Straw Establishments

Like many people, I have a great respect for David Attenborough. However, I was surprised to read his opinion that the BBC should have kept Jeremy Clarkson, citing a need for his “profoundly anti-establishment” voice.

To me, Clarkson seems the very epitome of a certain kind of Establishment. He is a middle-aged, privately-educated white man whose career has been built on driving powerful cars very fast, like Toad of Toad Hall; who thought that public sector workers on strike should be killed in front of their families; and who was eventually sacked for hitting an underling who failed to bring him a steak. A breaker of rules, yes; but only of those rules (road safety legislation, the right to go on strike, and constraints on violence and the treatment of employees) that curtail the powerful.

Attenborough’s comments reveal, I think, the belief we still have that there is a homogeneous, powerful elite that make all the rules, and that those rules serve “them” and not “us”. As part of the Establishment himself, Attenborough believes, democratically, that it should be challenged and questioned; but because he believes that it is homogeneous, he believes that anyone who breaks rules must be anti-Establishment.

Perhaps it was like that, in the past. There is a good case for saying that the legal system and social mores in the pre-modern era were set up to protect the powerful. Draconian penalties were carried out against those who undermined these mechanisms by stealing, or by failing to work, while the wealthy oppressors went free – hence the bitter little Enclosure-era rhyme:

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common;
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from off the goose.

Forging money, as a particularly direct attack on the distribution of wealth, was treason; as late as the eighteenth century, female coiners were still being burnt at the stake. The Church, meanwhile, the other element of the Establishment, provided “parish relief” to prevent outright destitution – always a cause of unrest – but otherwise acted as a cheerleader of whatever government was in power:

And this is law, I will maintain
Unto my Dying Day, Sir.
That whatsoever King may reign,
I will be the Vicar of Bray, Sir!

Perhaps at this point you are shaking your head and saying “But really, what’s changed?” To which I would reply: not everything, but much. I would not argue that society is completely fair, or that inherited wealth and privilege have had their day. I would, however, argue that alongside the rules which protect the wealthy and powerful, we have developed structures and rules which protect the rest of society: those which support taxation for public services, protect employees’ rights, enforce environmental protection, and criminalise violence.

It seems to me that there are two different concepts of “Establishment” prevalent in our society. One is the old Establishment of wealth, inherited privilege and exploitation of the less powerful; the other is the new Establishment of “red tape”, taxation, and controls on what people may do or say. It is the latter which Clarkson is against.

We all wish to liberate ourselves from whichever Establishment we feel is controlling us. But “liberty” is as slippery a word as “Establishment”. The Political Compass Organisation has been arguing for decades that the traditional division between “left” and “right” is inadequate and that it is necessary to consider an individual or organisation’s position, first, with regard to economics (redistributive or not) and secondly, with regard to society (authoritarian versus libertarian). Traditionally, the Left stood for more redistribution and more social liberties. However, in recent years the less redistributive Right has been less concerned than, perhaps, it used to be with controlling sexual and social behaviour, and, since it favours light-touch regulation, has come to position itself as libertarian.

But there is a distinction to be drawn between regulating behaviour for the preservation of the social status quo, and regulating behaviour to mitigate the power of the powerful. In truth, there can be no liberty for all without rules. In a lawless society the powerful always become more so, and the weaker always have their rights curtailed. This is true when common criminals, wife-beaters and muggers and dangerous drivers, are allowed to carry on, and it’s true when employers are allowed to bully their staff, or when companies are allowed to damage the environment, or when landlords are allowed to let out sub-standard dwellings for astronomical prices.

But the belief that regulation is the Establishment and therefore to be resisted is irritatingly prevalent. It was present in the “Brexit” campaign, in which the “Out” campaigners presented themselves as rebels wanting to break free from the shackles of an overweening and ponderous super-state. Britain in Europe was presented as a subject rather than a participant – an impression which was not helped by the equivocal attitude towards the EU from both the main party leaders.

This week, Gina Miller won a court case in which she argued that the Government could not start the formal process of leaving the EU without consulting Parliament. That is, she argued that significant constitutional changes could not be made without the approval of the country’s elected representatives. “We do not live in a tinpot dictatorship,” she said, “we live in a country that has a sovereign Parliament.” The tabloid press described the judges who agreed with her as “Enemies of the People.”

It’s the eve of the US election; Donald Trump has just described his desired victory as “Brexit plus, plus, plus.” Again, an older, wealthy white man – this time with a repellent attitude towards women and immigrants, and a track record of bullying weaker people – is, to some extent, portrayed as an anti-Establishment figure – despite his authoritarian attitude to law and order, abortion and immigration. According to the Washington Post, his supporters believe: “He’s not a politician and not part of the corrupt system. He’s honest and speaks his mind, even if it gets him in trouble.”

Recently, Trump said that he would not accept defeat in the election if it occurred, and claimed that he is the victim of a rigged system. He, at any rate, seems to think he is not of the Establishment. Like a big, greedy toddler likely (let’s hope!) to lose a game, he pleads, “It’s not fair!”

Perhaps this is the big problem with our construction of Straw Establishments: it’s not quite grown-up. In a properly functioning civic society we should all have the right and the ability to participate in governance. As for social mores, we all contribute to establishing and shaping them, whether we do so consciously or not.

Authority, John Humphrys said recently, should always be questioned. But it is not the concept of authority, or of a system of rules, that should be questioned, but how that authority is made up, who contributes to it, and in whose interest its rules are made.

If we insist on defining ourselves as political children who must always either submit to an Establishment, or rebel against it, we fail to participate in it. Then the risk is that, rather than giving ourselves liberty, we throw off the control of the teachers and deliver ourselves into the hands of the school bullies.