The establishment is dead. Long live the establishment!

It all depends who you speak to.

Both the New Statesman and the Spectator have recently explored the nature of today’s establishment. In these pages, Rafael Behr argued that “what passes for the establishment is amorphous and anonymous; a baggy blur of the commercial, the political and the ill-defined space in between”. In its most recent issue, the Spectator’s leading article began with a reference to Henry Fairlie, whose 1955 article defined the idea of the establishment as “a matrix of official and social relations” through which power is exercised. Today’s establishment, the leader concluded, is “in chaos”.

A central problem with analysing the establishment is language. Sometimes the meaning of a word doesn’t just change, it does a somersault. Think of the way that the terms “amateur” and “professional” have almost swapped places over the past 100 years. The term “professionalism”, once sullied by a sense of grubby self-interest, is now a term of universal admiration. Amateurism, doing something for its own sake, was once an ideal; now amateurish means sloppy, disorganised and archaic.

That is why most arguments about the establishment disintegrate into a failure to agree on the subject at hand. Are we talking about the old establishment or the new? The establishment is dead! The establishment has never been more powerful! The word is so elastic that both statements can be true at the same time.

Something similar has happened to the terms “establishment” and “anti-establishment”. Defining yourself as anti-establishment is one of the most effective means of gaining entry into the establishment. “Never believe anything until it’s been officially denied,” advised Sir Humphrey in Yes, Minister. Nor should we believe anyone has truly joined the establishment until he explicitly defines himself as being staunchly anti-establishment.

Both political parties have made a pitch for precious anti-establishment territory. The technique’s high water mark was Tony Blair’s 1999 Labour conference speech. With Manichean fervour, Blair described how everything he didn’t like – from the assassination of Martin Luther King to the failure of underprivileged British children to reach elite universities – was caused by the “forces of conservatism” and “the establishment”. Blair promised to wage war on “the elites, the establishment”, without, of course, focusing on his own debt to the educational establishment of private school and Oxford, or the professional establishment of the law.

The Conservatives now like to portray themselves as the true radicals, arguing that an unreformed state now exerts the greatest resistance to essential change. The Spectator’s leader ends with the argument that the “Conservatives are now the natural party of reform . . . Labour is becoming the party of the Establishment”. It is a revealing conviction. There is considerable overlap between the idea of modernisation and being anti-establishment: modernisation is the political goal but the language of anti-establishment provides the rhetoric and style.

The mainstream media, whether instinctively left or right, have long welcomed anti-establishment positioning within its own ranks. Tabloid newspapers fancy themselves as being fiercely anti-establishment. But when you are riding an ex-police horse with the Prime Minister in rural Oxfordshire, how many more circles of the establishment are there left to penetrate?

A very different but no less powerful anti-establishment impulse runs through the BBC. Some BBC comedians have built whole careers around ridiculing a parody of the establishment that ceased to exist decades ago. Apart from newsreaders, who are permitted to dress with the Savile Row precision of hedge-fund managers, it is generally advisable to follow anti-establishment conformity in dress. There is one exorbitant clothes shop in Notting Hill – it specialises in pre-crumpled shirts and over-priced unstructured trousers – that seems to survive exclusively to confer an air of “creativity” on TV executives.

It is far easier to navigate today’s new establishment rules if you are hard to place on the old establishment map. “Imperialism has gone into reverse,” argued Anthony Sampson in Who Runs This Place?, as he listed the remarkable number of Australians, Canadians and South Africans who head London’s power elite.

Sport provides a useful metaphor for British attitudes towards to the establishment. The biggest impediment to British sport has not, in fact, been the dead hand of blazers and committees that players, fans and journalists delight in ridiculing. A far bigger problem has been that the old establishment has provided a convenient excuse for failures by the people who are really in charge.

But arguing that the anti-establishment has become the new establishment is not quite the same thing as saying that all establishments are the same. The old establishment has not evolved into the new. The new establishment is quite different in two crucial respects. First, it believes it deserves its success. The language of meritocracy explains success as justified deserts that follow from effort and ability rather than the old mixture of luck, ability and contacts.

Second, there has been a shift in purpose. The function of the old establishment was to act as a bulwark. Its motto was Viscount Falkland’s famous adage on the eve of the English Civil War: “When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.” The function of the new establishment, by contrast, has been to hound and dislodge the old, often vindictively.

If today’s establishment (to be clear: the current ruling class) is “in chaos”, it may be because its own success has robbed it of a sense of purpose.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.