We need a word for the forces that govern our lives. Establishment, a term popularized by Henry Fairlie in the 1950’s, is common currency. He meant by it “the whole matrix of official and social relationships within which power is exercised.” Ralph Waldo Emerson is held to be the first to use the word in that sense. The elite, or governing class (often prefixed by Metropolitan in England, since its members do not hang out in the country) is a serviceable alternative. Any formation with Liberal is now suspect, and it is increasingly abandoned as a prefix or suffix by those wishing to avoid the taint. I have some time for Aldous Huxley’s “Alpha Pluses” as shorthand for the ruling class. It is true that its members do think of their social position as correlating to their intellectual powers, a belief not always sustained by the facts of performance. The status quo has many impassioned and principled defenders, the world over, and they have reason on their side. To misquote Stanley Baldwin, the defenders are a lot of hard-faced men who look as if they had done very well out of the status quo. Nowadays, the defenders are easily identified as Remainers, devotees of the sacred European Union—and of the Bourbons. My own favorite term was coined by William Cobbett, a couple of centuries ago: “The Thing.” That has the sense of what we would now assume to be a horror-movie title. It is mysterious, has no ascertainable command center, and carries a suggestion of undefined power and menace. I think of a passage from Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, when the Cardinal says,
When I look into the fish-ponds in my garden,
Methinks I see a thing, armed with a rake
That seems to strike at me[.]
Which is why so many people vote against it, if they can discern its shape and direction. They can now. As that 19th-century radical Cobbett saw, The Thing is not on the side of the people.
Currently, the shape of The Thing in England is easily identified. It has “a local habitation and a name,” the House of Lords. We know what they think because they tell us, very loudly, repeatedly, and on TV’s Parliament Channel. You could call these self-revelations The Outing of The Thing. The majority of peers—not many of whom are hereditary—are unwaveringly anti-Brexit. For them, the euro is “in part an imperium and a belief system” (Charles Moore).
They all speak with passionate conviction of the evils of Brexit, and the need for a second referendum. And these are just the vanguard of the elite, which includes Parliament, the judiciary, the Civil Service present and retired, academe, the Diplomatic Service, the BBC, the Church of England, and the quangos—of which we were promised a bonfire by David Cameron. The faggots remain unlit. The Archbishop of Canterbury, that barometer of Liberal thinking, speaks ecstatically of the E.U. as “the greatest dream realised for human beings since the fall of the Western Roman Empire.” All these forces are engaged in a doomed war of attrition against the government—and the people. As Douglas Murray wrote (Standpoint, May 2018), “the Brexit vote is the first since universal suffrage that a substantial chunk of the elite will not accept and are continuously trying to overturn.” This is new. Most people understand that in a lifetime they will vote for the losing side perhaps half the time. That is life, and democracy. But when a whole class, and the most prominent at that, refuses to accept the people’s judgment, then we are in the early stages of what could become a civil war.
Recently the similarities have been pointed out between the areas of Britain voting Leave or Remain, and the performance of those areas in the civil wars of the 17th century. These can be striking. The Parliamentarians, or proto-left, held London throughout the wars. They still do, and voted Remain to prove it. Parliamentarians drew on the richest areas of the south and east, including the cathedral cities which profited from pilgrims. Ports and industrial centers were typically Parliamentarian. Against them were the strongholds of the royalists, which included the countryside, the shires, and the less economically developed areas of northern and western England. That was the way the war went, and it is quite considerably true of today’s England. Only three regions voted Remain: London, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Yesterday’s Monarchists are today’s government; yesterday’s Parliamentarians are today’s antigovernment forces, massing in the anti-Brexit House of Lords. As in the 1640’s we are seeing the struggle for supremacy between the executive and legislature.
There are major differences from the past, of course. Oxford was Charles’s headquarters for much of the war—Cambridge was Cromwell’s fief. It still is: In the referendum, Oxford voted heavily for Remain (70.3 percent), but was surpassed by Cambridge which went Remain by 73.8 percent. The universities, and the whole of academe, unite with the elite. The great triangle of London-Oxford-Cambridge dominates the scientific growth of the nation, and much of its political muscle. In the referendum, 81 percent of academics voted Remain, as against 48 percent nationwide; in other elections, some 12 to 14 percent vote Conservative. Overall, academe is now confirmed as a Vauban fortress of the left. It thinks, votes, and agitates in one way only.
We know then the main contours of today’s Establishment, its ultras and outriders, with their pillions, which we did not before the referendum fallout. What are their prospects? Much less promising, as I guess, than in past times.
The first weakness is the overweening self-confidence of the elite. Every public utterance made since the referendum result shows a mindset that is contemptuous and dismissive of opposition. There is a word for that mindset: hubris. A steady drift of enlightenment shows up the growing gulf between the ruling class and the public. Second comes the sheer numbers of those minded to vote against their rulers, and their collective power. In the 17th century, the discipline of Cromwell’s cavalry determined the outcome of the civil war; two battles, Marston Moor and Naseby, decided in a few hours on a single day the fate of the nation. Today, the voting power of the people is everything, and they are increasingly disinclined to accept the decrees of their masters. The last leader of Britain to misjudge his people was David Cameron, and he resigned at 8:30 on the morning of the referendum result, a total defeat for the British Establishment. His successor came close to resignation after she botched an unnecessary general election. All the indications are that the public has not changed its mind over its Leave vote, and refuses to believe its own ruling elite.
What is the basis for the stubborn allegiance of the elite to Remain, an increasingly discredited cause? I call into evidence Lady Bracknell, of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest.
What between the duties expected of one during one’s lifetime, and the duties exacted from one after one’s death, land has ceased to be either a profit or a pleasure. It gives one position, and prevents one from keeping it up. That’s all that can be said about land.
I do not lightly take issue with that formidable matriarch, for whose social views I have enduring respect, but things have moved on since 1895. Land has made a roaring comeback. Of the many reasons that make life good for landowners, two are salient. The first is the European Union, which now makes handsome set-aside grants to landowners who will merely look after their territory. Landowners are rewarded for being character witnesses to their own land! And the Common Agricultural Policy, the E.U.’s equivalent to the 19th-century Corn Law, maintains high prices on produce at all levels. The Anti-Corn Law League used to hold public meetings in the 1840’s, in which an emaciated farm laborer, clad in a smock, would quaveringly announce “Oi be protected, and Oi be starving.” Today’s equivalent of that laborer is a jobless youth in the E.U.
The second reason is renewable energy, that vital force for landowner enrichment, taking one of its forms as wind power. This source of energy is heavily subsidized by governments of all stripes, hence the attachment of the ruling class to the tenets of global warming. To have wind farms you need land, a commodity that landowners are delighted to supply.
The bonds between the Establishment and the E.U. are very strong. For example, the 9th Duke of Wellington, a Conservative, was a member of the European Parliament for ten years. With office comes a handsome pension, which is contractually dependent upon its holder never making public criticism of the E.U. The holder becomes a lobbyist for the E.U. and is given, like the ex-commissioner Lord Mandelson, much TV space. All MEPs—there are 751—are by definition part of their country’s ruling class. With the departure of the 73 British MEPs next year, space is created for the enlarged European Parliament (Serbia, Albania, and others). Europe is the grand magnet for the nomenklatura of all its nations; the E.U. pays much better than the national assemblies, with modest duties required.
All this is well known, hence the skepticism of the people is also Europe-wide.
Recent elections in Slovakia, Austria, and Italy show a confirmed distrust of the policies of these countries’ rulers, and a comparable tide has moved against the established parties in Germany and France. Angela Merkel’s devotion to the free movement of terrorists is undimmed. She is however benefiting from the traditional German difficulty in removing underperforming leaders. Italy is especially notable: The populists of left and right, through the radical Five Star Movement and the anti-euro Lega, have now joined in coalition to take power. These parties, derided as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” see their primary aim as attacking the Establishment. They are now taking over the Establishment. The weekly Eurobarometer survey finds that immigration is the leading concern in 21 states, including Britain, and where this is not so, terrorism is. Europe is undergoing one of those deep, oceanic currents of thought and feeling that surge against the policies of the elite that imposed them—and have not revoked them.
These are not halcyon days and restful nights for the ruling class, whatever its entrenched comforts. In England, the Establishment hardly merits the phrase “deep state”: The Establishment is the state itself. But the Establishment has had setbacks lately, and has cause to bear in mind G.K. Chesterton’s poem “The Secret People,” with this great line: “For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet.”
Well, they have now.