Sunday, April 12, 2009

Mother of the Free or the Fall of the Aristocracy

. Sunday, April 12, 2009

Flail Britannia.

Brought up by drug-addicted parents in a poor neighborhood of London, she was transformed by the glare of reality television into a multi-million-dollar product whom the public was urged to celebrate, especially after being diagnosed with cervical cancer, Mr. Parkinson noted.

"Jade Goody has her own place in the history of television and, while it's significant, it's nothing to be proud of," he wrote in the Radio Times.

"When we clear the media smokescreen from around her death what we're left with is a woman who came to represent all that's paltry and wretched about Britain today. She was ... barely educated, ignorant and puerile. Then she was projected to celebrity by Big Brother and from that point on became a media chattel to be manipulated and exploited till the day she died."

What made Ms. Goody stand out in her reality-TV appearances was her shocking ignorance of her country's geography, her naked and drunken exploits and her racist bullying of an Indian housemate.
To generations of outsiders the image of Great Britain was captured in films like Goodbye, Mr Chips and the Brideshead Revisited miniseries. Dignified, well educated men and women, often reserved to the point of being aloof. Everyone had been to one of the great public schools, then Oxbridge. They governed a third of the earth's surface with a detached, albeit often farsighted paternalism. Over the skies of Southern England in 1940 a few hundred men, many of them toffs, flew Hurricanes and Spitfires while wearing neckties and using cricketing metaphors. Much of this was myth, a skillful exaggeration of a Britain that never really was but many assumed should be. If the quintessential American was the businessmen, so the quintessential Englishman was an aristocrat. Unlike the continent, being a peer of the realm was a sign of genuine social distinction. Pre-revolutionary France was full of thousands of minor members of the nobility who lived little better than the peasants over whom them held often only a nominal lordship. In Britain only a few hundred were genuine aristocrats, though younger siblings were given courtesy titles. The law of primogeniture, much maligned by egalitarians, created a class of aristocrats without real titles and little money. 

They married into the upper reaches of the productive middle class, worked in the City, sat in the House of Commons, served in India, or the Navy or the Army. Noblesse oblige was their code, which they followed more or less well. Their paternalism could become authoritarian and their class system was rigid and obtuse in its manners and customs. A gentleman was anyone who behave as such, and could demonstrate some independence of means. This gave the governing classes of Britain a remarkable flexibility. In three generations, the Peels of Tamworth went from humble merchants, to founders of the industrial revolution to the very pinnacle of political power, under their most famous son, Sir Robert Peel, who governed as Prime Minister in the 1830s and 1840s. For North Americans this seems unimpressive, raised on the themes of Horatio Alger, rising to the top is something a man does before middle age, not something his grandchildren accomplish. The old American saying is "shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations." Compared to continental Europe, however, the British class system was self renewing, adapting to changes in the economic and social structure of their society. Had it not been, Britain would have gone the way of France, Germany or Austria, a blood soaked nineteenth century and the jackboot ridden twentieth.

The class system, however, was unjust, denying men of talent the relatively unobstructed rise that they could obtain in the colonies or the United States. It's unlikely that Andrew Carnegie would have become the great success in Britain that he became in Pennsylvania. Injustice breeds resentment, especially among the talented and ambitious. That resentment found its outlet in politics, especially in the New Jerusalem promised by the socialists. Had this hatred of the aristocracy simply been directed toward the economic sphere, the wrecking of great fortunes through the workings of the inheritance tax, the damage would have been contained to there. The Jacobin spirit which moved these men could not stop there. They found that while taxation had destroyed the fortunes, ruined great family manors and embarrassed more than a few heirs to the continent - back when the pound was much stronger than today - it could not destroy the lure of the aristocracy. Many of these jacobins were also republicans, but few dared attack the monarchy openly. So much easier to subvert it and the peerage.

However impoverished many great families became, the lure of a title was strong. The middle classes, while mocking the idleness of their social superiors, wanted to adopt the manners and customs of the elite. Britain was an aspirational culture. While the vast majority of men and women were necessarily absorbed in the daily struggle for life, the aristocracy was able to focus on cultivating the softer elements of civilization. Manner of dress, manner of speech, the revised code of chivalry, a conception of honour. These things trickled down. It was pointless, reasoned the jacobins, to economically destroy the aristocracy if its spirit lived on and grew. The culture of aspiration was replaced with the culture of degradation. In America a similar phenomenon was seen among the blacks. To aspire to a higher standard of living and behaviour was labeled as "acting white." During the Second World War Greer Garson became one of the English speaking world's biggest stars. Playing middle class housewives, Garson spoke the received pronunciation and was seen as the exemplar of English womanhood. She was a lady, though from a comparatively modest background. The middle classes had aspired and achieved. In the 1960s the descendants of the Minivers began to aspire down. In three generations we have sunk from Mrs Miniver to Jade Goody. The schools, which once taught classics, behaviour, mathematics and history are now focused on:

A new report on the primary school curriculum in England and Wales encourages educators to place more emphasis on technology than on traditional subjects.

According to its recommendations, students would not necessarily have to learn about the Victorian era or the Second World War - teachers could choose two "key periods" of British history - but learning skills such as blogging, podcasting and Twittering would take a central role.
Plutarch or Twittering? Mrs Miniver or what Americans call white trash? Does Britain aspire up or down? Is there an up or down?


The Monarchist said...

Few regret the decline and fall of the British aristocracy more than yours truly. In the warped values of our time, most would see its demise as a triumphant tale of abuses remedied: the overturning of hierarchy, the rejection of privilege and the elimination of oligarchy, as if aristocracy stood for nothing more than the tired old bromides that resent inequality and social injustice.

Of course generations past who actually lived under it had a much more generous view of nobility, and indeed aspired to it as you have alluded to, even if only a tiny crust qualified as grandees. We have become so blinkered by the ethos of today that we cannot appreciate or even recognize the virtues of aristocracy, or to appreciate that civilisation reach its high watermark under its tutelage.

So thank you, Kipling. We tend to concentrate too much on monarchy, and too little on aristocracy, so this is a good read in the other direction.

Anonymous said...

what a great article. it really warmed me.

the only part that didn't was when i was told what Britain is becoming. i sure hope that this can change and that a level of respect can be brought back to the home of my Queen.

the same thing is starting to happen in Australia where it is better to be seen as a "bogan" than somebody educated or with class

Bolingbroke said...

A good post, but the title doesn't make sense. "Aspiring Downwards" might have been better.

Although I am not entirely a Gladstone man, the Grand Old Man himself once remarked that in a battle between the classes and the masses, the masses would always win. Democracy destroyed aristocracy, plain and simple, though it was a slow burn.

While European aristocracy in the 20th century had to contend with Lenin, Stalin and Hitler, British aristocracy got off well by having to deal with Lloyd George. But besides that, the British classes were the most liberal aristocracy in history, which is why it is still kicking around even today at the margins of society.

In any event, much of them met their violent deaths in the Great War, in which the greatest proportion of losses were suffered by aristocratic families, so ingrained was chivalry and duty and meeting the call for heroic sacrifice. Only the War of the Roses comes proportionately close to the scale of the losses suffered by the landed classes.

Lord Best said...

Computer literacy skills should certainly be in the curriculum, but they should not take the place of history and other 'humanities' subjects.

Anonymous said...

I believe it is noteworthy to apply, Alexander Fraser Tytler, Lord Woodhouselee, famous quote,

"A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world's greatest civilizations from the beginning of history has been about 200 years. During those 200 years, these nations always progressed through the following sequence:
From bondage to spiritual faith;
From spiritual faith to great courage;
From courage to liberty;
From liberty to abundance;
From abundance to complacency;
From complacency to apathy;
From apathy to dependence;
From dependence back into bondage."

Gladstone said...

Modern skills such as computer-usage should be taught, but goddamned Twittering over History and the Humanities? That's dangerous.

If you do not know history, you can not learn from it's mistakes. God only knows that the future generations will do when they forget the Second World War, forget the Great War, forget Britain's Empire upon which the Sun never set. Forget pride and patriotism, forget strength and courage.

All for Twittering. God dammit.

J.K. Baltzersen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J.K. Baltzersen said...


As an IT professional, I role my eyes.

Indeed computer literacy should be learnt, but some activities don't need to be taught in school.

I am sure those who want to do blogging and twittering are perfectly able of doing so without it taking a central place in school.

Oh wait, maybe, just maybe someone doesn't get it. So it must be taught in school, so no one falls behind. That's it. And that's the trouble too. School bureacrats and politicos are so egalitarian-minded that they are obsessed with the possibility of someone not learning skills that most youngsters have no problem learning on their own. Hence, they don't concentrate on giving students what they won't get spending free time with their peers.

Instead of giving "blogging, podcasting, and twittering" a central role, perhaps such tools could be used in the process of acquiring important knowledge, such as that of history. In that way, maybe this important knowledge could be perceived as more interesting by the students.

J.K. Baltzersen said...

And if I may add, gentlemen, I was once a young student, non-proficient in English, at an English-speaking international school. I was sent to ESL (English as a Second Language) classes.

Send the computer illiterates to special classes, I say. Cut the crap for the rest. We are already dangerously on a path to a society where general knowledge of "the new" is there, but the ability to speak English – or another native language for that matter – or knowledge of history, etc. is very low.

If school is not to add value, then why have school?

AF said...

There have been Jade Goodys for an eternity. And all manner of films have celebrated or spotlighted or been mildly fascinated with the cockney. You are forgetting that. And so is Parky.

What has happened is our culture has been diluted not only by a comprehensive egalitarian education system but by the proliferation of media and celebrity and an indulgence of a culture that is not ours. It's American. With it's sneering disinterest in class and all things British that eminate from this - and the celebration of anything that is 'cool'. Be they gangs or sportstars. As the big power exporting their culture alongside the rise of celebrity that has inevitably taken it's toll. All these aspects have combined.

Anonymous said...

We may keep in mind that there often is very little 'aristos', that is, 'best', about the aristocracy. Mind you, there is damned little good about the other classes as well.

Joseph said...

I agree with Bolingbroke above. Democracy in government spreads to democracy in culture; the socialists say "social democracy" for a reason. Mediocrity, relativism, and the shortsighted obtuseness of the masses become the defining traits of a nation that adopts democracy. Before there were Fabians, there were the Mills. Such folks set the stage for the decay of the contemporary West, though they seem admirable compared to the sleazy Leftists in power now.

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Loyal Subject: Polishing the Royal Crown, Matt Bondy & Brendon Bedford
Devoted to the End: Obituary of Sir Phillip Bridges
The Monarchist does not recognize the Republic of Kosova
Loyal Subject: MPs Ruse Defeated; God Save the Queen!
St. Paddy's Day: Edmund Burke, the greatest Irishman who ever lived
Not Amused: The Bunkum of Timothy Garton Ash
Hero Harry: Rave Reviews across the Commonwealth
Patriot Prince: Prince Harry fought for us all, Charles Moore
William F. Buckley, RIP: He had a Tory gratitude for the pleasures of life
Their Lordships' Duty: The House of Lords can influence the Lisbon Treaty debate
Knights of Oz: Revive Sirs or I'll have your guts for garters
Peter Hitchens: People love the Queen...and the BBC hates us for it
Our Greatest Monarch: Paul Johnson says Henry V was our greatest monarch
Princess Diana Inquest: A Dirty Raincoat Show for the World
Malcom Turnbull: 'Queen's death will spark republican vote'
Duke of York: The Royals are not "stuffed dummies". They should have their say
Peers of the Realm: The decline and fall of the House of Lords - Charles A. Coulombe
Peter Hitchens: Get rid of the monarchy and you will get rid of a guardian of liberty
Honouring Sir Edmund Hillary
The Queen versus an E.U. President
Going Solo: Prince William earns his Wings
James C. Bennett: The Third Anglosphere Century
Knights of Oz: Revive Sirs or I'll have your guts for garters
Princess Diana Inquest: A Dirty Raincoat Show for the World
Malcom Turnbull: 'Queen's death will spark republican vote'
Future Peer: The life and times of Lady Victoria Beckham
Peers of the Realm: The decline and fall of the House of Lords - Charles A. Coulombe
Peter Hitchens: Get rid of the monarchy and you will get rid of a guardian of liberty


New York Times: Ever Backwards into the Royal Future
Peter Hitchens: People love the Queen...and the BBC hates us for it
Christopher Hitchens: An Anglosphere Future
Andrew Cusack: Republicanism is a traitor's game
Courageous Patrician: Rt Hon Ian Douglas Smith (1919-2007)
The Last Rhodesian: What began with Rhodes and ended with Ian?
Gentleman Journalist: The Lord Baron W.F. Deedes, 1913-2007
Not Amused: Blair's sinister campaign to undermine the Queen
Loyal Subject: Queen Elizabeth: A stranger in her own country
Reverence Deference: Bowing and Scraping Back in Tradition
Rex Murphy: Kennedy, Churchill, Lincoln - The rousing bon mot is no more
Gerald Warner: Don't shed a tear for Diana cult in its death throes
The End of Grandeur: Rich, chincy Canada puts Strathmore on the blocks
Confessions of a Republican Leftie: "The Queen charmed the pants off me"
The King's Own Calgary Regiment: Cpl. Nathan Hornburg is laid to rest
The Royal Gurkha Rifles: Prince William grieves the death of Major Roberts
Queensland Mounted Rifles: Trooper David Pearce, 41, killed in Afghanistan
The Order of Canada: 100 investitures later, Canada's highest honour turns 40
Prince Edward on Prince Edward Island: Troop's link to monarchy important
HER MAJESTY THE QUEEN: Unveils the UK Armed Forces Memorial
Great Britain: "A rotten borough with a banana monarchy" - by Europhile
Peers of the Realm: The decline and fall of the House of Lords - Charles A. Coulombe
Remembering 'Smithy': An obituary tour de force by Andrew Cusack here, here and here.
NOT AMUSED: Her Majesty The Queen in Right of Quebec not invited to Quebec's tercentenary