The New Establishment
Kate Moss and Jamie Hince in Southrop. Getty Images
Most of us would remember whether the Prime Minister turned up at our 50th birthday party. But apparently not if you’re Matthew Freud, PR guru, great-grandson of Sigmund Freud and husband to Elisabeth Murdoch, Rupert’s little girl. When asked whether David Cameron attended his spectacular celebrations in Oxfordshire last November, Freud is reported to have said: ‘No. Please let me know if you would like more explicit clarification.’ The next day, one of Freud’s associates provided that explicit clarification: in fact, yes, not only had David and Samantha Cameron been there, but so had George Osborne.
You could almost understand Freud forgetting that the Prime Minister made it. Not only is his house enormous, but also simply everyone was there. Bono and Bob Geldof serenaded Freud and Murdoch with the Sixties number ‘Dancing in the Street’. Bono went on to croon ‘Happy Birthday’, backed up by Tony Blair’s old press enforcer Alastair Campbell on bagpipes. Tony Blair was at the party, too, as was his wife, Cherie, who performed a duet with Bono.
Indeed, if you examine the party guest list closely, you will find the ultimate recipe for the New Establishment. First take a careful mix of politicians, pop stars and media moguls. Then season with a few TV chefs: Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver and Heston Blumenthal with his girlfriend and fellow chef, Suzanne Pirret. Sprinkle the gratin with a couple of celebs – Bear Grylls and Amanda Holden – mixed in with the fashion A-list, including Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss and her husband Jamie Hince. Add vintage cool with Chrissie Hynde and a touch of art with Damien Hirst (whose gift to Freud, inspired by the party’s Noah’s Ark theme, was a pair of live white hamsters, signed by the man himself). Finally, for a bit of extra spice, throw in a dash of cash, class and Hollywood, courtesy of Jemima Khan, Richard Curtis, Sheherazade Goldsmith and her Oscar-winning boyfriend Alfonso Cuarón. There was pole-dancing in the disco, a caviar bar in the estate chapel and a tequila room for the hard drinkers. Magnums of premier cru Bordeaux flowed all night, and a tattoo artist was on hand to offer the dawn survivors a permanent inky reminder of all the fun they’d had.
The venue of the party, Burford Priory, is itself a capsule history of the British Establishment. The 22-bedroom Grade-I-listed country house was bought by the Freuds in 2008 for £6 million. But it began life in the 12th century as a hospital, built by the Augustinian order – when the country was largely run and owned by the Church. Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century, the Priory was passed to one of Henry VIII’s favourites.
After 500 years of sleepy control by a haphazard mixture of the Church, aristocracy, gentry and political classes, the Priory and the Establishment have been revolutionised: by the biggest ever tidal wave of new money. A New Establishment has been built on the foundations of this cash mountain – some of it, such as Matthew Freud’s fortune, is homegrown; a much bigger chunk, like Elisabeth Murdoch’s, is from abroad.
It might seem surprising that the term ‘Establishment’ is itself a relative newcomer, coined by the journalist Henry Fairlie in The Spectator in September 1955: ‘By the “Establishment”, I do not mean the centres of official power – though they are certainly a part of it – but rather the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised.’
Social connections are still paramount – as Freud’s party suggests. But Fairlie was talking about long-held social links forged between largely upper-middle-class people since university, school and, in certain interconnected families, birth. Class still has its part to play in the New Establishment, as we shall see. But what really defines the new elite is a word that, significantly, doesn’t feature in Fairlie’s definition – money. A flood of cash has forced a seismic change in the British Establishment. The impoverished aristocrat and the shabby-chic bohemian have been banished to the outer reaches of south and west London as a new rarefied, super-rich class colonises their old haunts in Chelsea, Kensington and Notting Hill. Money is the social glue; the common element uniting the lucky fragments of the old rich, the new rich and the celebrity class.
Elisabeth Murdoch and Matthew Freud. Getty Images
The British Establishment has always been open to the idea of big money, particularly foreign cash – from 17th-century kings marrying rich European princesses to Victorian dukes fixing the castle roof thanks to a Vanderbilt wife. Then, as now, a residual snootiness survived. You could spot the difference between the daughter of a marquess and one of a New York railroad tycoon; just as you can today differentiate the public-school-boy banker from the exiled Russian oligarch.
Still, this time it’s different. The hedge-fund and tech fortunes – both foreign and homegrown – are even greater than those belonging to American industrial and banking magnates in the 19th-century Gilded Age. The real distinction now isn’t so much between the English banker and the Russian oligarch. It’s the division of the banker who managed to hitch a ride on the biggest gravy train in history, and his old schoolfriend, who’s broke and living in a small cottage in Cambridgeshire.
Thanks to the private jet and the internet, money – and its owners – are more mobile than ever. This global super-rich set can glide on gilt-edged wings to any place where the tax regime, schools, culture and restaurants are suited to their tastes. And nowhere on the planet is quite so well tailored these days as 21st-century London. OK, the weather’s rubbish – but that doesn’t bother your average modern plutocrat. King Canute may not have been able to turn the tide, but these gazillionaires can change the weather. A half-hour scoot down the M40 from Notting Hill to RAF Northolt and you’re on the private jet – fast passport check, no queues or baggage allowance. Whatever you want – Verbier for winter snow; Greece or the Côte d’Azur for summer sun – you’ve got it. London is the cockpit of the world: New York is only a seven-hour flight west; the Middle East, seven hours east.
Thanks to non-dom status, in London you can now benefit from the advantages of a low-tax regime, the rule of law and fairly incorruptible institutions, with none, or very little, of all that boring tax stuff. Oh, and if someone’s ever rude about you, don’t worry – you’re in the libel capital of the world, where the courts are so much more indulgent to aggrieved billionaires than they are in the US. And an array of services have sprouted up in London to cater to your every need: the best restaurants, schools, country houses…
‘London and Londoners have become butlers to the world,’ says Peter York, the style expert, management consultant and co-author of the 1982 class primer The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook. ‘And the English upper-middle classes have become butlers to the international rich. Smart money managers, art dealers, estate agents, libel and divorce lawyers, Harley Street doctors, interior decorators, retailers and restaurateurs... They’re all butlers. Yes, some of them are doing well out of it – buying nice houses and putting their children through private school. But they’re sycophantic to the new rich because they have to be to survive.’
York first spotted the change to the Old Establishment in the early 1980s, shortly after Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979. Until then, Henry Fairlie’s definition had remained largely true. Yes, positions of power, including the prime minister’s job, had been opened up to an elite educated at grammar schools (most of them subsequently destroyed by a series of Labour and Conservative education secretaries, including Mrs Thatcher). But the Establishment was still mostly the preserve of the British upper-middle classes. They lived in the smart parts of London; and their children dominated the public schools.
With the rampant forces of capitalism unleashed, a yawning cash chasm began to open up between the uncommercial upper-middle classes and their new entrepreneurial brethren. At the time, York wrote an article for Harpers & Queen – ‘Rich Caroline, Poor Caroline’ – on the back of the phenomenon. ‘Already then, you could see the massive difference that money made to the upper-middle classes,’ says York. ‘There was tremendous internal division between the rich Carolines and the poor Carolines over their prospects.’
It is now so wide that it’s unbridgeable. The old British Sloane territory – Sloane Square, Kensington, Chelsea, Belgravia – has become home to the international rich. A few of the old British rich cling on, particularly London landowners, such as the Duke of Westminster, Earl Cadogan and Viscount Portman: Old Establishment landlords to their newly enriched tenants. But otherwise, it’s bye-bye to Carolines of any description. And it’s hello David and Victoria Beckham, who have bought a £40 million house in Holland Park. Appreciating at about 10 per cent a year, London property is now a safe investment for foreign money pouring in from more unstable countries: including Greece, Italy, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt; along with the latest members of the exiled billionaires’ club – the Ukrainians.
David and Victoria Beckham. Getty Images
According to February 2014 research by the Beechcraft Corporation, foreigners bought 41 per cent of all British houses costing over £1 million in 2013. Of the 6,145 £1 million-plus houses sold last year, Russians bought the most, with £536 million spent on 264 houses. Then came Indians, and then Italians.
Meanwhile, even quintessentially Old Establishment brands have been sold to the New Establishment tycoons. Bentley is now owned by Volkswagen; the motor-car arm of Rolls-Royce by BMW, as is the new Mini; Jaguar by Indian Tata Motors. The old marques still get given a bit of Old Establishment spit and polish in Britain, but they are thoroughly New Establishment – and foreign – in ownership and finance.
The New Establishment has also migrated throughout the capital, colonising any part of town with alluring Georgian and Victorian buildings, green spaces and expensive schools. Notting Hill, Primrose Hill and Islington – half a century ago, the spiritual homes of genteel bohemia – have all been invaded by celebrities and bankers.
Film and pop stars have been in a class of their own for half a century. But, where the Old Establishment might have been sniffy to, say, Mick Jagger in 1964, now they’re falling over themselves to know him – not just because celebrities are the new gods, but also because this group is usually richer than the old upper class.
The latest starry hotspot is Highgate, the charming Georgian village on the edge of Hampstead Heath (formerly a literary retreat for Samuel Taylor Coleridge and JB Priestley), where George Michael and Terry Gilliam have been joined by Jude Law and Kate Moss. In an eerie case of life imitating art, the house at the end of Moss’ road – Witanhurst, the biggest private home in London after Buckingham Palace, with 65 bedrooms – became, in 2002, the venue for Fame Academy, the BBC music talent show. The implication was that, with the right voice, you too could be propelled into the ranks of the rich and famous – with, who knows, George Michael for a neighbour. This neo-Georgian house, built in 1913 for soap manufacturer Sir Arthur Crosfield, was bought for £50 million in 2008 by an offshore company based in the tax haven of the British Virgin Islands. It may be on an 11-acre site, but that hasn’t stopped its owners wanting to build a vast subterranean extension. And so-called ‘iceberg houses’ – where thousands of extra square feet are carved out of the earth – are increasingly popular in Kensington, Chelsea and Notting Hill, too.
As the New Establishment builds itself vast palaces in the heart of London, the relatively impoverished Old Establishment has been forced further out of its old haunts. First, they went to Battersea; and when that got too pricey, to Wandsworth, then to Clapham, and so on until they ended up in the distant suburbs. As Peter York observes: ‘I was astonished to find myself at a Sloane dinner party recently – on the Tooting-Balham borders.’
The New Establishment has colonised the country, too, particularly in the Cotswolds, around Chipping Norton. Built on farming, wool and glove-making, this Oxfordshire market town is at the heart of a social set whose main industries are politics and media. Money is the common factor, but it’s not enough to be very rich, or just upper class. There has to be a sprinkling of power or stardust on top of the cash pile.
Leading lights of the set include Jeremy Clarkson, Charlie and Rebekah Brooks, Blur’s Alex James and the Carphone Warehouse supremo Charles Dunstone. Matthew Freud and Elisabeth Murdoch are only a few miles away at Burford Priory. Oh, and the local MP is one David Cameron – also within easy hailing distance. Nearby are his old strategic masterminds, Steve Hilton and his wife, Rachel Whetstone, formerly a senior Tory adviser, now a Google bigwig. It all makes for a web of connections – influences that might appear too close for comfort. That’s why Freud was so coy about Cameron’s attendance at his party. Of course a good PR man can be pals with the chap who runs the country; but he’s also wise enough to know that the person who runs the country shouldn’t be seen to be too close to a top publicist – particularly if his father-in-law is the most powerful media magnate in the world.
David and Samantha Cameron. Getty Images
Away from the cameras, though, the friendship between Freud and Cameron, himself a former PR man, is a natural, logical one. Not only do they straddle the New Establishment worlds of politics, media, big money and PR; they are refugees from the Old Establishment who have walked the gilt-edged tightrope. Freud is the Westminster-educated son of the late Clement Freud, a media darling and former MP, the nephew of the late Lucian Freud, and Sigmund Freud’s great-grandson. Cameron is an Eton-educated distant cousin of the Queen, the descendant of Victorian and Edwardian Conservative MPs.
Elites have always shape-shifted like this to adapt to the times. The Victorian nouveaux riches were absorbed into the Old Establishment, who can in turn join today’s new one, to be superseded by a yet newer one. But never before has the change been so precipitous and swift – a novel development in a country that hasn’t gone in much for revolutions. Most of Cameron’s and Freud’s old school contemporaries won’t have joined them in the New Establishment. Nor will most of their children. The last old totem to go is a private-school education. But now, even that is beyond the pockets of all but the richest – who want WiFi and ensuite bathrooms at St Cake’s for their little darlings, not the cold showers and jam roly-poly of yesteryear. And all those mod-con fripperies don’t come cheap.
My prep school – North Bridge House in Regent’s Park – cost £300 a term when I was there in the early Eighties. It’s now £4,780, almost 16 times more. Even given inflation, that’s a remarkable increase. When I was at Westminster School in the late Eighties, my contemporaries included the sons of academics, doctors and journalists, like my own father. These days, only a handful of traditional professionals can afford the fees. Once the icing on the cake, the Old Establishment professional class has now subsided way below the marzipan.
Meanwhile, the foreign gazillionaires have been seduced by the illusion of an England that never was – propped up by the cultural power of James Bond, Harry Potter, the Queen and Downton Abbey. The irony is that the New Establishment has rushed to embrace all the old values: the private schools, the country houses, the sporting estates, the social season. But, in the process, they’re pricing out the Old Establishment. This takeover is slightly confused by the fact that, for the first time since Alec Douglas-Home was prime minister in 1964, the country is run by an Old Etonian – and one who is incidentally married to the daughter of a baronet and significant landowner, and the stepdaughter of a viscount. And while we’re at it, Eton is also the alma mater of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Mayor of London, along with several of our most prominent actors – Damian Lewis, Dominic West, Tom Hiddleston and Eddie Redmayne. Isn’t this a return to the old ways? ‘Oh no,’ says Peter York. ‘First, David Cameron isn’t an aristocrat like the Earl of Home or the Duke of Devonshire, who served in Harold Macmillan’s government. Second, the modern Establishment isn’t either old or new. It’s a mixture of both.’
But it’s clear who’s top dog – the Old Establishment must now defer to the fortunes of the New. And, it must do its best to disguise entitlement. Thus the keenness of Cameron and Osborne not to dwell on their membership of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford. I can sympathise with them. I, too, was in the Bullingdon – at the same time as Osborne. And I too have, at times, felt a cosmic shame. Part of the embarrassment springs from its heavy-drinking antics; but, then again, lots of university clubs do that sort of thing. The really cringeworthy element is that of class. In the modern world – particularly in the modern political one – it doesn’t do to advertise class superiority, in trappings that seem so out of step.
Boris Johnson has a better defence strategy for his Bullingdon membership than my shamed concealment; and that’s to lampoon his poshness. On the bleak day that a picture of me in the Bullingdon recently appeared in a newspaper, I bumped into Boris at a crowded party. ‘Buller, Buller, Buller!’ he bellowed at me, oblivious to anyone who might overhear him. Clever old Boris can always tell which way the political wind is blowing. He has realised that the Bullingdon is neither here nor there. It’s an outdated symbol of an antique elite, eclipsed by the tremendous power, and resources, of the New Establishment.
Article by Harry Mount for Town & Country Summer 2014.
‘How England Made the English’ by Harry Mount (£9.99, Viking) is out now.
See pictures from Charles Spencer's book launch
The Buccaneer: A busy New Yorker in London
The Duchess of Devonshire: A life in pictures