“F–k socialism!”

—Evelyn Waugh

Octogenarian knight Sir Peregrine Worsthorne is famous in Britain for several things.  He was the editor of the Sunday Telegraph and a political columnist for that paper for 30 years.  He is married to the jolly Lucinda Lambton, who presents enjoyable, occasional TV programs on heritage-related topics.  He wears pink bowties.  Less creditably, he was the first person to use on British radio a certain four-letter word starting with f.  And, like his Tory and Telegraph contemporary Lord (Bill) Deedes, he has been immortalized by the British satirical magazine Private Eye as “Sir Perishing Worthless.”

Private Eye’s fondness for this disrespectful nickname is very funny.  It is also symptomatic, however, of the way in which Britain’s aristocracy has plummeted in the estimation of British people.  A once well-known British proverb was “Everyone loves a lord.”  Now, while most Britons still seem to attach a degree of talismanic respect to titles and harbor a fondness for the monarchy, these are tinged with aggrievement and envy, as was seen during the long-drawn-out mawkishness of the death and funeral of Princess Diana—the “People’s Princess,” whose supposed demotic virtues were set in contradistinction to the alleged reactionary vices of her in-laws and of the relict Tory aristocracy in general.  “Diana had shown the Royal Family up for what they are—a numb, dumb dinosaur,” said one shrewish columnist at the time.  And “numb, dumb dinosaurs” is what many people seem to think of the aristocracy.  That sour, puritan strain that is one of the least attractive ingredients of the British character is sadly alive and well in today’s Labour politicians and leftish opinion-formers.  As Worsthorne puts it, aristocratic deference has been replaced by “egalitarian hypocrisy at the top and proletarian rancour at the bottom.”

Meanwhile, the Tories—quelle surprise!—are united in doing little or nothing to defend the aristocracy, despite its historical relevance and redolence.  Even during the supposedly “Conservative” governments between 1979 and 1997, Margaret Thatcher and John Major were more interested in estate agents than in earls.  In 1995, Major even said that he wanted an oxymoronic “classless society,” seemingly not realizing that the old order he decried would inevitably be replaced by one less pleasant, less useful, less colorful, less independent, and less historically aware.  Major’s various successors as Tory leader have all been similarly uninterested in what happens to the aristocracy, with William Hague declining even to join battle over Tony Blair’s proposed Lords “reform,” which sought to evict the hereditary peers from the House of Lords.  One might have hoped that a politician ostensibly concerned about conserving a great heritage might have been concerned about losing parliamentarians who, as Viscount Hampden put it at the time, “carried the whole history of this country in their veins.”  It seemed to be more important to him, however, to make opportunistic (and predictably fruitless) appearances at the Notting Hill Carnival and various gay-pride festivals.

Though one cannot expect too much of politicians, one might have hoped that at least conservative opinion-formers might have made the intellectual case for preserving the aristocracy.  Indeed, there were some counterintuitive Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph commentators at the time of the House of Lords reforms who sought to defend the parliamentary status quo, but they were writing in a vacuum.  Always lacking—until now, when it is really too late—was a more ambitious general defense of aristocracy as a boon in itself.

In the postwar decades, the Centre for Policy Studies, the Conservatives’ policy think tank, issued hundreds of pamphlets and discussion papers on multifarious topics.  The majority of these, however, tended to be on financial subjects or gave purely financial “answers” to nonfinancial problems, reflecting the Tories’ inexorable mutation into economic-reductionist liberals, whose self-interest was increasingly unenlightened.  Thought on nonfinancial subjects was left to a coterie of fringe intellectuals, such as the eccentric Anthony Ludovici—a handsome anthology of whose recondite thought has recently been published, and many of whose (admittedly uneven) writings can now be found at anthonymludovici.com.  As long ago as 1915, he authored a book likewise called A Defence of Aristocracy—of which Worsthorne appears never to have heard.  Ludovici never had any effect on Conservative policy (despite having such fans as Auberon Waugh), and neither will the quixotic Sir Peregrine.  It is all far too little, far too late.

Worsthorne seems to recognize this; at any rate, his book is more of an elegy than a call to arms.  He does not, he says, advocate reinstating the old upper class, but wishes “to highlight the gaping hole left in the head of our body politic by its extinction.”  Accordingly, there are virtually no policy proposals in these pages, just (mostly) sapient reflections combined with personal reminiscences and gentle denunciation of what he calls “the presentists” in all political parties, who, “instead of seeing the nation state as a great oak with deep roots . . . portray it as something more like a potted plant.”  Their “determination to blank out the past,” he believes, runs the risk not just of permanently erasing the concept of gentlemanliness that long made life in Britain so agreeable but will also have “the effect of blanking out the future.”  As Worsthorne says in his Prologue, “the role of the hereditary aristocracy in British history was so massive and splendid that it cannot . . . just fold up its tents and walk away.”  Yet this is what New Labour and today’s Tory Lites are compelling them to do, with incalculable but certainly damaging effects for national cohesion.

Worsthorne, let it be understood, is defending not any particular class but rather the code of gentlemanliness that he believes is the hereditary peerage’s chief bequest to the nation, and which permeates—or permeated until recently—every aspect of British (especially English) life.  This quality, born of “tolerant and genial paternalism” and of “tolerant and genial subordination . . . the spirit of Britain’s unwritten constitution,” allowed for “power consisting of multiple accommodations and understandings; power refined by customs and traditions; power grounded in history rather than raw rationality.”  He points out that “fear of being caught out in ungentlemanly behaviour . . . acted as a far more effective deterrent to bad behaviour than fear of hellfire.”  Now, he says, “it is almost as if the English people, once proud to be a nation of gentlemen, suddenly feels a pressing need to show . . . that they have become instead a nation of non-gentlemen.”  We have a situation “where no man is a gentleman—a dystopian ideal that is in danger of being realised.”  As a consequence, “where there used to be authority, there is now weakness and guilt, and where there used to be loyal subordination there is now bloody-mindedness and bitterness.”

Worsthorne’s understandable concern about this phenomenon leads him occasionally into overstatement, as when he writes that “gentlemanliness . . . has become, if not a dirty word, then a word likely to elicit at best a sneer or a snigger and at worst even a snarl.”  I have good news for Sir Peregrine: So far as I can see, gentlemanliness is still widely esteemed by large numbers of Britons, even if the term has fallen somewhat into abeyance.  He is right, however, to highlight the deeply disturbing “mockney” phenomenon—the tendency for people of wealthy and cultured backgrounds to feel so guilty about their upbringing that they deliberately try to sound and behave as if they were from a lower social class.  Examples include the violinist Nigel Kennedy, who tries hard to live down his blameless Tunbridge Wells and public-school background in a welter of breezy fake vulgarity (although his choice of instrument does rather give the game away).  This inverse snobbery is inculcated in all kinds of subtle ways, not least through the BBC, which has famously pensioned off broadcasters who sound “too posh.”  As the author puts it neatly, “if Old Britain was unfair to those who spoke common, the new system is unfair to those who refuse to act common.”

The villain of the piece is not so much leftist egalitarianism but that “triumphant capitalism” which “had no need to make use of the gentlemanly public-service ethos.”  There was a certain similarity of aims between the political left, who regarded Thatcherism as callous and unfair, and the pre-Thatcher aristocrats, who regarded Thatcherism as both vulgar and socially deleterious.  Worsthorne maintains, surely justifiably, that, without the tacit support of the hereditary peers, there would have been no welfare state.  Socialist concern for the plight of the poor was assisted by aristocratic noblesse oblige.  The author pulls no punches, saying that Mrs. Thatcher was “a force as destructive of gentlemanliness as any in the 1960s.”  Thatcherite attacks on the miners, et al., drove a wedge, he believes, between the classes and have had the incidental effect of subverting the old order that they were supposed to protect:

We now have a modernizing, classless political consensus consisting of a non-socialist New Labour Party and a pro-capitalist New Conservative Party . . . instead of two socially conservative parties, we now have two iconoclastic, and in that metaphorical sense, radical, parties.

Sir Peregrine distrusts the whole idea of meritocracy, pointing out—surely correctly—that “meritocrats, each having climbed up the ladder alone . . . are the last people likely to put civility before self-advancement.”  He thinks too much emphasis was placed by the Thatcherites on “success,” to the extent that education is becoming mere training:

Instead of teaching their pupils culture so that they might become connoisseurs, [the private schools] taught them culture so that they might get jobs as adults at Christie’s and Sotheby’s selling off the artistic treasures generations of ancestors had spent their lives collecting.

Such an attitude toward education is, of course, ultimately harmful to civilized values.

The author’s writing style is of its time, occasionally managing to sound both orotund and twee to modern ears—even such reactionary ears as mine.  I have never before come across the word betwixt used in all seriousness in a modern book, and Worsthorne’s evocation of a child “who feels obliged to add the name of some much disliked gorgon of an aunt to its bedtime supplications” is straight from Wodehouse.  But this fustiness should not be allowed to obtrude betwixt the reader and the writer’s many wise observations and arguments.

Less forgivable is his complacency about the allegedly glorious legacy of the old aristocracy.  The truth, of course, is that the left, the Old Right, and the New Right are all somewhat responsible for helping to plunge Britain into her present state of disrepair.  The freemasonry of tastes and the sense of “conciliation and compromise” that used to obtain within Britain’s tight-knit old ruling class were admirable qualities, but they could be, and were, turned to ignoble as well as noble ends.  Gentlemanliness is always pleasant, but not always appropriate, in politics.  If the peers had asserted themselves more in the postwar period, perhaps Britain might be a better place today.  Worsthorne is not blind to Britain’s present degradation and “likely disappearance to all great effects and noble purposes”; but he is blind to his class’s contribution to that degradation.  He admits that the ancien régime did “falter” on the postwar economic front but does not appear to think it should take any blame for such other phenomena as family breakdown, mass immigration, or Britain’s membership in the European Union.

Individual aristocrats, of course, opposed these developments; overall, however, the hereditary peers were blithely ignorant of social changes that affected the inner cities most of all, or were powerless to avert change, or avoided resistance to it.  Often, their motives were fine ones, but they were misguided nonetheless.  Typical of the somewhat myopic view of many members of the aristocracy at critical junctures in British history are the comments of Worsthorne’s stepuncle Ronnie Norman (brother of Montagu Norman, interwar governor of the Bank of England), who said of immigrants, “If they were good enough to fight and die for Britain, they are good enough to live in Britain.”  Gracious impulses can sometimes lead to unpleasing results.  More recently, the hereditary peers could not even organize to save themselves from expulsion from the House of Lords.  Despite promising “guerrilla tactics,” their gentlemanly habits went too deep, and, for the most part, they silently acquiesced in their humiliation (one exception being the present Lord Salisbury’s shrewd deal to keep 92 hereditary peers in place, at least for a time—for which action he was sacked as Tory leader in the Lords by that great statesman, William Hague).

Along the way, Worsthorne engages in a bit of genteel historical revisionism, sticking up for the pre-war aristocratic appeasers of Hitler, who, he says, acted out of a kind of “sober courage” and realization of the probable effects of any war with Germany on the country they loved.  The Vichy experience, he says, may actually have been good for France, as it allowed the previously antipathetic republican and antirepublican camps to unite in a “guilty secret” of collaboration with the Germans.  This does seem a little forced.

Two interesting chapters compare and contrast Britain’s ruling class with the WASP “aristocracy” of the United States and France’s enarques—the graduates of the Ecole National d’administration, set up during the Fourth Republic.  Worsthorne is an admirer of the enarques; the only actual proposal in his book is that Britain’s public schools should set up a comparable system for the United Kingdom.  Sometimes, his enthusiasm runs away with him.  For instance, he says that the enarques allowed France to create “a new French empire on the European continent.”  Yet it is surely very questionable whether France benefited from this.  As with Britain’s aristocracy, he also overstates the enarques’ effectiveness.  “Only an official class,” he says, “with the extra cachet that comes with exclusivity would have enough confidence not to be overawed by France’s notoriously arrogant circle of world-famous Paris intellectuals headed by Jean-Paul Sartre.”  Yet they were overawed; at any rate, France is indubitably suffering from the same pathologies that are now affecting every other Western nation.

All this being as it may, Worsthorne’s is nonetheless an important book.  It is a great pity that it comes too late to save the hereditary peers, whose presence in Westminster undoubtedly averted some harm, if not as much as Worsthorne likes to think.  Britain shall miss those tweedy individualists whose very names were evocative of the older England so beloved of American poetess Alice Duer Miller:

A red brick manor-house in Devon,

In a beechwood of old grey trees,

Ivy climbing to the clustered chimneys,

Rustling in the wet south breeze.

Gardens trampled down by Cromwell’s army,

Orchards of apple-trees and pears,

Casements that had looked for the Armada,

And a ghost on the stairs.

Yet perhaps their genial influence may persist, to be revived at some more pleasant future time, so it is right that it should here be commemorated so eloquently.  The remnants of Old England may find that this book helps to codify their instinctive resistance to today’s disagreeable state of affairs, while overseas readers are likely to discover that Worsthorne offers many lessons and applications for those who are generally interested in ideas of leadership, class, and social inequality.  If we are ever again to revive Burke’s ideal of a natural aristocracy in our various countries, we shall need to understand its nature and dynamics. 


[In Defence of Aristocracy, by Peregrine Worsthorne (London: HarperCollins) 160 pp., £15]