Established values

Observations on back-scratching

Ever since I came across the term “the Establishment”, I’ve struggled to see what it means. Henry Fairlie (1924-90), the political journalist who first coined the term, defined it as “the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised. The exercise of power in Britain (more specifically, in England ) cannot be understood unless it is recognised that it is exercised socially.”

I used to quibble with the idea that there was some elite group that ran the world through friendship, blood and shared school and university days. I’ve changed my mind a bit, though, after reading John Rae’s diaries, published this month as The Old Boys’ Network (Short Books).

Dr John Rae (1931-2006) was the headmaster of Westminster School from 1972-86, and for a long time was the public face of the public school. As a pupil there, I liked Doc John, as we called him – a gentle, curious man who remembered the names of all 600 boys and 100 girls.

He was also an honest man, and in his diaries he is candid about all the back-scratching that goes on among the great and the good.

In one episode, he has drinks with Harold Wilson at Downing Street – a thank you to Doc John for agreeing to discuss a place at Westminster’s junior school for the sons of Wilson’s secretary, Lady Falkender. She had been worried about the standard of state schools . . . a concern that Labour bigwigs such as Harriet Harman and Cherie Blair might recognise.

But the really staggering revelations are about the deals struck between public schools and Oxbridge. At a Greek charity ball at the Dorchester, the Reverend John Kelly, principal of St Edmund Hall, Oxford, agrees to lean on his tutors to accept some borderline Westminster candidates – as long as Doc John sends one of his planet-brained boys from College, the school boarding house where the scholarship boys were incubated.

It’s not clear whether this deal went through, but Doc John admits that similar deals happened a lot – shoddy as he thought the whole racket was.

I still don’t think that there is a definable Establishment which runs the whole of Britain through a complex web of social ties. But I now see that there is at least one strand in the web that matches Fairlie’s thesis.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Who polices our police?