Lord Mayor of London Fiona Woolf protests she’s NOT part of the Establishment… and that tells you all you need to know about Britain’s self-deluded, incestuous elite
- Government chose her to head independent inquiry into historic child abuse allegations
- Ms Woolf, appointed last month, is under pressure to step down due to her links with ex-Conservative Home Secretary Lord Brittan, whose conduct during the Eighties is bound to come under scrutiny
- At parliamentary committee this week, Ms Woolf insisted, as an outsider, she was perfect candidate to lead the inquiry…
- Yes, she admitted, she had socialised with Lord Brittan and his wife. But ‘as an ordinary solicitor in private practice, I really do not think I count as a member of the Establishment’
There has been an extraordinary fuss surrounding Fiona Woolf (above), whom the Government chose to head the independent inquiry into historic child abuse allegations
When, some time in the far future, historians come to write about the British Establishment in the 21st century, they could do a lot worse than start with the extraordinary fuss surrounding Fiona Woolf, whom the Government chose to head the independent inquiry into historic child abuse allegations.
Ms Woolf, who was appointed last month, has come under increasing pressure to step down because of her links with the former Conservative Home Secretary Lord Brittan, whose conduct during the Eighties is bound to come under scrutiny.
He is likely to be a key witness in the inquiry, having been handed a dossier when he was Home Secretary by an MP concerning the alleged involvement of VIP figures in a child sex ring. This document was lost or destroyed by the Home Office.
In a much-mocked appearance before a parliamentary committee this week, Ms Woolf insisted that, as an outsider, she was the perfect candidate to lead the inquiry. Yes, she admitted, she had socialised with Lord Brittan and his wife. But ‘as an ordinary solicitor in private practice’, she went on, ‘I really do not think I count as a member of the Establishment’.
In its way, this was one of the most outstanding examples of absurdity, self-delusion and sheer effrontery I have heard for a long time.
Almost by definition, anyone who publicly denies belonging to the Establishment is almost certainly a member of the Establishment. If they weren’t, why would they need to deny it? In Ms Woolf’s case, the evidence is so overwhelming as to make her denial utterly ludicrous.
Not only is she the current Lord Mayor of London and a former president of the Law Society, but she is also a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE).
Her website says ‘she has advised over 28 governments and the World Bank on privatisation and energy reforms’ and has three honorary degrees.
Formerly a senior fellow at Harvard University, she is president of the Chelsea Opera Group, a senior adviser with London Economics International LLP, a trustee of the Lord Mayor’s Appeal, and a member of the Council of the London Regiment of the Territorial Army and of the Women’s Business Council.
By mentioning these achievements, by the way, I am not trying to mock Ms Woolf. She is rightly proud of them, which is why she mentions them on her website.
Fiona Woolf (left) was with Lady Brittan (right) at the 2013 Dragon Awards at Mansion House last October – alongside journalist Martyn Lewis (centre). Ms Woolf recently admitted she had socialised with Lord Brittan and his wife. But ‘as an ordinary solicitor in private practice’, she went on, ‘I really do not think I count as a member of the Establishment’
Ms Woolf, who was appointed last month, has come under increasing pressure to step down because of her links with the former Conservative Home Secretary Lord Brittan (above), whose conduct during the Eighties is bound to come under scrutiny
As Craig Brown remarked in this newspaper a couple of days ago, if she is not a member of the Establishment, then who on earth is? Would even the Queen qualify?
Still, Ms Woolf is hardly unusual. In today’s Britain — a country that, in terms of income and social mobility, has become steadily more unequal over the past half-century — it’s almost impossible to find anybody who will admit to belonging to the Establishment.
The term was first coined in 1953 by popular historian A.J.P. Taylor.
‘The Establishment,’ he wrote, ‘talks with its own branded accent; eats different meals at different times; has its privileged system of education; its own religion, even, to a large extent, its own form of football . . .
‘It has never been exclusive — drawing in recruits from outside, as soon as they are ready to conform to its standards and become respectable.’
No change there, you might think.
And you might also have noticed that Taylor was talking not just about a political elite, but about a social elite, with its own accents, its own meal times and even its own games.
Another maverick, columnist Henry Fairlie, made the point more bluntly two years later.
He was outraged that the upper-class, well-connected, often Left-leaning friends of the Cambridge traitors Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean had covered for them for so long.
Here, he wrote, was a classic example of the Establishment at work. But it was more about ‘social relations’ than politics.
If you want a 21st-century example of what he meant about social power, just consider Fiona Woolf. Asked whether she was too close to Lord Brittan, Ms Woolf insisted she had been to his house for dinner only twice, and had invited him and his wife back only three times
‘The exercise of power in Britain,’ Fairlie explained, ‘cannot be understood unless it is recognised that it is exercised socially’.
If you want a 21st-century example of what he meant about social power, just consider Fiona Woolf. Asked whether she was too close to Lord Brittan, Ms Woolf insisted she had been to his house for dinner only twice, and had invited him and his wife back only three times.
He was, she added, ‘one of thousands’ of people she knew in London. Thousands? How many friends can she possibly have? For me, what makes the case of Ms Woolf so fascinating is that she is so fervent in her denials.
I don’t think she is being insincere, I think she genuinely cannot see just what an Establishment figure she has become.
She is hardly unusual. Indeed, it has become a general rule that not even the wealthiest, best-educated, best-connected people will admit to being members of the Establishment — especially those on the Left.
In 2000, the former Tory MP George Walden wrote a book arguing Britain had fallen under a new ‘elite of anti-elitists’, who had got to the top by pretending to speak for the common man. Britain, he said, had ‘the foxiest elite ever: one that rules in the people’s name while preserving the lion’s share of the power’.
At the time, Walden was clearly thinking of New Labour. Even today, Tony Blair denies belonging to the elite, despite owning nine properties and having an estimated £25 million fortune.
Ms Woolf was only brought in to head the child abuse inquiry after the Government’s first choice, former judge Baroness Butler-Sloss (above), had to step down. It turned out that like Ms Woolf, she was rather too well-connected
‘I am not a great one for the Establishment,’ wrote Mr Blair in his terrible autobiography —probably before buying another multi-million-pound mansion.
And whatever the faults of the elite that ran Britain back in the Fifties, they were not entirely hypocritical.
The Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan might have stuffed his Cabinet with aristocratic relatives and fellow Old Etonians, but at least he never pretended to be a horny-handed son of toil.
By contrast, the men and women who control the levers of power today can never admit the fact of their own privilege.
They are constantly trying to disguise their accents, downplay their education and cultivate faux-populist tastes, from Ed Miliband’s affected glottal stops to David Cameron’s ludicrous claim he and his wife, a baronet’s daughter, belonged to the ‘sharp-elbowed middle classes’.
Yet behind all the affectations, the truth is the Establishment is as powerful in Britain as ever. Its politics may have changed: today, members of the elite are as likely to be metropolitan liberals as old-fashioned conservatives. But as the case of Fiona Woolf shows, the old networks are still very much alive.
Indeed, what makes her an especially good example is that she belongs to perhaps the most entrenched and powerful Establishment network of all — the legal profession.
Ms Woolf was only brought in to head the child abuse inquiry after the Government’s first choice, former judge Baroness Butler-Sloss, had to step down.
It turned out that like Ms Woolf, she was rather too well-connected, because her brother, Lord Havers, had been Attorney General and sat in the Cabinet during the Eighties — the period on which claims of a cover-up are focused.
The spectacle of unelected high-profile lawyers and judges running public inquiries has now become so common that we rarely stop to question it.
Indeed, it has become one of the great rituals of British politics. The judge gets his day in the limelight, the lawyers line their pockets, and the politicians breathe a great sigh of relief, secure in the knowledge that, by the time the report finally appears, the public will have lost interest in whatever the debate was.
For another excellent example, consider the circus of the Leveson Inquiry, chaired by — surprise, surprise — another judge. It cost almost £6 million, produced a report some 1,987 pages long and resulted in no tangible benefit for anyone at all.
Precisely why lawyers should be regarded as impartial outsiders, somehow detached from the hurly-burly of our national life, is a mystery to me.
You’d have to look hard to find a more obvious bastion of old-fashioned elitism.
Only four years ago, a Commons all-party report found that while 45 per cent of our top civil servants went to private schools, the equivalent figure for judges is a staggering 75 per cent. Even among solicitors, figures from the Solicitors Regulation Authority show that almost half went to private schools.
Even today, Tony Blair denies belonging to the elite, despite owning nine properties and having an estimated £25m fortune. Meanwhile, his wife Cherie is a hugely successful and well-connected human rights lawyer who earns a staggering £1,100 an hour, yet still insists on seeing herself as an outsider fighting the system
And only a few months ago, a report prepared for the Financial Times by two of Britain’s most eminent labour economists found that a gulf was opening up between, on one hand, the middle and working classes, and on the other, a tiny elite of lawyers, financiers and bankers, most of whom live in London.
If you want a classic example of a modern Establishment figure, look no further than Cherie Blair, a hugely successful and well-connected human rights lawyer who earns a staggering £1,100 an hour, yet still insists on seeing herself as an outsider fighting the system.
Or consider the career of another legal figure in the headlines this week, High Court judge Sir Nicholas Mostyn, who provoked a storm when he claimed that marriage was no better than merely cohabiting, and dismissed state support for marriage as ‘social engineering’.
Mr Justice Mostyn, in case you were wondering, was educated at the exclusive Catholic boarding school Ampleforth and was said to earn £500 an hour as a divorce lawyer, earning him the nickname ‘Mr Payout’.
What these examples show, incidentally, is that there is nothing necessarily conservative about the Establishment. Indeed, on issues such as Europe and immigration, the Establishment view — which is widely shared, of course, in the newsrooms of the BBC — is often far more liberal than public opinion, which is precisely what has opened the door for the populists of Ukip.
Margaret Thatcher, who saw herself as a crusader against the old elite that had misgoverned Britain for so long, would learn this to her cost.
For much of her premiership, she tried to take on the old bastions of power, from the cosy cartels that controlled the professions, to the trade unions and the BBC. As she later wrote, her ascent to the Tory leadership came as a ‘shattering blow to the Conservative establishment. I felt no sympathy for them. They had fought me unscrupulously all the way.’
But even though Mrs Thatcher tried to surround herself with fellow outsiders such as Norman Tebbit, a grammar-school-educated former airline pilot, the Tory old guard got her in the end. Revealingly, they made their move after she had broken with the consensus over Europe — a subject that has long been dear to the hearts of the elite.
Her assassin could hardly have been a more Establishment figure: public-school educated millionaire Michael Heseltine.
The irony, therefore, is that though we live in an avowedly anti-elitist age, when politicians of all parties compete to pose as champions of the common man, the Establishment remains just as firmly embedded at the heart of our national life as it was in the Fifties. Indeed, in some ways the new Establishment is far more insidious than the old.
As the eminent sociologist Michael Young predicted back in the Fifties, Britain’s new incestuous governing elite is driven not only by greed for wealth and power, but by a kind of moral self-righteousness, too.
‘They can be insufferably smug,’ Young wrote of the new Establishment, ‘much more so than the people who knew they had achieved advancement not on their own merit but because they were, as somebody’s son or daughter, the beneficiaries of nepotism. The newcomers can actually believe they have morality on their side.’
From family law and human rights to Europe and immigration, they are so convinced of their own righteousness they do not even bother to engage with people who think differently.
Indeed, they simply write them off as bigots and losers.
And all the time, even as the new elite congratulate themselves on their principles, the gap between rich and poor continues to widen.
‘So assured have the elite become,’ Young later observed, ‘that there is almost no block on the rewards they arrogate to themselves.’
He wrote that in 2001 — but it is more true today than ever.
It would not be impossible to challenge the Establishment. By devolving power out of London, reforming and reinvigorating local government, revitalising state schools and breaking up the cartels that often dominate the professions — particularly the law — a really bold government could throw open the citadels of power.
Funnily enough, that is exactly what every government has been promising to do for the past half-century. But none has ever quite got round to delivering.
And since there are few examples in history of a political elite voting for its own demise, I suspect the Establishment will be with us, one way or another, for a long time yet.