Magazine article The Spectator

In Defence of Aristocracy

Magazine article The Spectator

In Defence of Aristocracy

Article excerpt

The changing of the old guard IN DEFENCE OF ARISTOCRACY by Peregrine Worsthorne HarperCollins, £15, pp. 232, ISBN 0071833151

Sir Peregrine is a romantic. He has drawn his sword from its scabbard in defence of aristocracy in a self-conscious act of courage which defies the pressures of self-censorship. We should admire his intention and welcome an essay whose style is so reminiscent of the man with its echoes of the dégagé elegance of corduroy suits, casually knotted scarves and agreeable luncheons in the Beefsteak Club.

Every successful polity is run by an élite. They lay down the rules, written and, even more important, unwritten. Their manners become the aspiration of the majority and in consequence civility and social coherence trickle down the social scale. Public service then becomes the indispensable companion of riches, reducing selfish ostentation to mere vulgarity. Cosimo de' Medici should be our model, not Bubb Doddington.

The British elite is fading fast. Sir Peregrine laments its passing and this book is a plea against all hope for its revival. As he puts it, 'Britain is beginning to miss the existence of a political class that saw it as its duty to give a lead ... and, I believe, could do again if encouraged rather than discouraged to do so.'

His aspiration is admirable. The prospects that it will be realised are nil. Old elites do not rise like phoenixes, but new elites can absorb the useful characteristics of their predecessors. However, Sir Peregrine espouses a cause, as a recent convert, whose triumph would ensure that the most useful characteristic of the old British elite dies for ever.

Gertrude Himmelfarb has pointed out, with Sir Peregrine's strong approval, that the British remoralised their country during the 19th century. As a result, crime fell, social cohesion improved and the aspirations of the poor rose in spite of grinding poverty and bouts of mass unemployment. However, during the last 40 years we have dumbed down again. The Hobbesian world Dr Theodore Dalrymple so graphically describes every week in this newspaper has more in common with the poor of 18th-century London or of 19th-century Coketown than with the WEA, the Left Book Club or Nonconformism. Sir Peregrine is right to blame the elite for this regression. They lost faith in themselves and in doing so created a vacuum which has been filled, not by a Medicean middle class, but by an apparat and by a bourgeoisie reminiscent of the French bourgeoisie of the 1840s. ('Messieurs, enrichissez-vous!') Equally, in the absence of a self-confident leadership, the majority which elects governments is not yet interested in dumbing up, so politicians seek its votes by dumbing down. There emerges in consequence the lip-trembling weathercock at No. 10.

For the purposes of his argument, Sir Peregrine conflates two definitions of aristocracy, the second of which is really not a definition at all. The first he calls 'families whose power and authority ... [depend] on titles of nobility going back to feudal times'; the second, families whose standing depends 'on a record of public service rather than on blood'. In other words he puts the Darwin cousinhood under the same roof as Lord Mowbray Segrave and Stourton. …

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