The Aristocrats

Catch 22 had nothing on this — a confidence trick in which the victims not only feel sorry for the trickster but honoured to be his victims. Regularly each year hundreds of thousands of people who live in slums and semis and high rise flats pay up to shuffle their admiring way through the halls, staircases, galleries and gardens of what have been immortalised as the Stately Homes of England. From behind silken ropes they gaze at art treasures and old furniture, a bed where somebody slept sometime on their way to somewhere. From the hand of a real live lord they may buy a brochure, pay an actual marchioness for their tea. Often, they are overwhelmed by it all, uneasy at their intrusion in this vastly foreign world, embarrassed because they are viewing some splinters of yesterday.

Only in recent times have the aristocrats of Britain become troubled by self-doubt. Now it is not uncommon for some of them to speak as if they are a persecuted minority who might at any time expect to take their last journey on the tumbrel. Yet if the story of their decline proves anything, it can only be their enormous capacity to adapt. For example, the Labour Party once were perfectly clear, that they would abolish the House of Lords. In the end, when they had power, they did nothing to affect the existing hereditary titles and even added a few of their own.

Originally the aristocrats’ position was due to their extensive ownership of land (which they took or were given) simply because it was the dominant means of wealth production; the large estates of feudal England are comparable to a large ownership in ICI or Shell today. Anything they might be able to grab was often supplemented by kingly rewards for military help, for “peace” keeping or for any other participation in the high rank gangsterdom of feudal England. Some land and titles went to court favourites or to the descendants of royal bastards — the Dukes of St. Albans, Richmond, Buccleuch for example.

A high time for the acquisition of land at give-away prices was during the dissolution of the monastries. The lush Montague estate at Beaulieu, Hampshire, was founded when Thomas Wriothesley (pronounced, like many aristocratic names, quite differently from its spelling) bought what was left of Beaulieu Abbey from Henry VIII in 1538. It was through such expropriation that an enormous unearned income could be enjoyed by a small group of interrelated families.

The Industrial Revolution changed the dominant means of production and gave the aristocrats one of their earliest lessons in survival. Some estates were able to exploit deposits of valuable minerals; the Home lands in Scotland, for example, yielded rich coal royalties. Others prospered from the laying down of railways and others leased off parts on to which the towns expanded.

In some ways the 19th century was something of an aristocratic high noon. Reflecting the almighty standing of British capitalism at the time, they specialised in the spectacular. The core of the aristocracy was made up of about three hundred landed families some of them — the Northumberlands, the Devonshires, the Bridgewaters — owning hundreds of thousands of acres. They had built their own private railway stations, they diverted rivers. At Kedleston the Curzons moved an entire village half a mile. Their income was mountainous :

  No trade can flourish that for every pound does not pour a shilling into the treasury of a Grosvenor or a Bentinck, a Russell or a Stanley, a Neville or a Gower. (The Great Governing Families of England — Sanford and Townsend. 1865.)

As a sample of their political influence, about 150 seats in the House of Commons were to all intents and purposes in the gift of peers. The Reform Acts signalled the beginning of the end of this cosy, corrupt, powerful, magic circle; the Duke of Buckingham knew what he was about, when he symbolically resisted the 1832 Bill by bringing ashore a cannon from his yacht.

Towards the end of the century the great estates were affected by an agricultural slump; in the nine years after 1877 the price of wheat was almost halved. Under this kind of pressure the estates began to crumble away and the slide has never been arrested. Between 1873 and 1967 the land holdings of titled aristocrats in England and Wales have declined by an average of 76 per cent. Among the richer ones who survived were those who owned valuable urban land — the Dukes of Portland, Westminster, Cadogan for example. The war of 1914/18 took its toll of aristocratic lives, killing twenty peers and 49 direct heirs to titles, so that the noble houses of the land could ignore the immeasurably greater suffering of the working class and convince themselves, as always, that they were making a uniquely tragic sacrifice for humanity. After the war, in the deepening slump which hung over capitalism like a black cloud, what was left of many estates could barely finance their own repairs and maintenance. Between 1918 and 1922 land was being sold off at about 700,000 acres a year. At the present rate of change of ownership another century might see the end of the old style estate.

  But the aristocrats will not go down without a fight: English peers have demonstrated time and again in the past hundred years that they are strong, tough people, who start life with enormous natural advantages, and are well able to compete effectively in diverse human activities from show business to ceramics. (More Equal Than Others — Lord Montague.)

The ruthless custom of primogeniture, in which a family’s wealth is inherited by the eldest son, helps to keep aristocratic fortunes and estates intact. Over the past twenty-odd years the price of land has at least kept pace with the rate of inflation and if the land can be sold for building there is practically no limit to the increase in price. Death duties, which are said to be so destructive to aristocratic fortunes, can be avoided fairly easily by anyone rich enough to employ knowledgeable solicitors and accountants. The £6m. estate of the last Duke of Marlborough, who died a few months ago, was kept intact on his death because he had taken the precaution of making it over to his heir, the ageing playboy who was then the Marquess of Blandford, more than the necessary seven years before. The interests of the Salisburys are held by Gascoine Holdings, a nominee company whose shares are in trustees’ hands. The effect of this arrangement is that the estates are unlikely to be hard hit by duties as a result of the death of the last Marquess of Salisbury in February. There are still some massive estates in existence; the Duke of Northumberland owns 80,000 acres, the Duke of Devonshire 72,000, the Duke of Beaufort 52,000, which is not bad as a level of impoverishment.

Much of the emotional driving force behind the will to survive comes from the aristocratic mystique — the article of faith that they are possessed of some exclusive quality which, inbred through generations, justifies their superiority. Blue blood is thicker not only than water but than any other colour. In fact only two families — the Berkeleys and the Ardens — can be traced with any certainty to before the Norman Conquest. The Berkeleys still live at Berkeley Castle, on the Severn Estuary, where Edward II was done to death by a couple of blue blooded noblemen who, exercising an imagination not unusual in their kind, forced a red hot spit into his anus.

These sort of deeds notwithstanding, the true aristocrat is convinced that it is purer to come into their position by descent from such brutes than by the modern counterpart — the successful exploitation of the working class under an industrial capitalist system. That is why more modern times, with the wholesale ennoblement of businessmen, has been so depressing for the guardians of aristocratic traditions. Perhaps the low point in their morale was the Maundy Gregory scandal, when Lloyd George sold nearly a hundred peerages for about £3m. into Liberal Party funds.

Scandals like that make it even more difficult for the aristocrats to sustain the deception that their high social standing involves an obligation to serve their underlings, instead of the other way round. One example of this alleged service to us is the exercise of their right to appoint vicars to the churches on their land, although here again they collide with cruel capitalist reality because some landowning firms also have the same right, among them Smiths Potato Crisps and Cornish Manure. Cruel reality also says that among the vicar-appointing aristocrats, who should be stern upholders of the sanctity of Christian marriage, there is a higher than average divorce rate.

How fares a businessman who achieves a lifelong ambition when he makes it into the top bit of the Honours List? One such family is that of the Devonports; the present Lord is only the second to hold the title. The family name is Kearley and the first Lord Devonport was once senior partner in the firm Kearley and Tonge, which originally prospered out of things like pickles and jam. He went into politics, spent five years as Parliamentary Secretary at the Board of Trade and was made a Baron in 1910. His son, the present Lord Devonport, went to Eton and now, an old man, lives in serene comfort at Peasmarsh Place in Sussex. At home in the lush countryside, playing host to the local hunt, he is the very picture of an English lord, descendent of an ancient aristocratic line. Yet it all started only sixty years ago and one wonders how kindly he remembers that he owes it to pickles and jam.

It is ironic that many of the more established (and therefore perhaps more confident?) nobles are prepared to exploit their position so freely. The opening of stately homes to the public is now an accepted part of the season, part of the evidence of noble poverty, but it is conducted with varying degrees of vulgarity. At Blenheim Palace the late Duke of Marlborough was always ready to turn away paying customers if he suspected them of vandalism. A rather different attitude is possible in the case of the Duke of Bedford, whose ancient home at Woburn Abbey has shops, cafes, an amusement park, an outdoor zoo — and a pub called the Flying Duchess. Bedford is now helping a petrol station chain in a “free gift” scheme. Pull in at one of their stations and you can pick up a brochure with a picture of the Duke and the Duchess, obligingly dressed in Regency costume and wigs, admiring one of the glasses which, although they are given the brand name Woburn, are available to any plebeian who buys enough petrol. Lord Bedford is in earnest:

  We are in a competitive business and like any other commercial undertaking half the battle is publicity . . .  I have been accused of being undignified. That is quite true, I am. If you take your dignity to a pawnbroker he won’t give you much for it. (Silver Plated Spoon.)

Although he is not yet quite on his way to the pawnshop, Bedford does work hard at his business affairs. (The strain of posing for that dreadful photograph!) There are other aristocrats who are actually employed, although usually in some trendy job, like Lord Lichfield who is a photographer or the Marquess of Hertford who is a public relations man. This goes to make good copy for the colour supplements and to convince workers who drag their way thought the day on a production line that they are witnessing the end of a gracious age in which, while every man knew his place, there was a place for every man. And shouldn’t that man on the line just feel guilty about it?

In fact any decline in the standing of the aristocracy is at most a change in the personnel of the privileged class. Death duties and other taxation are not a confiscation of wealth but only a shifting of it from one section of the ruling class to another. Parcelling up and selling an estate does not make it common property; it is a social adjustment within capitalism, not a social revolution to abolish the system. When it is done the majority of people remain impoverished workers, entitled at most to gape at a portion of their masters’ possessions, once they have paid to do so.

Anyone who doubts that, whether they are titled or not, there is still a privileged class, need only consider the facts. There are many figures which might be examined but just one of these — the Annual Abstract of Statistics 1971—shows that there are only 20,000 people in this country owning net wealth of over £200,000. On the other hand there are nearly 6 million owning between £1,000 and £3,000 and nearly 5 million owning up to £1,000. That is the issue on which the working class must concentrate, because it says everything about their poverty and suppression.

The possessions of the aristocrats — their houses, their furniture, their art treasures — show what dedication and craftsmanship the people of the world are capable of. When these abilities can be used to enrich the lives of us all, instead of those of a privileged few, the world will be a gracious place indeed, one great stately home where we are all owners.