So, is there an Establishment?

It was a clash of the old and the new when Peregrine Worsthorne and And rew Neil locked horns over the state of modern Britain
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The Independent Online
It was a fight over the very heart of Britain: the Establishment. But, as these highlights from their argument on BBC Radio 4's Today programme yesterday morning show, Andrew Neil, former editor of The Sunday Times, and Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, former editor of The Sunday Telegraph, differed in their perception of its usefulness - and almost everything else.

John Humphrys: Does the Establishment really exist?

Andrew Neil: I think the Establishment does exist. It's not as omnipresent as when you and I were wee lads but it's still around, it still controls a lot of levers of power.

The Economist recently published a table of the top 100 positions in Britain, which it had done 30 years before, and Oxbridge and public schools were as dominant as ever.

JH: Weren't you a member of the Establishment as editor of The Sunday Times?

AN: We were outside the Establishment but we were in great danger of being seduced into joining the Establishment. We managed to avoid that seduction.

Peregrine Worsthorne: I think that's a nonsensical theory. Andrew Neil and Rupert Murdoch have a conspiracy theory that members of what we call the Establishment are running the country which is not wholly different, not wholly more sensible, than the one Hitler had that the Jews were running Germany.

The Neil position is that anybody who comes from what he regards as the old governing class is a member of the Establishment and must be eliminated for the health of Britain, because until they are got out of the bloodstream of this country it will go to rack and ruin.

This has had the effect of demoralising a whole stratum of society. It's eliminating them from acting in a way which enables them to do any good. Because whatever good these positions for historical reasons do, you have the Murdoch press trying to smear them, with the result that most institutions are now demoralised with the consequences for all to see.

These two miserable men [Neil and Murdoch] have done British public life enormous harm.

AN: I'm not miserable at all, though I've now had Nazis and Jews and elimination thrown at me in that little tirade which I managed to stay awake through. I don't care what anybody's background is, all I want to make sure is that positions of power go to people of merit, be they from Eton or Wigan Comprehensive.

It's undeniable still that so many positions in British society are held as a result of privilege, not as a result of merit, effort and hard work, and so there is so much wasted talent in Britain still.

We have bright people we do not exploit and get into the top positions. The more we get rid of people with funny names and silly titles the better Britain has done, so we're moving in the right direction but there's still a long way to go yet.

PW: If Mr Neil thinks standards of public life, in Parliament for example, have enormously improved as a result of his efforts he is living in absolute cloud-cuckoo-land.

There is a total lack of realism in what he's been up to in destroying institutions in this country, it absolutely amazes and shocks me.

JH: Weren't we entitled to know the truth about the Royal marriage [the Sunday Times printed the first extracts of Diana: Her True Story]?

PW: I'm not going to get into an argument about what we're entitled to know. Anybody knows that many families go through difficulties.

If you have an extraordinarily powerful institution run by Andrew Neil whose main interest is in disparaging, destroying, trying to demoralise these institutions because he believes them to have fallen or remained in the hands of a class he disapproves of. No institution, including the monarchy, can survive this kind ofapproach.

He's been a baleful influence on the life of this country and we're living among the destructive results.

JH: Do you accept any responsibility for demoralising the institutions?

AN: I'm reluctant to say anything, to be honest, because the more Perishing Worthless continues, the more he puts my case. I'd rather let him carry on and let the British people draw their own conclusions.

I take responsibility for judging and testing how well British institutions are serving our country and exposing them. That's my job as a journalist and the consequence of doing that is that Britain is in better shape than it was before.

Britain is now one of the most successful economies in Europe and the fact that it is not run by people like the other guest this morning shows that the old Establishment is giving way to a new one which actually knows what it's doing."