THE ANNEX BLOGThe Queen and the Establishment – 21.4.16
Illustration for the Queen and the Establishment featuring a portrait of the Queen and the cover for Peter Hennessy's Establishment and Meritocracy

The Queen turned 90 today. While her role is mainly representative and ceremonial, it has often been argued that she is part of The Establishment. But what is The Establishment? It clearly is a difficult idea to untangle and many have tried. Perhaps one of the best attempts is Peter Hennessy’s Establishment and Meritocracy, and The Guardian commented that ‘If you want to know what the establishment thinks of itself, look at this’. Below is an extract from the book’s third chapter, which discusses the Queen.


[In 1962] Kingsley Martin, the then fabled editor of The New Statesman, opened up a new front on the long march in search of the British Establishment. Martin tried the tack of asking who was the head of it? For him, in his The Crown and The Establishment, the answer was as obvious as it was simple – the Monarch. And how does the King or Queen of the day sustain the role of Keeper of the Establishment as if it were the unacknowledged twin of Defender of the Faith? Through that ancient monarchical device of the Privy Council, that’s how.
‘In a fluid society’, wrote Kingsley Martin,

‘which is based on a parliamentary and representative system, the Prime Minister and his senior colleagues are inevitably incorporated into the Establishment. One way of ensuring that an influential politician will not revolt against it is to make him a Privy Councillor; the Leader of the Opposition is in effect co-opted by receiving a substantial salary. The Monarch plays an essential part in holding this system together. He or she is the one person to whom all intimate quarrels and controversies at the top, officially secret level may legitimately be made known. Either personally or through private secretaries, the Monarchy is the depository of much highly confidential information, and it may be its job to smooth out disharmonies within the Establishment. The Monarchy may act as the final arbiter when there appears danger of a breach in the continuity of government.’

This argument is a mixture of fact and fantasy. The Queen certainly was in a delicate position during the transition from Harold Macmillan to Alec Douglas-Home in N0.10 Downing Street a year after Kingsley Martin’s book appeared, in the days when Conservative leaders ‘emerged’ without resort to a ballot of Tory MPs. But to imply, as the Martin thesis does, that but for their privy councillorships or salaries Ramsay MacDonald, Clement Attlee, Hugh Gaitskell or, a year later, Harold Wilson might have wished to remake the British state in a fundamentally radical fashion or were pre- vented from pushing through heavy-duty socialist measures because they had the letters ‘PC’ after their names is absurd – all the more so because Kingsley Martin knew these men.

To be sure, a touch of monarchical stardust which in the mid-nineteenth century Walter Bagehot thought essential to its mystique (‘when there is a select committee on the Queen the charm of royalty will be gone. Its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic’) clung to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II in the early 1960s (certainly far more than today though the Queen is still powerful box office). Anthony Sampson recognised this in his 1962 Anatomy when he wrote that ‘in many of the conflicts that appear in this book – between old schools and new, old universities and new, classicists and scientists, public service and trade, old regiments and new corps, the royal magic hangs always over the old’.

I have, however, a dash of sympathy for anyone who tries to depict the undepictable, to catch the essence or the crewing of the British Establishment at any particular moment in its wraith’s progress. Any attempt is likely to look either naïve or way off or both to those who came later. My own mid-1980s attempt to find them amongst the postwar Good and Great certainly does. The ‘Czars’ and ‘Task Forces’ that have in part replaced Royal Commissions have not produced grand corps comparable to that exhibited by the great inquirers of the past. And the Establishment concept has been made still more elusive over the past quarter-of-a-century by the rise of a new political economy (the post-Big Bang City, hedge funds and all that) plus an electronic media explosion driven by new technologies alongside the grander newspapers not to mention the new Britain, young country again banalities of ‘New Labour’ which held the field and tempted the credulous (as did something I could never grasp called the ‘Third Way’) for a few years after 1997.

Such non-Establishment developments intrigued me afresh in April 2013. The first occasion was when Jonathan Hill, Lord Hill of Oareford, the Leader of the House of Lords, opened the tributes to Lady Thatcher by recalling 1975 when, as Jonathan put it, ‘this non-establishment figure had become leader of the establishment party’. A couple of weeks later I was talking with a man I hugely admire, a scientist and a member of the House of Lords who has run top-of- the-range institutions and yet has that modesty and quietness that can go with great scientists. If there were league tables for Establishment and meritocracy he would be at the very top of the Premiership in both.

I asked him if a British Establishment still existed. ‘I don’t believe there is such a thing as “The Establishment”’, he said. ‘If Anthony Sampson went looking for it now he would find it completely different – in the hedge funds; in the media; the sort of people who would think that academia and the clubs are the ancien régime’.

My greatly admired friend set me thinking. I reckon there is a permanent element at the core of the British Establishment – a kind of gyroscope – which embraces the grand old professions like the Law and the Civil Service (though the latter is a tad tattered at the moment), the House of Lords (especially sections of the crossbenches where sit the former Cabinet Secretaries, Law Lords, Chiefs of the Defence Staff and Queen’s Private Secretaries), the Royal Society, the British Academy, the learned societies generally, the scientific and engineering institutes and the great medical colleges. The reach and clout of these institutions and tribes may fluctuate but they never truly fade, let alone disappear. While around this rooted, inner core there swirl the transient elements in the media, the financial world and the celebritocracy in constellations that vary from generation to generation who can have a powerful, if often passing influence on the mood music of political and economic discussion, and in the case of celebritocracy, the norms of our wider society. If I were writing that book on the British Establishment the permanent/temporary divide would govern my approach.

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