Is there an ‘establishment’?

Colm Murphy 1 June 2014

Most of us will have heard of the so-called ‘Establishment’. There have been many incarnations: John Lennon sung about ‘folks on the hill’, and nearly every hippy portrayed in popular culture will utter the words ‘The Man’. We all know vaguely what it’s supposed to mean: a small, relatively homogenous clique of rulers and authority figures who govern/manipulate our society.

However, there is a question here worth asking. Does this ‘Establishment’ actually exist? I would argue, with some reservations, yes.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t share conspiracy-theorists’ vision of political power. There isn’t a round table of cackling politicians and CEOs in the Bilderberg group planning world domination. Even among ‘serious’ commentators, there is a tendency to believe in a master-plot of some description. Amongst the left in particular, many people seem to argue the government is deliberately trying to hurt the poor, while if we glance over to UKIP’s Nigel Farage, he seems to view any EU initiative as an attempt to create a new USSR. The Establishment is not a reality in this way. After all, George Osborne probably does have some honest intentions.

I’m not necessarily talking about the ‘Establishment’ of mainstream political parties either. The success of UKIP in both recent elections (though exaggerated by the media) reveals the extent to which people are dissatisfied with the current Westminster bubble. There is justification for this, but the idea that Nigel Farage, a public-school educated ex-city banker, is the scourge of the Establishment is both laughable and completely misses a deeper problem.

Still, ‘the Establishment’ can be said to exist in another way. We all know that at the top of our society (politicians, CEOs etc.), individuals from prosperous socio-economic backgrounds, and often from private education, dominate. According to the Sutton Trust educational charity, 51% of medics, 70% of judges, and 54% of leading journalists went to independent schools.

This is often because those from richer backgrounds have a better higher educational start in their careers. Here at Cambridge, the latest figures show that 63% of us were state-educated. On the surface, that seems a respectable figure, and it does reflect some hard work on the part of the University and Colleges. Yet, if only 7% of the country went to private school overall and yet 37% of Cambridge students were privately educated, then we have a problem. The stastics are clear: you are significantly more likely to go to one of the best universities in the country if you went to private school.

Away from the state-private divide, even those who went to state schools in this university are often still from relatively prosperous backgrounds, and here I include myself. I went to a state school, but my home situation was, in financial terms, comfortably middle class for most of my life. It’s hard to measure this, but we can discern indications of a socio-economic inequality in Higher Education. Cambridge students who were once on free-school meals are a rarity – a drop in the ocean. It was recently revealed by Times Higher Education that only 25 children who were on free school meals at the age of 15 made it to Cambridge. This is out of 12,000 undergraduates. Looking further afield, only 64 made it to any Russell Group University.

Merit is a key factor in admission to our top universities, but unfortunately it is clearly not the only one in play. The lucky ones with a propitious start in life tend to become rich, send their children to 'better' schools, and perpetuate the cycle. Those who have to make every penny count have poorer diets, harder living conditions and are inevitably disadvantaged at a young age. Educational inequality, therefore, reinforces itself. I’ve not even considered racial and gender disparities. Those who went to our best universities then tend to go into the top jobs in this country. A consideration of the Cabinet of our current government is just one striking example of this.

More than figures and statistics, though, this has a material effect on all of us. A narrow caste of decision-makers in itself alters the decisions made. If you are surrounded by people from similar backgrounds as yourself, it is very easy to lapse into closed ways of thinking and groupthink. Feeding off each other, the Establishment often believes it has a limited range of options, and consequently it’s much less probable for somebody to then suggest a new, radical solution. It is also more likely to swallow its own myths. As figures such as Owen Jones have suggested, is it any wonder most British newspapers disproportionately focus on benefit ‘scroungers’ and ‘skivers’, when the vast majority of journalists are from prosperous backgrounds and have never been on welfare? Myopia is encouraged by ‘the Establishment’.

Is there an insidious oligarchy is maliciously ruling Britain? No. Does this country tend to send people of a certain background to positions of authority? Definitely. Is this harmful to us all? In some important ways, yes. ‘The Establishment’ is still a problem we all need to tackle.