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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Robert Harris: Some of our great political leaders have crossed the floor. But it takes courage

Jeremy Corbyn is the very opposite of the man the times call for – so progressive politicians need to find new ways to take the fight to the Tories.

The big picture in recent years has been the collapse of the left-wing project across the world. But in Britain, in particular, there are institutional reasons. I can’t quite understand how the members of the Parliamentary Labour Party can sit there day after day, month after month, year after year, knowing that they’re simply heading towards a kind of mincing machine at the next election. It’s like waiting in a prison room, waiting to be taken out and shot one by one, when there are enough of you to overpower the guards.

If you look back over British political history, some of the great political leaders have crossed the floor: Gladstone, Joseph Chamberlain, Churchill – and Jenkins, Owen, Rodgers and Williams in 1981. Whether these people turn out to be right or wrong – and mostly they turn out to be right – there’s a certain courage in the action they took. There seems to be no one with the big vision to do anything comparable in the Labour Party.

It’s not fashionable on the left to say this, but individuals are hugely important. I think if there had been a canny and effective leader in place of Jeremy Corbyn we may well not have had Brexit. But as it is, Labour has provided no rallying point for the nearly half the nation that doesn’t want the course the country is set on, and that is such a colossal failure of leadership that I think history will judge the PLP extremely harshly.

The New Labour project was based on a kind of Crossmanite view that through economic growth you would fund ever-improving social services for the entire country. That worked very well until we had the crash, when the engine broke down. Suddenly there was a wilderness in the leadership of the Labour Party. At the same time, the Liberal Democrats had imploded with their alliance with the Tories. There was no opposition.

Our familiar view of the Labour Party is over. That is not coming back. Scotland is not going to be recaptured. So there can never be a Labour government of the sort we’ve seen in the past. One just has to adjust to that. What I would have liked to have seen is some grouping within Labour in parliament, whether around the Co-operative Party or whatever, that would have been able to take the fight to the Tories. But who would lead such a group? We don’t have a Jenkins or an Owen. There doesn’t seem to be anyone of comparable stature.

We all thought that Europe would smash the Tories but actually Europe has smashed Labour. There has obviously been some sort of fracture between the white-collar workers and intellectuals – that Webb, LSE, New Statesman tradition – and a large section of the working class, particularly in the Midlands, the north and Scotland. It’s an alliance that may be very hard to put back together.

Corbyn is the very opposite of the man the times call for. They call for a politician who can master a brief who is also nimble on his feet: but that is the sort of figure the Corbynites revile. You simply can’t have a leader who doesn’t notice when the Tories abandon a manifesto pledge on tax and can’t ask a couple of questions with a quarter of an hour’s notice. The Tories haven’t really gone to town on him but once they get back on to the IRA support and the views expressed in the past, Labour could easily drop to about 150 seats and we could be looking at a 1931-style wipeout.

The fact is that the extra-parliamentary route is a myth. Brexit is being pushed through in parliament; the battle is there and in the courts, not with rallies. You can have a million people at a rally: it’s not going to alter anything at all. It seems as if there has been a coup d’état and a minority view has suddenly taken control, and, in alliance with the right-wing press, is denouncing anyone who opposes it as an enemy of democracy. It requires a really articulate leadership to fight this and that’s what we’ve not got.

The only possibility is a progressive alliance. These are not great days for the progressives, but even still, they make up a good third of the electorate, with the rest to play for. 

If there was an election tomorrow I’d vote for the Liberal Democrats, and I think an awful lot of Labour people would do the same. The Lib Dems offer a simple, unequivocal slogan. You would have thought the one thing John McDonnell and co would have learned from Trotsky and Lenin – with his “Peace, land, bread” – is that you offer a simple slogan. Who knows what Labour’s position is? It’s just a sort of agonised twist in the wind. 

Robert Harris’s latest novel is “Conclave” (Arrow)
As told to Tom Gatti

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition