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The club so powerful no one admits to having joined

From the late Tony Benn to Nigel Farage, maverick politicians like to portray themselves as battling 'the Establishment', a mysterious, ever-shifting force

Whatever the precise nature of his, or her, talents, and whatever the kind of compact he or she manages to forge with a nervous electorate, maverick politicians nearly always have only one genuinely penetrative arrow in their quivers: outsider status. The late Tony Benn peddled this line with varying degrees of success for upwards of 20 years, despite being the son of a peer and the member of several Labour cabinets. In much the same way, the Ukip leader Nigel Farage's newspaper columns come crammed with intimations of the 90 degree angle at which he apparently sits to the world and many a disparaging reference to "the Establishment" and its attempts to do him down.

As abstract nouns go these days "the Establishment" must be one of the most over-used. Mr Farage's column for The Independent last week used it three times. The headline proclaimed that Ukip funding was only an issue because "the Establishment is running scared". The opening paragraph alleged that an opinion poll suggesting that 80 per cent of the public resent current immigration levels "has not gone down well with the Establishment", whose "newspaper of choice" – The Times – "has hit upon a new campaign to forget the arguments and play the man and not the ball". Finally Mr Farage claimed that: "Ukip is a choice for us to change direction, and that is what the Establishment really fears."

The interesting thing about this spirited harangue is that at no point does Mr Farage define his terms. He merely assumes that his readers know what he is talking about and takes it from there. This is a pity, for anyone who arrived at a satisfactory deconstruction of what "the Establishment" means, here in the second decade of the 21st century, would be doing the cause of political, if not social and possibly even cultural, analysis, a terrific service. As it is, you have a terrible feeling that Mr Farage is simply daubing his graffiti on the wrong wall, and that in his haste to register his sense of exclusion he is mistaking the nature of the entity that may or may not be excluding him.

The term "the Establishment" is popularly supposed to have been coined in the mid-1950s by the journalist Henry Fairlie, celebrated in literary circles for very nearly running off with Kingsley Amis's first wife, Hilly. It was later the subject and title of a symposium, published in 1959 and edited by the historian Hugh Thomas, featuring essays on such pillars of society as the public schools, the army, the civil service, the City, the party system and the BBC. The phrase itself is defined on the book's jacket as "a vague body", taken to represent "the alliance of those institutions and social attitudes which defend each other against attack and enable the ruling class to maintain itself regardless of its present abilities; power, in fact, without responsibility."

Now, it will immediately have become apparent that the "Establishment" of 1959 is not the Establishment of 2014, if only because several of the component parts of the alliance have shifted their alignment. Mr Farage, for example, declares that The Times is this body's "newspaper of choice", but The Times is owned by an Australian magnate with republican sympathies and a pronounced distaste for the kind of stuffy institutionalism that Mr Farage imagines to be marshalled against him. Similarly, large sections of the Conservative Party regard the BBC – one of Hugh Thomas's Establishment talismans – as a hotbed of lefties bent on squandering the taxpayer's money. It is the same, up to a point, with politics itself. After all, in the political battles of the 1970s it would be possible to argue that Margaret Thatcher was the anti-Establishment figure and her Labour opponents, Wilson and Callaghan, proponents of the status quo.

All this suggests that, more than half a century since Thomas's contributors – they included such thoroughly respectable figures as Lord Balogh and the Tory MP Christopher Hollis – put pen to paper, there are several different types of Establishment, sometimes free-standing, sometimes capable of colliding, or coalescing, in unusual and occasionally sinister ways.

Since the 1930s, if not before, something that might be called the Labour Establishment has been making its presence felt, both in national government and, more important, at the local level, where in certain parts of the north of England, Wales and Scotland, what was effectively a one-party state, buttressed by trades union support, led to extraordinary abuses of power. A friend of mine brought up in South Wales once recalled that her school-teaching father, when seeking promotion, was told to apply not to the education authority but to the local Labour MP.

There is certainly a media Establishment, though it would take several pages of this newspaper even to begin to isolate the members of its high command, and a City Establishment, now a highly complex organism far beyond the pre-1980s hierarchical chain of Bank of England, leading merchant banks, brokers, clearing houses and so on.

And if the complexity of the world we now inhabit has transformed "the Establishment" into a radically different animal, or animals, then so have the careers of many of the post-war era's self-styled rebels, most of whom have been positively smothered in the embrace of the thing they wanted to destroy. If one wanted a symbol of the way in which last year's surly young iconoclast turns into next year's Establishment fixture it might be found in the staging of Sir David Frost's memorial service in Westminster Abbey, with no less a figure than the Prince of Wales laying a wreath.

Reading John Carey's entertaining memoir The Unexpected Professor, I was left with the faint impression that Professor Carey, with his tenacious opinions and dislike of toffs, considers himself pretty much an anti-Establishment figure. On the other hand, there is no getting away from the fact that this is the former Merton Professor of English at the University of Oxford speaking, just as the bishop who rises to tell a church-full of confirmation candidates that he was "a bit of a rebel in his youth" is always going to have trouble sustaining this belief among his audience.

Not only are most modern establishments built on relativism, but their most outspoken critics tend to be firmly embedded within their walls. Professor Carey, for example, once published a pugnacious essay entitled "Down with Dons", which, as the critic Ian Hamilton pointed out, could only have been written by someone who was a paid-up member of the profession he affected to despise.

From the angle of the street corner, it would be easy to argue that Mr Farage, with his newspaper column, his private fortune and his talk-show appearances, is about as anti-Establishment as a Justin Bieber concert or one of Tracey Emin's delicious artworks.