The new British establishment

Image of Simon Kuper

I left Britain 10 years ago, because I’d bought a flat in Paris for next to nothing. The Olympics are my longest stretch back since emigrating. Running around London now, I am constantly reminded of British quirks. One thing has struck me forcibly again: the UK has a unified establishment. The country is run by a group of people who believe much the same set of things. That has all sorts of consequences, good and bad.

Some things never change. The main route into the British establishment still runs through Oxford and Cambridge. (“Our universities – both of them!” cries establishment member Sir Humphrey in a paean to British institutions in Yes, Prime Minister.) Many establishment members went to private school, too, but the establishment is less posh than it was. Whether you are working class, a woman or a cocker spaniel, the new British establishment will let you in if you are clever and behave yourself. Jim O’Neill, chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, is a postman’s son and card carrying establishment member.

The establishment is always scouting for clever recruits. When I joined the FT in 1995, my first boss was a friendly young Londoner of Cypriot origin named Andrew Adonis. It took me one lunch with Andrew to establish that he was three times cleverer than me. Tony Blair spotted the same fact, and Adonis became transport secretary and later a lord. My next FT boss, Robert Thomson, was as clever as Adonis. Rupert Murdoch spotted him, and Thomson became editor of The Times and now runs The Wall Street Journal. My last boss in the building, Robert Chote, then a twenty-something economics whizz, now chairs the UK’s Office for Budget Responsibility. None of these three was high-born. All rose on merit. Even toffs like David Cameron need brains to get into the establishment.

Once inside, establishment members generally get on well. They all live in London, and meet at receptions and in each other’s kitchens (but rarely over long restaurant lunches any more). The links between different sectors are close and informal, even when not forged at Eton. Blair’s former adviser Alastair Campbell and O’Neill are both friends of Manchester United’s manager, Alex Ferguson, who had Blair’s mobile number for emergencies.

The right and left wings of Britain’s establishment get along fine. Establishment members are discouraged from holding strong fixed beliefs. Britain has no recent traumas of revolution, civil war or collaboration. Consequently, establishment members treat each other as good chaps even when they disagree on matters of life and death.

I’m currently reading Anthony Powell’s 12-volume novel A Dance to the Music of Time, and have just reached the bit where the establishment is riven by Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler in Munich in 1938. Powell, an Old Etonian who knew half the establishment, describes a fictional dinner party soon after Munich at which two Conservative MPs on opposite sides of the debate treat each other with impeccable politeness. They “had evidently no wish for argument”, writes Powell. That’s the British establishment. Literally anyone can be accommodated: “God Save the Queen” by the Sex Pistols, the ultimate anti-establishment song, was played at the Olympic opening ceremony just before the Queen’s own comic caper.

As I groom the lower slopes of the establishment, I’ve witnessed the same agreeableness. In 2009, a business school professor and I wrote a book together. A friend, a leading figure in various far-left organisations, offered to host a launch party for us. His far-left pals staffed the bar, and listened civilly as my co-author and I pontificated. If they saw us as agents of capital, they were impeccably polite about it. That evening would not have happened in Italy, where the left and agents of capital detest each other. The US also has a split establishment, as does France since the rise of the populist Nicolas Sarkozy.

In Britain, all establishment members agree on the same set of facts and, to some degree, even opinions, which they absorb every morning from BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. They pretty much all believe that climate change is happening, and also that we shouldn’t bother the economy by doing anything noticeable about it.

Having a unified establishment has a soothing effect on national life. However, there are also disadvantages. First, the British establishment has high levels of internal trust, which are easy to abuse. We’ve seen that in the Libor scandal: only a unified establishment would allow banks to “estimate” a fantastically important interest rate on good faith. Where there is high trust, rules are often slack. If the Bank of England thinks the commercial bankers are good chaps, it is more likely to let them fiddle the rates a touch.

And, lastly, a unified establishment will fall prey to groupthink. The entire British establishment, right and left, came to believe that “light-touch regulation” of banks was a whizzo scheme. If a giant bank falls over and destroys the economy, the whole lot will be to blame.

See Simon Kuper’s Olympics introduction for “Spectator sport”, showing exclusive images by Simon Roberts

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