On Saturday 2nd November, the Academy of Ideas looked at the idea of the establishment, asking whether we can still talk about an establishment today and, if we can, what does it look like and who is part of it?
It feels good to rail against the establishment. Politicians across the world have positioned themselves as the brave outsider challenging the status quo. Whether they promise to “drain the swamp”, take on the “deep state”, challenge the “metropolitan elite”, or stick it to the “chattering classes”, there is a clear urge to identify the establishment and take it to task. But, does the establishment exist and, if so, what is it?
In Britain, the establishment has traditionally been understood along historical class lines, as a network of people who attend the best private schools, go on to Oxbridge and then take prominent positions in the arts, politics and industry. Many allege that little has changed: Eton still produces a disproportionate number of politicians and, according to the Sutton Trust, alumni of private schools and Oxbridge still dominate top jobs.
Yet, does this account for the changes that the UK and other countries have experienced? Some argue that, whatever the statistics on certain top jobs, cultural power – what is often called hegemony – resides elsewhere. They claim that a new establishment, defined less by birth or privilege and more by adherence to certain cultural and political ideas, like multiculturalism or feminism, dominates the arts and media. Rather than employing old and declining institutions like the church, this contemporary establishment exercises power through new institutions and tools like social media.
Whatever the truth in these assertions, where do more traditional analyses of class and capitalism fit in? The world economy has become vastly more interconnected than it used to be, with financial and economic elites seemingly as comfortable in Singapore as in New York or London. Sometimes termed “the Davos set”, some allege these people form the real establishment: globetrotters who evade both taxes and democratic control.
All of this raises the question of how to define the establishment. What gives people power: is it money, cultural influence, personal networks, adherence to certain ideas or something else? Perhaps the idea that there is any single establishment is itself misleading, maybe there are multiple establishments operating within different contexts.
How useful, then, is the idea of the establishment? Is it an indispensable part of a serious analysis of power or a cheap slur that can be used by any side of an argument? How, if at all, has the establishment changed in recent years and is there a new cultural hegemony as is sometimes alleged? Who exercises real power today and how?
Steve Richards - Broadcaster & Political Commentator
Steve Richards is a well-known British political commentator and broadcaster.
He has presented GMTV's The Sunday Programme, BBC Two's Despatch Box and several television series looking at leader personalities in British politics. He continues to be a regular presenter of Radio 4's Week in Westminster and also hosts his own politics podcast, entitled Rock n' Roll Politics.
Outside of broadcasting, Steve Richards writes regularly for British dailies, including The Guardian and The Independent, and is the author of several books about British politics, including The Prime Ministers: Reflections on Leadership from Wilson to May, Whatever It Takes: The Real Story of Gordon Brown and New Labour and The Rise of the Outsiders: How Mainstream Politics Lost Its Way.
Jill Rutter - Senior Fellow, Institute for Government
Jill Rutter directs the Better Policy Making programme at the Institute for Government and works as an external relations adviser at Full Fact.
Prior to joining the Institute for Government, Rutter was the director of Strategy and Sustainable Development in the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. She has also worked in a number of roles for BP and enjoyed a long career in the Treasury, working on areas such as tax, local government finance and debt and export finance.
Part of her career in the Treasury also saw Jill Rutter seconded to the No.10 Policy Unit for two and a half years (1992-94), where she oversaw health, local government and environment issues.
Outside of her main roles, Rutter is a proponent of public and policy debate in the UK and a regular media commentator on issues of effective government, appearing on, among others, the Today programme, Start the Week and The World at One.
David Starkey - Historian & Broadcaster
David Starkey is a former history lecturer at the London School of Economics, who has become well-known through his media presence and became a CBE in 2007 for his services to history.
A regular presence on Radio 4's Moral Maze, David Starkey has also made several appearances on Question Time and has presented a number of popular TV series on British history, such as, for example, Monarchy (2007), Henry VIII: The Mind of a Tyrant (2009) and David Starkey's Magna Carta (2015).
David Starkey also has a long list of historical publications to his name, the majority of which focus on the Tudor and Stuart periods of British history, in particular, on Henry VIII.
Robert Tombs - Emeritus Professor of French History, Cambridge University
Robert Tombs is a fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge and an emeritus professor of French history.
His main area of research is nineteenth-century French political history, with a focus on popular political culture. In particular, he has worked on the Paris Commune of 1871, French nationalism from the 1830s to 1914 and the history of the relationship between the French and the British from the end of the seventeenth century to the present day.
He has published widely on modern French history and Franco-British relations and is the author of numerous books on French history, including That Sweet Enemy: The French and the British from the Sun King to the Present (2013), Britain and France in Two World Wars (2008) and The War against Paris 1871 (2008). His latest book is The English and their History (2014).
Robert Tombs is also the co-editor of the pro-Brexit website, briefingsforbrexit.com, set up by British academics in 2017 to provide a platform for informed analysis around the UK leaving the EU.
Bruno Waterfield - Brussels Correspondent, The Times
Bruno Waterfield is the Brussels correspondent for The Times.
From 2006 to March 2015, he reported from Brussels for The Daily Telegraph. In total, he has been reporting on European affairs for 20 years; first from Westminster and then, since January 2003, from Brussels.
Bruno Waterfield is also a frequent contributor to spiked and a co-author of a manifesto against what he perceives to be the anti-democratic impulses of the EU, entitled No Means No!.
Claire Fox - Director, Academy of Ideas & Brexit Party MEP
Claire Fox is the director of the Academy of Ideas, which she established to create a public space where ideas can be contested without constraint. She convenes the yearly Battle of Ideas festival and initiated the Debating Matters Competition for sixth-formers. She also co-founded a residential summer school, The Academy, with the aim of demonstrating "university as it should be".
In May 2019, she was elected as a Brexit Party MEP for the North West England constituency of the UK in the European elections. During her tenure, she is taking a temporary sabbatical as the Battle of Ideas festival convenor, but she remains on the festival's editorial board.
Claire Fox is a panelist on BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze and is frequently invited to comment on developments in culture, education, media and free speech-related fields on TV and radio programmes in the UK, such as Newsnight and Any Questions?. Claire is a also a columnist for the Times Educational Supplement and the Municipal Journaland the author of I STILL Find That Offensive! (Biteback, 2018) and No Strings Attached! Why Arts Funding Should Say No to Instrumentalism (Arts&Business, 2007).
Claire is a board member of the international network of houses for debate, Time To Talk and, in 2018, she did a three-month residency as a presenter of the weekly three-hour radio magazine show, Fox News Friday, on LoveSportRadio.
Jacob Reynolds - Partnerships Manager, Academy of Ideas
Jacob Reynolds is the Academy of Ideas' partnerships manager. He also works as a co-convenor for the Academy of Ideas organisations, Living Freedom, The Academy and the boi charity.
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This discussion forms part of 2019’s Battle of Ideas festival of debate. This is the 15th year of the annual debate platform organised by the Academy of Ideas, which, in its own words, seeks to provide a space for interrogating ideas, open discussion and civilised debate.
To find out more about this year’s Battle of Ideas, visit the festival website at https://www.battleofideas.org.uk/why-battle-ideas/.