Terence Blacker: The Establishment has gone, but are the powerful of today any better?

The Way We Live: Those who reach the top now have little interest in playing a part in public life

Old school is very important, read a memo, hand-written to himself over 50 years ago, by Anthony Sampson, the author of Anatomy of Britain. That analysis of Britain's ruling elites was published in 1962, but Sampson's private papers, which can now be seen at the Bodleian Library, reveal that some things have remained unchanged.

Not only is the old school still very important, but there remains a connection between class and power. The chasm of misunderstanding between those on the inside of our great institutions and the rest of us is as great as ever. Some elites – think of the banking sector – continue to work in a convenient fog of complexity and confidentiality.

Yet it would be almost impossible to write an Anatomy of Britain today. The idea behind the original book was that this country is run by an interlinking and overlapping group of political, legal, bureaucratic and financial elites – "the Establishment", as it had become known. Sampson was rather sniffy about tycoons and mavericks, seeing them as outsiders.

His research method was revealing. He wrote a personal letter to the 200 most influential men (they were all men) in British public life, and asked for an interview. Almost without exception, they jumped at the chance. Can you imagine that now? The very idea of an Establishment assumes a sense of belonging. In 1962, when Sampson's book was published, the ruling class was something of a club, and the author (Westminster and Christ Church, Oxford) was seen to be a member. His interviews were carried out on an easy, trusting basis.

Today there is no obvious Establishment. The idea that any sort of clubby camaraderie exists between journalists, politicians and lawyers is absurd – and, if it did exist, would be seen as suspect. As parliamentary committees and public inquiries into the press or banking have shown, those who belong to one elite are keen to show how independent they are from other areas of power.

The meritocracy in which Sampson believed may be closer than it was. There is less obviously a ruling class. It is difficult to imagine cosy muttered chats at the Beefsteak Club resolving matters of state. Once there were murkily powerful fixers in public life, like Lord "Two Dinners" Goodman. No one quite knew what he did but, whenever there was a crisis, he seemed to be involved in some important but mysterious way.

Who would be our Two Dinners today? Lord Falconer? Dame Pauline Neville-Jones? Lord Prescott? Richard Branson? None quite fits the fill, because the whole idea of an Establishment has been replaced by individualism.

When Sampson was first researching, to be an insider within a powerful elite was a matter of pride. Today, no one would admit to it: too faceless, corporate, compromised. Being oneself, making one's own way in the world, is the thing. In that context, the lost world of the Establishment does not seem so contemptible. At least then the members of the ruling elite, however privileged they may have been, had a sense of responsibility. The reason why they were so keen to talk to Anthony Sampson was that they wanted to explain, no doubt with a certain self-importance, the part they played within their respective elite to outsiders.

They may have been appallingly male, white and public-school educated, but surely the idea that it was a good thing to contribute to public life was preferable to the modern pursuit of personal ambitions.

In our own post-Establishment world, where class, schooling, colour and gender still play a determining role, those who do reach the top have little interest in playing a part in the modern anatomy of Britain. The individual and the image come first. It is not such a great advance on the past as some might think.

Blessed are the dealmakers

There was yet more encouragement at the weekend for those who believe that religion needs to play a more central role in our national life. Charles Clarke, who never seemed to belong to the "Blessed are the meek" school of politician when he was in power, has revealed that he is to be visiting professor of faith and politics at the University of Lancaster. While not a believer himself, Professor Clarke considers faith to be a force for good.

Meanwhile, over in the soaraway Sun on Sunday, an archbishop has launched a new column. Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, led with some worthy thoughts on Lent before closing with some spectacular Episcopal brown-nosing towards his new employers. "Live in hope, free from fear, and embrace every day that God puts before you with confidence," he urged, before adding in excited, evangelical italics. "And if you can buy the Sun seven days a week, all the better!"

This, let us remember, is the second highest-ranking cleric in the Church of England. Praise the Lord and pass the contract!

terblacker@aol.com

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