Dance on the grave of the Establishment

Notions of right no longer include due deference to the state's authority or duty to one's class: Authority may pass to power centres beyond the reach of the ballot
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The real lesson of the Ordtech conspiracy, as of Matrix Churchill and the leaks from government's heart, is not that we live under a corrupt Establishment, but that we are living in a time of disestablishment. The Establishment is dissolving. It is snitching on itself. Reliable chaps are thinning on the ground. A new public morality is stalking the land.

Nothing is new about these scandals, except that we know about them. Who believes that in earlier decades there were no disreputable or foolish decisions by the Foreign Office? Or that businessmen had a hard time when they fell foul of the state? Or that Parliament and the public were misled about embarrassing policies?

Such things are not the unique burden of the Major-Thatcher years. What is really striking is that judges, senior barristers, business executives, civil servants, former ministers, Tory MPs and newspaper proprietors are losing any deference for their political masters. They don't give a damn what Downing Street wants them to say or do, even if they were appointed personally by the Prime Minister. They say what they think and do what they want. That is why these stories are getting out, and running.

Think of Lord Justice Taylor's brusque sweeping-aside of Government secrecy in the Ordtech appeal and his attack on Michael Howard over sentencing. Think of the stripping-away of the veils of secret Whitehall life by Lord Justice Scott. Think of Alan Clark's devastatingly candid evidence in the Matrix Churchill trial itself.

Consider the way Lord Nolan and his committee, carefully hand-picked by John Major and the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robin Butler, nevertheless produced a report that shook the Cabinet and divided the Tories in Parliament. Think of the scorching, publicly expressed views of Judge Stephen Tumim, the outgoing Inspector of Prisons, on the prisons policy of the Home Secretary. Think of those anonymous civil servants who regularly pass documents outside. Think of Derek Lewis, going loudly.

In earlier decades, influenced by ruling-class reticence, by the disciplines of World War and by the Cold War, judges seemed much quicker to accept ministerial authority, newspapers were more respectful of it and public servants shut up and served it. Most, though not all, of the people listed above as recent troublemakers for the state would have fitted into the original definitions of the Establishment, as it was first described by AJP Taylor in the New Statesman in 1953 and then by Henry Fairlie, a deep- drinking genius, in a better-known article in the Spectator in September 1955.

For Taylor, as a left-wing historian, the Establishment was essentially the ruling class, which recruited outsiders as soon as they conformed to its codes of conduct. "There is nothing more agreeable in life," he wrote, "than to make peace with the Establishment - and nothing more corrupting." By that definition, British public life in 1995 is cheeringly full of incorruptibles who refuse to make peace on politicians' terms.

Fairlie's article was subtler and more specific. He was writing about the attempts to hush up the disappearance of the traitors Burgess and Maclean and, therefore, about the same Foreign Office and intelligence service demi-monde so heavily involved in the Ordtech and Matrix Churchill fiascos. He stressed that the Establishment went beyond the official centres; power in England "is exercised socially".

He then listed the chair of the Arts Council, Lady Violet Bonham-Carter, the "stratum" of Foreign Office types and upper-crusties who tried to protect the Burgess-Maclean story via the Times and the Observer and the links between Buckingham Palace and the Leader of the Opposition, which had prevented a disobliging piece about Princess Margaret appearing in an American magazine. All demonstrated, said Fairlie, "the subtle social relationships" of the Establishment at work.

But those relationships, linking politics so tightly with the media and public service, have now gone. Britain still has its elites and its closed circles of perk and privilege, notably in business. But this is no longer a country in which chaps from the FO, the odd titled lady and the head of a quango can close ranks and twist public debate. The press, far from being fixable, is aggressively on the other side. Whitehall is being jemmied open. Princesses, lampooned at home, would give their rollerblades for the sort of soft, gossipy coverage they get in the US.

Fairlie's Establishment had started to crack within a few years of his article, battered by the satire boom and Sixties' scandals. And some Establishment members have always broken rank - there have always been stroppy judges, republican peers and so on.

It is more that, these days, there are no ranks left to break. Notions of right no longer include due deference to the state's authority or duty to one's class. Earlier generations of public servants were acting conscientiously when they kept silent for the good of the country, or gave the benefit of every disputed doubt to the Crown. What has changed is not the goodness or badness of those in public life, but the civic morality by which they judge themselves. It has no space for unquestioning loyalty to ministers or institutions.

It is not a shift to the left, as such. The judges militant and sleaze- finders are mostly soft Tories, from Establishment backgrounds. Alan Clark is hardly one of life's dripping liberals. Those podgy, unappealing businessmen who traded with Iraq and who refused to take their judicial medicine punishment are not the sort you find on the list of signatories to Charter 88.

It is more that the solidarity described by Fairlie has been destroyed by liberalism, social mobility and a more aggressive democratic culture. These conspiracies and embarrassment are spilling out now not because the state is behaving worse, but because other people in public life are growing worse at taking "no" for an answer.

So there are libertarian QCs, unabashed whistle-blowers and judges who are utterly unawed by elected politicians. The deference of senior barristers and judges, editors and tycoons, has gone. The military loyalty of the state bureaucracy is going, too, partly due to the contract-culture and agency management brought in by this Government. It is almost as if, living under a monarchy, we are becoming stroppy republicans.

Not all of this should be unequivocally welcomed, because if the elected elite is no longer accepted as worthy of some special respect, its authority may pass to commercial or international power centres that are even farther beyond the reach of the ballot-box. But in every other respect, rather than wailing our outrage at revelations like the Ordtech one, we should celebrate the fact of these stories, for they are signs of disestablishment of Britain.

What did that Establishment described by Fairlie 40 years ago leave us with? A country in which ministers could gag justice and an MI6 man could say of a death threat, "If we were not too squeamish we might use this point to ensure silence", secure in the belief that his thuggish hint would never be traced or judged. If that country is dying, we shouldn't stand around wringing our hands; we should join hands and dance on its grave.