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An egalitarian belief belies real Scottish Establishment

It was Henry Fairlie, a London-born journalist of Scottish descent, who first used the term Establishment.

In September 1955 he devoted a column in the Spectator to the social circle around the spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean and how they had moved to protect the men's families from press scrutiny.

By the Establishment, wrote Fairlie, "I do not only mean the centres of official power - though they are certainly part of it - but rather the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised. The exercise of power in Britain (more specifically, in England) cannot be understood unless it is recognised it is exercised socially."

Fairlie's geographical caveat was interesting but at the same time misleading: the British Establishment has many sub-categories; in Wales, for example, it's known as the Taffia.

Of course it is tempting to believe independence offers some sort of escape from the Establishment, and indeed many do; in a referendum campaign where the simple act of voting Yes has been cynically presented as a means to wipe the slate clean, rhetoric has frequently become a substitute for reality. One narrative even promotes the view the Establishment is somehow, as Fairlie implied, a purely English phenomenon, thus the First Minister's regular retreat into class warfare and the sight of Radical Independence Campaigners telling one particular Old Etonian to go "back to England" in Glasgow a few days ago.

This view extends beyond those of a pro-independence bent. Writing in the foreword to his 1992 book, Anatomy of Scotland: How Scotland Works, the journalist Magnus Linklater (Eton and Cambridge) said it would "be very hard to talk about a Scottish 'establishment'", his reasoning being the "notion of clubland was 'alien to the Scottish character'" beyond the "guarantee of a decent dram".

Late last week, meanwhile, the UK Government published the final report of its Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, chaired by the former (New) Labour minister Alan Milburn. Titled Elitist Britain?, its conclusions render a question mark superfluous.

Based on analysis of the background of 4,000 "leaders" in politics, business, the media and other aspects of UK public life, it highlights a "dramatic over-representation of those educated at independent schools and Oxbridge across the institutions that have such a profound influence on what happens in our country". It suggests, in short, "that Britain is deeply elitist", indeed elitism so stark it might be termed "social engineering".

The proportions are depressingly familiar: 71 per cent of senior judges, 62 per cent of senior Armed Forces officers, 53 per cent of senior diplomats, 45 per cent of public body chairs, 44 per cent of the Sunday Times Rich List, 36 per cent of the Cabinet, 35 per cent of the national rugby team, 33 per cent of MPs and 26 per cent of BBC executives attended independent schools - compared to 7 per cent of the UK public as a whole. Only local government CEOs are less likely than the national average to have been educated privately.

There is, of course, an elite within an elite, those who (predominantly but not exclusively) progress from independent schools to Oxbridge, where the division between the top jobs and the rest of the population is even starker. Although the number of privately and Oxbridge-educated MPs is actually declining over time, the trend is achingly slow, while the commission concludes the next generation of leaders in the UK will also be drawn from a similarly narrow range of social backgrounds.

The media is a case in point. This broadsheet columnist finds himself in a minority as a product of the state sector, unlike the 70 per cent of the commentariat drawn from either independent or selective grammar schools. Nevertheless I'm self-evidently part of the Scottish Establishment as, of course, is the SNP after seven years of devolved government.

For the Establishment constantly renews itself, even finding room for Nationalists, both when the SNP was founded in 1934 and eight decades later on the cusp of a referendum. Indeed, part of the SNP's early 21st-century success has derived from a degree of pandering to the Establishment, particularly in the business and political sphere and, of course, in appealing to Middle Scotland with free university tuition and council tax freezes.

In a weekend tabloid the Prime Minister even went to great lengths to detail his Scottish Establishment credentials. Having made a fortune in the US, David Cameron's great-great-great grandfather Alexander Geddes built Blairmore House near Huntly, where Cameron's father was born in 1932. Given that background it isn't altogether surprising to find Geddes's descendent, raised amid the rolling green fields of Peasemore in Berkshire, doing well, indeed it would be more surprising if he weren't. And while the Prime Minister doesn't remember Blairmore, he instead enjoys the delights of his in-laws' estate on the Isle of Jura.

Although Mr Cameron deserves some credit for having sponsored the Social Mobility Commission in the first place, his plan of action is heavy on apologetic rhetoric rather than policy action. Even Mr Milburn's recommendations appear timid, a mixture of action by government and in family background, schooling, universities and employers.

All that is fine, and certainly displays greater attention to policy detail than anything conjured up by the Scottish Government or Yes campaign (don't get me wrong, Better Together doesn't even mention it), which too often repeats the mantra of "something must be done" but rarely says precisely what. Fantasy politics is always prone to beguilingly quick fixes rather than a detailed - and potentially unpopular - agenda.

Freed from the strictures of office, The People We Can Be by Alex Bell (formerly chief policy adviser to the Scottish Government) at least explores the existence of the Scottish Establishment and acknowledges, all too rarely in supposedly egalitarian Scotland, "private schools weaken the public system and feed a network of privilege that can last well into adult life". On higher education, Bell also makes a welcome break with orthodoxy, arguing university admissions might operate "on different rules for state pupils to those of private schools", or "even in direct relationship to the proportion of private school attendees and public school attendees". Radical thinking indeed, but undoubtedly far too radical for mainstream politics - and that includes the SNP.

It isn't clear whether Henry Fairlie's critique of the Establishment would have extended to affirmative action such as that prescribed by Messrs Milburn and Bell. Still, he would have recognised much of what he described in 1955 nearly six decades on. Then as now an Old Etonian was resident in Downing Street, then as now the UK was resolutely elitist. Does anyone have the will (rather than words) to do anything about it?

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Local government

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