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A tale of two establishments

The future Edward VII, seated centre, at Oxford in the 1860s. Popperfoto/Getty Images

The annual Lord Mayor’s banquet on Monday had all the hallmarks of an establishment affair, says Bagehot in The Economist. It was dull and its proceedings were incomprehensible to outsiders. If Henry Fairlie, who coined the term “establishment” back in 1955, had witnessed the “stately procession of sea bass and grass-fed beef”, he would have thought nothing had changed.

Yet this “self-satisfied surface” concealed a split. There are now two rival power centres in Britain, “hostile and mutually uncomprehending”. One, centred on the Tory party, includes vestiges of the old establishment, like public schools and the armed forces, but also the City and right-wing newspapers. Its heartland is the provinces, where small businesses complain about rising taxes.

The other is progressive-liberal and based on cultural institutions: the civil service, universities, publishing houses, the BBC and, increasingly, the legal profession. “It is so metropolitan that the division echoes the split between the Court and Country factions of the 17th and 18th centuries.”

The Tory establishment believes in the nation state, the liberal one in cosmopolitanism. The first sees British history as “a treasure-house” of achievements, the second believes the “arc of history bends towards justice”, which it defines as diversity, equity and inclusion. “The Tories see the man in the pub as a fount of wisdom; liberals increasingly think he is a bigot.”

Both, in fact, are run by extremists: there’s no room for Rory Stewart in today’s Tory-based one, and no room for “heterodox thinkers” such as Kathleen Stock in the liberal one. Each is “addicted to squabbling” and blames the other for our problems.

They don’t just hate each other; they also seem to hate their own followers, says Madeline Grant in The Daily Telegraph. “The entire country seems in the grip of organisations that give every impression of disliking those whose interests they claim to represent.” The Tory party, not content with imposing Gordon Brown’s economic platform on its members, is even targeting such “totemic” Tory staples as wood-burning stoves.

On the left, Labour has abandoned its core electorate and the BBC has alienated loyal audiences with “its doomed quest to attract younger viewers”. The liberals who run the National Trust are obsessed with political causes, while, during the pandemic, the Church of England “behaved cravenly”, ordering parishes to lock their doors and even banning the clergy from going into their own churches.

About the only institution in Britain that seems “mercifully free” from this tendency is the Women’s Institute. Despite its “jam and Jerusalem” image, it’s managed to move with the times while attracting a more diverse membership. But, based on Britain’s current trajectory, “it can’t be long before they start trying to ban cake”.