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The origins of "the Establishment": an etymological intrigue

Was the term really coined by the Spectator in 1955?

A J P Taylor and Michael Foot together in a room at the LSE.
A J P Taylor with Michael Foot on Taylor's 70th birthday in 1976. Photo: Getty Images.

“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.

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