DJ Taylor: The new establishment is very different – ask Dani Filth and The Fall

The Archbishop of Canterbury takes on the Government, a pensioner takes a delivery driver hostage, and leather-clad goblins are now seen as 'icons'

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The phrase "the establishment" was first propagated, if not coined, by the journalist Henry Fairlie sometime in the mid-1950s.

By 1959 it was the title of a symposium, edited by the historian Hugh Thomas, featuring such contributors as Simon Raven on the Army and Fairlie himself on the BBC. The blurb defined its subject as "the alliance of those institutions and social attitudes which defend each other against attacks and enable the ruling class to maintain itself regardless of its present abilities; power, in fact, without responsibility".

Asked, half a century later, to come up with a representative range of establishment figures, the average social commentator would probably plump for such varied ornaments of society's upper echelon as Lloyd's underwriters, Lords Lieutenant, heads of Oxbridge colleges, Civil Service under-secretaries, quango executives. In other words, sharp operators connected not by ties of kinship or even social class, but by their ability to exchange quiet words, wield covert influence and fix things in a manner acceptable to people like themselves. The curious thing about this grouping, perhaps, is the way in which several institutions which, 50 years ago, would have featured on the establishment roster are now fundamentally detached from it.

Is The Times, formerly a byword for old-school stuffiness, part of the establishment? No, because its proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, is a free-market liberal with no respect whatever for the country's traditional patternings. The BBC? No, again, because the corporation tends to preach a brand of old-style herbivore liberalism, most obviously on election nights when a fair proportion of its staff can be seen almost falling over themselves in their anxiety to see the Conservatives lose. The Church of England, then? No, with emphasis, as can be glimpsed in the Archbishop of Canterbury's opposition to the Government's plans for welfare reform.

It would be easy to assume, in fact, that the strains and tensions of the post-Thatcher era have produced a kind of alternative "anti-establishment", membership consisting of such disparate elements as the BBC, senior clergy of the J C Flannel school, the teaching unions, Guardian journalists (significantly, the only newspaper to run a lead story on this week's Anglican synod) and one or two leftish media figures whose radicalism, if closely inspected, turns out to be approximately the colour of shrimp paste.

So what constitutes the modern establishment? Which institutions may be said to represent the slightly bovine, faintly xenophobic, small-"c" conservatism that is the nation's default setting? Passing through Stansted airport last weekend, I found myself in a departure lounge where well over a hundred people were sitting reading the The Mail on Sunday. It was a sight to chill the blood.

***

There never was a cabinet minister, surely, with Michael Gove's ability to scoop headlines. Scarcely a week seems to pass without him crash-landing on to the newspaper front pages with some eye-catching scheme for educational reform. What was remarkable about this week's set of plans – a more academic curriculum, less coursework and extra exams, greater opportunities for the disadvantaged – was how muted the criticism turned out to be. The BBC education correspondent admitted that the reforms would be popular with parents. Andy Burnham, Labour's excellent education spokesman, was reduced to complaining that the Government would be creating a "two-tier educational system", as if successive governments over the past 20 years haven't run such a programme, made up of good schools that teach their pupils well and bad schools that teach them badly.

As the aura of crusading zeal that always surrounds Gove's performances at the Dispatch Box began to recede, two questions remained. The first was: why couldn't the last government, in the 13 years it spent tinkering with the country's educational system – a Labour government, damn it, and supposedly keen on social mobility, have come up with something like this? Naturally, Gove has ideological fish to fry, but his basic aim seems to be to give every child the best possible chance to succeed – not something that could have been said of many of his Labour predecessors. On BBC News, Chris Keates, from the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers, could be found lamenting an "assault on teachers". Unhappily, this coincided with an Ofsted report suggesting that the number of failing schools has doubled and that a substantial percentage of teachers weren't up to their jobs. It wasn't really the time for principled defiance.

***

My local news story of the week involved a 72-year-old from the village of Newton Flotman who appeared on the front page of the Eastern Evening News after holding a delivery driver hostage. Ivan Langley became so incensed over the service he received from Hotpoint, which had allegedly supplied him with a series of defective cookers, that he locked the company's driver in his bungalow and announced that she would stay there until he was given a fully functioning replacement. Anna Hawes stayed there for two hours until a police officer managed to broker her release.

Happily, all those involved remained calm. Mr Langley observed that his captive had "taken it very well. She's been treated with respect, and we haven't beaten her up or anything". For her part, Ms Hawes remarked that it was an afternoon she "wouldn't forget in a hurry".

So how far can direct action of this kind be taken to get your point across? It is a mark of how cynically most people regard transport companies that those passengers inconvenienced by the brisk announcement that their scheduled service is cancelled who stage a sit-in tend to be regarded as folk heroes. Even better, they usually achieve their aim, for a carriageful of angry travellers determined on staying put will, after all, have to be taken somewhere. The exception to this rule is, inevitably, Ryanair who, faced with a passenger revolt in France last week, simply turned off the lights and called the police. In most cases, though, the direct action approach seems to confirm a great modern truism: "No exit" really means "there is an exit, but we'd prefer you not to use it".

***

Reporting on last week's concert by The Fall at London's Electric Circus, The Independent's rock critic, Andy Gill, noted that during one number the band's irascible frontman, Mark E Smith, "did a brilliantly accurate impression of a drunk". No doubt Gill meant to be kind, but one or two of us who have seen The Fall perform live over the past few years might wonder quite how much genuine dissembling was involved. Curiously, this urge to elevate even the most humdrum parts of a performer's behaviour to the level of aesthetic stance can be seen in academic considerations of The Fall's exhilarating racket. Reviewing Renegade, Smith's garrulous autobiography, for this newspaper a couple of years ago, I suggested that, while entertaining, it read like a series of rambling, semi-drunken rants delivered into a tape recorder. Clearly, I was wrong about this, for, browsing through Michael Goddard and Benjamin Halligan's invaluable Mark E Smith and The Fall: Art, Music and Politics (left), I found myself being ticked off for "chastising Smith for failing to account for, and narrate, himself in a lucid and timely fashion".

Worse, I discovered that I had been advocating "a form of biography which perpetuates what Deleuze and Guattari identify as an arborescent logic, fixated on essentialised identities taking clear, historically accountable paths through their contexts and times". Well I never.

And so all that rambling incoherence was merely Smith confirming the "transformative multiplicity" of his identity? But, then, when Dylan Thomas dropped dead from his bar stool he was doubtless performing an act of alcoholic self-valorisation. Or something.

***

Glancing over my eldest son's shoulder as he sat reading the latest issue of Kerrang!, I inquired who the leather-clad goblin with the malevolent leer whose picture he was admiring might be. "That," Felix replied, "is Dani Filth." Filth, presumably a nom de guerre, is the lead singer of the band Cradle of Filth, and has a new album to promote. The most interesting fact yielded by the interview, though, is that Filth has recently been voted "one of Suffolk's most iconic figures".

No one seemed to know if this tribute was ironic. For a moment I tried to ignore the old rivalry between Suffolk and my own home county of Norfolk – symbolised in today's grudge match between Ipswich Town and Norwich City – and applied myself with as much objectivity as possible to the puzzle of who the other iconic Suffolk figures seen off by Filth might be. Constable? King Redwald of the East Angles? Some sheep in a field near Woodbridge? I think we should be told.

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