AT THE BEGINNING of each new year, some of us look forward to the anniversaries that lie in store, but 1980 does not seem to offer a very rich crop. On the other hand, I have my own anniversary. It will be a quarter of a century since I first committed to paper the term the Establishment" as it is now generally used. Twenty-five years later, it shows no sign of dying.
As the word leaped from the typewriter into I do not know how many languages, some shady characters, not least among my friends, were not above claiming they had used the phrase before me. I dealt with them in an article in The New Yorker some years ago, but since then the ultimate authority in these matters has come down on my side. The new A-A Supplement of the Oxford English Dictionary identifies me as the locus classicus for the first use of the term in its current meaning.
When did you last rub shoulders with a locus classicus . Pulitzer Prize winners are penny plain. Nobel prize winners are twopence colored. But we loci classici are a select band.
It is hard not to take a properitary interest in a word one has invented, and for 25 years I have watched its dizzying career with bemusement and dismay. It certainly rushed across the world, and is obviously a fixture in our languages, but it is not generally used as I meant it.
The definition I gave it -- which the Oxford English dictionary repeats, repeats, and more or less adopts as its own -- was explicit and firm on one point. "The Establishment" is not those people who hold and exercise power as such. It is the people who create and sustain the climate of assumptions and opinion within which power is exercised by those who do hold it by election or appointment.
But no sooner had I used the phrase than this careful meaning was lost, and the second edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage, which obviously has no great liking for the phrase, quotes me as writing an essay as early as 1959:
"Intended to assist inquiry and thought, this virtuous, almost demure, phrase has been debauched by the whole tribe of professional publicists and vulgarizers who today imagine that a little ill-will entitles them to comment on public affairs. Corrupted by them, the Establishment is now a harlot of a phrase. It is used indiscriminately by people merely to denote those in positions of power whom they happen to dislike most."
From this point of view it is interesting to recall how and why I came to use the term, for the story has, 25 years later, just been given an unpredictable and wry twist by a revelation that has momentairly been in the headlines.
When Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess dissappeared in June 1951, a lot of vulgar people in Britain at once concluded that they had defected to Russia. The popular newspapers were certain of it from their inquiries. But those who had known their families, or been to the same schools and university, or belonged to the same clubs, dismissed such an idea as a total misreading of the gentlemen they were.
It was not until four years later that the Foreign Office had at last to admit that Maclean and Burgess had indeed defected to Moscoe. I had to write a column before the White Paper was published and before the debate in Parliament and, with the blank sheet in my typewriter, my mind strayed back to the kind of explanations that had been given of the two men's conduct.
One of the most ineffable was offered to me by Alan Pryce Jones, then editor of the Times Literary Supplement, who said of the night they had disappeared: "Donald was meant to be giving me dinner, and he stood me up. But he has done it before, and he always makes it up later." In the face of such faith in the code of the old school tie, no hint of the possibility of treason had a chance of prevailing.
Now a quarter of a century later we learn that another of their number, Sir Anthony Blunt, was protected for no less than 15 years even after he had confessed to treason. Those who do the protecting I called "the Establishment."
Not only is it not power as such which they possess, but it is wholly mistaken to think in terms of any conspiracy. they are a number of men and women with certain very strong assumptions of their won, and with the influence to make these assumptions prevail in society as a whole. The assumption in this case was that Maclean and Burgess might be drunks but that they could not be traitors.
The idea of such an "Establishment" fits easily into the cervices of English society, and to this day I am not at all sure that it can be transposed to another country. Yet people around the world rushed to embrace it, and it is interesting to ask why they thought they needed it.
In the decade after the end of the Second World War, there had been upheavals of government in most western countries, yet nothing very much seemed to change with each new regime. The left-wing governments in Western Europe did not introduce socialism, and when Eisenhower took over in America he did not dismantle the New Deal. People began to wonder if it mattered which party was in power, if the power which they exercised was in fact real; if there was not some brooding and permanent influence in society, determining the framework in which the parties acted.
When I first wrote of "the Establishment" in 1955, I received a letter from C. Wright Mills, drawing attention to "The Power Elite," which he was to be publishing the following year, asking if we were not talking of the same thing. After I had read his book I replied that we were not, that his "power elite" was more directly associated with power than my "Establishment," but that nonetheless we might be addressing the same phenomenon.
"The Establishment" has had a long life because people cannot help thinking that those they elect to power do not seem to have the power to behave differently from their opponents. After all, it was the conservatives in America, the early supporters of Barry Goldwater in the late 1950s, who inveighed most strongly against "the Eastern Establishment," against the Republicans who said "me-too" to the Democrats.
In the mid-1960s the phrase became a handle for the dazed and incredulous, to members of the SDS and Weatherman as they threw it round like a hand grenade.
But the greatest shock came when I read Helter Skelter, the account of Charles Manson and his Family, and him and parroted by his followers, was they they were a just vengeance against "the Establishment." One of them in fact hissed the phrase as she committed the final brutality on the victim. This was the demure phrase which I had once put to paper?
A word had become a slogan, and there were times in the late 1960s when I thought that I was responsible for all the upheavals from America to Germany, since they were all rebellions against "the Establishment."
This is all of some historical interest, and there are lessons to be learned. Most obviously we are reminded how important it is that we should go back to find the original meanings of the words we use, and how those meanings have developed, and how it is no less important that our dictionaries should not just encourage our slackness but should compel us to return to the original meanings.
I wince at the definitions of "the Establishment" in most dictionaries. One of the better attempts is by the American Heritage Dictionary, which I regard as the best handy-sized dictionary we have, yet in its nuances it gets the whole thing wrong in the end. It gives two definitions:
"A. an exclusive group of powerful people who rule a government or society by means of private agreement and decisions. b. A powerful group that tacitly controls a field of activity, usually in a conservative manner."
There is much here that is on the right lines: "exclusive . . . private . . tactily." One even likes to think that by "ruling a government" they mean that these people are not the government. But "powerful" in both definitions has the wrong emphasis, and agreements and decisions" is too definite for the kind of assumptions and influence that prevail. If "the Establishment" has virtue at all, it is that it is hazy, like the phenomenon it tries to describe.
We are so used to thinking of power in terms of superstructures and infrastructures and whatnot that we forget the influence of those in society who have little but the deference paid to them. They do not really represent any economic or other interests, and the origin of the deference is often hard to trace, but that is again one reason for their influence and survival.
It is they who say to the power merchants that "That is not good form." It is they who query, "We don't do that sort of thing, do we?" Power always wants to be taught manners; it is they who teach them to it. They keep power at arm's length -- as if too fastidious to touch it -- but lick it into shape at their dinner tables. It is this feeling that the rules are set by a number of little-known people which "the Establishment" was meant to capture, and although the notion may be hardly susceptible to sociological analysis, it is perhaps none the worse for that.
"The Establishment" has had a longer run than "The Power Elite".
I have often agreed with those who say that creating the term "the Establishment" was not my best day's work; but how can anyone be expected to refuse a title so high-sounding and rare as locus classicus ?