The New Feudalism: The Poundbury Toryism of Zac Goldsmith and His Posh Pals Is Ripe for Caricature, Writes George Walden
Walden, George, New Statesman (1996)
I have a vision of Britain: not mine, I hasten to add, but one that seems to be catching on in Tory circles, where the rejection of big business and the state, coupled with environmental anxieties, suggests nostalgia for life a century or two ago, a yearning for a return to simpler, squirearchical times. The last person to want to do away with the state and big business was Karl Marx, but that does not seem to trouble an increasingly non-ideological Conservative Party.
We all want to see more localism and fewer Tescos. Yet, at its extremes--and Zac Goldsmith's apparent attempt to make a rotten borough of Richmond is a startling example of the new gentry's unashamed sense of entitlement--the movement has feudal overtones and lends itself to caricature. So here is one.
The vision seems to be of Britain as a village from which the state and its appendages have been banished--to Brussels, or wherever. Poundbury Toryism, it might be called. Villages can be hierarchical places, but this one fairly reeks of top-down compassion. As in ancient times, local problems are dealt with locally. The village's public services are financed not through extortionate taxation, but by charitable donations, and are staffed by volunteers.
The village people
In this seductively antique community, bureaucrats have been largely done away with, as three bodies are deemed sufficient to run village life: the health and hospital board, the school board and, for those in need, the charity board. The reason they tend to be administered by the squire's friends or family is that the populace, a splendidly unchippy lot, are honest enough to recognise authority when they see it.
On health, the first thing to be said is how highly the village folk speak of the considerate-ness of the squire and his circle in not hogging beds or doctors' time for themselves or their families, preferring to take pot luck in less hard-pressed private institutions, paying money from their own pockets. As with their eagerness to fork out for their children's schooling, their sacrifice is seen as all the more commendable in the light of the praise they shower on village facilities.
Those in need are dealt with by a more feeling version of the Poor Law. The local charity commissioners are no stovepipe-hatted Gradgrinds, however. If they can be a little brisker than their state equivalents of old, it is just that, charitable donations to the welfare budget coming in at rather lower levels than expected, they have to watch the pennies when handing them out.
Education in the village is of two types: selective private establishments for the select, and non-selective for the non-select. Villagers are free to open any type of school with school-board cash, from Seventh-Day Adventists to Muslims--with that single exception. By long-standing agreement between the school board's upstairs and downstairs members, aspirant meritocrats are barred from establishing anything resembling selective schools.
The policy goes to the heart of the village ethos, whose ideal is a stable--and therefore static--society. The squire and his friends can often be heard quoting Troilus and Cressida on the matter: "Take but degree away, untune that string,/And, hark, what discord follows!"
It would be wrong to see anything elitist or backward-looking in such attitudes: it is simply that, as with everyone else in the village, there is nothing that irritates the gentry more than people getting above themselves. …