempt to portray the evil Don John in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing (1993) makes me fear the discovery of video footage of that version of Romeo. But the fact that Reeves’s life as an actor began in this way reminds me of his seriousness about his craft. He might not have much range but he has admirable ambition. Many years later, when the studios pressured him to sign on for a Speed sequel, he ran off to play Hamlet in Canada.

In 2011, the New Statesman’s film critic, Ryan Gilbey, observed in the Guardian that Reeves had “some claim to be the most enigmatic, as well as the most warmly adored” actor in Hollywood. That assessment was based in part on the “Sad Keanu” meme that had spread the previous year, in which a paparazzi photograph of Reeves morosely eating a sandwich on a bench led to countless expressions of sympathy online (more than 14,000 people joined a Facebook group called “Cheer Up Keanu”; 200,000 comments about the picture were left on Reddit) and to the declaration by fans of a “Cheer Up Keanu Day”, which apparently takes place every 15 June.

This weird adoration and the sense of enigma surrounding the actor are, I think, closely linked. We know relatively little about Reeves’s off-screen life, which he keeps well guarded, but what we do know suggests qualities that are, for one reason or another, vanishingly rare in entertainment gossip warm humanity and hidden depths. Hagiographic stories circulate of the actor donating millions of dollars to animal welfare charities and cancer research (his younger sister Kim was diagnosed with leukaemia); of Reeves offering stranded hitchhikers a ride; of a team of stuntmen being surprised with a gift of £6,000 Harley Davidson motorbikes, which he had quietly paid for.

“Money is the last thing I think about,” Hello magazine reported him saying in 2003. Not long earlier, he had reduced his pay by several million dollars so that the producers of The Devil’s Advocate and The Replacements could afford to hire Al Pacino and Gene Hackman, respectively. And, according to ABC News, he “handed over his valuable profit-sharing points” to the special effects and costume design team of the Matrix franchise, which he believed deserved the true credit for its success. (Some place the value of this donation at $50m.) By these accounts, Reeves is most definitely a righteous dude. He’s also a curious one. A few days after the Brexit vote, the New Statesman’s politics editor, George Eaton, was surprised to find him visiting Portcullis House as a guest of the Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi. It was “fittingly surreal”, George told me, and Reeves came across as “courteous” and “modest” when he posed for a group selfie with some of the journalists who happened to be there.

As Reeves’s star rose in the early 1990s, the American men’s magazine Details lamented: “Nearly all celebrities – nearly all people – like to talk about themselves [but] Keanu doesn’t.” I guess it’s frustrating for journalists that someone so clearly interesting should be reticent about telling us about himself.

But I don’t really have to know much about Keanu Reeves to like him, though I’ve never met the guy. And there are things that I can learn from him, too. In Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Alex Winter’s Bill S Preston, Esq., paraphrases Socrates: “The only true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing.” To which Reeves’s Ted responds: “That’s us, dude.” That’s them – and every one of us with any sense, if we’re honest. We may think we’re smart and even persuade the people around us that we are. But in the end, most of us are meatheads. Reeves shows in his life and work that meatheads can live good lives, even in the face of disparagement and personal tragedy. Maybe Chanel and Orwell were on to something – he really does have the face he deserves.

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.