WHEN Peter Cook opened a Soho comedy club in 1961 he called it The Establishment.

The joke didn't need to be explained. Satire began because there was a lot about Britain that demanded satire. Something in the country was rotten and the rot, said the smart young cynics, started at the top.

The word "Establishment" is handy. It can serve to describe an elite. It can explain - as in "established procedures" - the elite's customs and practices. It can also convey the sense that the Establishment, like an established Church, is in with the bricks, embedded in the fabric of society. Cook's choice of comedy targets - politicians, judges, clergy, tycoons, public school buffoons and military types - told that story.

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In Britain, we are accustomed, dangerously so, to all of this. We take the existence of the Establishment hierarchy for granted. We watch them emerge from their handful of schools. We see their stately ascent up the ladders of politics, media, the law or the civil service until honours and peerages arrive. We do not flinch, or not too often, when each denies membership of the Establishment, or denies that such a thing even exists.

There's a small fuss every few years when coincidences become too obvious, when it can no longer be denied that a minority sharing a narrow social and educational background seem to monopolise power and influence. A quick, pointless discussion of the "whatever happened to meritocracy" variety soon extinguishes unease. The Establishment protects itself. That's its reason to exist.

Norman Tebbit, of all people, explained as much to Andrew Marr in a TV interview last weekend. The issue was deeply serious, but the peer of the realm gave an analysis that was only too plausible.

So, why might there have been an alleged cover-up of alleged organised child abuse at Westminster in the 1980s?

Tebbit said: "At that time I think most people would have thought that the Establishment, the system, was to be protected and if a few things had gone wrong here and there that it was more important to protect the system than to delve too far into it."

Tebbit was not attempting to justify such behaviour. He sounded, nevertheless, as though he was explaining the obvious: even evidence of truly heinous crimes would be swept away if exposure put "the system" at risk. He believed "there may well have been" a "big political cover-up" to protect the well-connected, but - in so many words - that's just the way things were. His attempts to say that things have changed, a claim recited by eminent types when historic wrongdoing emerges, were less convincing.

The Establishment has been exposed repeatedly in recent years. Politicians on the fiddle, press grandees in the gutter, bankers rigging rates, governments lying their way into wars, sleazy celebs shielded from justice: at every turn, it has been a story of deceit, denial and defensiveness. Now we are told two things: that the abuse of trust, with children at stake, has been of the worst kind imaginable, and that the Establishment has covered things up for decades to protect itself and its members.

Timescales provide a clue to the nature of the standing conspiracy. The Establishment, as every student of 1960s satire knows, endures no matter what. The chief case in point would be the civil service, the service that now owns up, without much of an apology, to disposing of 114 files relating to child abuse. Governments come and go, but the civil service, guarantor of continuity, is as near eternal as makes no difference. The Establishment depends on the fact.

There's a small problem with that. The rest of us go through the palaver of democracy periodically in the naïve hope that sometimes, just occasionally, our votes will bring change. The very existence of the Establishment, that elite freemasonry, says we are conned - and con ourselves - utterly.

One of the claims made about child abuse is that each of the main Westminster parties is implicated. Another turns on the cover-ups allegedly sanctioned by institutions such as the civil service and the BBC. A third element is less a claim than a fact: time and again, police and prosecutors did nothing. Not once down the decades has a party leader swept to power and upset the elite apple cart. In the end, all shall have ermine. For no-one can point the finger.

They can have inquiries, though. There is always time enough and money enough for another of those. These affairs are ideal for demonstrating that "something is being done" even when, as in the case of the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war, it is obvious, first, that nothing useful is being done and, second, that the Government and the civil service are engineering a highly satisfactory state of affairs.

When the game is easy to rig, the Establishment can grow a little slapdash, even by its standards. Plainly, no-one at the Home Office - where the 114 files met their mysterious fate - imagined that anyone would dare object to the appointment of Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss to head the Home Secretary's "wide-ranging" inquiry into historical sex abuse. Who could be better than a retired appeal court judge, formerly of the family division, who distinguished herself in the late 1980s by leading the inquiry into the Cleveland abuse scandal?

Some would call judges typical Establishment figures, but it's hard to inquire judiciously without them. Butler-Sloss is a revered peer, however. By some accounts, certain individuals still picking up their attendance allowances in the Upper House could figure in her work for Theresa May, the Home Secretary. That doesn't sound clever.

Then there is the fact that the former judge had a brother, the late Michael Havers, a Tory politician. He was Attorney General during the 1980s when, it is alleged, paedophilia committed by political figures was covered up. It is a matter of record that as a government legal officer, Havers chose not to proceed against a diplomat involved, and more, with the Paedophile Information Exchange.

Butler-Sloss sees this as no barrier to her inquiry work. She refuses, in fact, to stand down, despite knowing full well that she would never have sat as a judge in a case involving one of her family. But that's another Establishment trait: it does not see itself as others see it. For this elite, their interests and the public interest are one and the same. And how dare anyone - in this case, even the victims of abuse - suggest otherwise?

Cyril Smith, the late Liberal MP, was investigated on three occasions over three decades for abusing children. On each occasion, no action was taken. Only now, too late, have the Crown Prosecution Service and Greater Manchester Police conceded that Smith should have been prosecuted on the grounds of "overwhelming evidence".

One Liberal non-entity was protected for all those years while he wrought God knows what damage. So what about others? Does anyone believe, amid a torrent of claims from victims, that Smith was one of those "isolated cases" that so comfort the Establishment? And does the Establishment still insist that Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, brilliant and blameless as she may be, will do?