THE NEW ESTABLISHMENT Day six: The Royal Opera House

Of all proofs of power and esteem, the chairmanship of Covent Garden is the most potent.
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The Independent Online
Tomorrow evening at 5pm at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Lord Gummer, the new chairman of the board of directors, chairs his first monthly board meeting.

For John Gummer's younger brother, head of Shandwick, the world's biggest public relations company, it's all happening at once: elevation to the peerage, the appointment to run the Tories' election campaign, an Observer profile by Lynn Barber ... but of all these proofs of power and esteem, the Covent Garden job is the most potent.

The House's board has been seen as the pinnacle of the Establishment for as long as the term has been in circulation. David Mellor said, "I never believed the British Establishment existed until I became a minister and started going to dinner parties where I'd be lobbied about the Royal Opera House." Sir Claus Moser, the mathematician who became chairman in 1974, explained what it meant to enter what Iain Macleod, in a different context, called "the magic circle". "Until I became Chairman of the Royal Opera House I had never, but never, met anybody royal: now I was entertaining them month after month. When I was a frequent visitor to Covent Garden, or even on the board, some people would scarcely speak to me. Yet literally the day after my appointment as Chairman was announced, a very distinguished woman who had previously cut me dead, rang up, to invite my wife and me to spend the weekend with them in Scotland. From that moment onwards I saw a totally new layer of British life ... That is the British Establishment."

In speculating about a putative new Establishment, one runs up against the fact that an Establishment is by its very nature old. Unless it is flushed from the national system by bloody revolution (a glorious one won't suffice), the Establishment cannot be supplanted: it can only be added to or subtracted from.

And perhaps peculiarly in the British case, where the ruling class has had 930 years to refine the arts of survival, it is much harder to marginalise than people fondly imagine. It has, for example, a genius for co-opting those who might prove inimical to it. "The Establishment ... has never been exclusive," AJP Taylor wrote in the New Statesman in 1953, "rather drawing in from 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."

The composition of the board of directors of the House over the past 17 years shows the Establishment's genius for adapting to survive. In 1979, when Sir Claus was still chairman, there was a handful of classic English figures on the board, such as Lord (Mark) Bonham Carter, grandson of the prime minister Asquith, and son of the "divine" Lady Violet Bonham Carter, who was ubiquitous among the great and good for decades. But such men were more than balanced by brilliant Jewish emigres: Sir Claus himself, the philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin, the banker and Labour peer Lord Kissin, and the master operator of the age, Lord Goodman, chairman of the Arts Council and Wilsonian troubleshooter.

By the mid-Eighties, the Jewish intelligentsia was on the way out and the proportion of Thatcherite corporate meritocrats was climbing; a fly on the wall would have had a duller time of it as the age of the new philistines unfolded.

But if the businessmen brought superior number-crunching skills to the top table, it is doubtful whether the underlying elitist assumptions within Covent Garden about the vital role of monstrously expensive, vastly subsidised opera for the cultural health of the nation were modified at all. The Establishment ethos prevailed.

Spooling forward to the present, one finds a board that has never regained the intellectual wealth jettisoned in the Eighties - today, Bamber Gascoigne is about as brainy as it gets. The most splashily political director is undoubtedly Bob Gavron (pictured above), who was wheeled out by the Labour Party last weekend when he announced his gift of pounds 500,000, saying, "the days when the Tories were automatically the party of business are over."

Gavron, a barrister turned millionaire printing magnate who claims to have supported Labour all his life, is the perfect example of new Labour and old Establishment meeting and mating.

He has the robust acceptance of Thatcher's achievements - "When Thatcher came in she did what Labour should have done," he says - but his thoroughly wet, paternalistic view of political obligation could have come from the lips of any of the wets whom Thatcher ousted: "The Government's priority," he says, "should be to look after the people who can't look after themselves."

Whether defined by birth, brains or money, the House's board still represents a rarefied collection of people. There's only one exception: Chris Lowe, headmaster of a comprehensive school in Peterborough, who roars with laughter at the thought that he is de facto a member of the Establishment.

An opera nut who discovered his passion while doing National Service in Germany, and who has been infusing his students with it ever since, Lowe was brought on to the board in 1992, in a democratising spasm, to work for the House's increased accessibility. Thus not only is he a genuinely new sort of voice in the place, but his mission is new, as well.

In politics, however, it turns out that Chris Lowe is the ultimate floater. "I have absolutely no political affiliation," he says. "I've voted for all three of them in my time." Lowe may be the authentically new face of the Establishment - but he will be of precious little use to Tony Blair.