History November 21, 2017
(Left to right) Baron Stafford, the Marquess of Reading, the Duke of Norfolk (seated), the Earl of Shrewsbury and Waterford and  Viscount Torrington (seated),  1988
(Left to right) Baron Stafford, the Marquess of Reading, the Duke of Norfolk (seated), the Earl of Shrewsbury and Waterford and Viscount Torrington (seated), 1988
© Lichfield/Getty Images

Some Lords a-leeching


Not everyone loves a lord. On the contrary, for every admirer of the 9th Earl of Emsworth or the 7th Earl of Grantham, there is a sea-green incorruptible determined to rid the world of the pestilence named “aristocracy”. Chris Bryant, one-time Anglican priest, more recently Gordon Brown’s Minister for Europe, stands proud among the Jacobins. The peerage, he argues, emerged from a combination of at least three of the seven deadly sins: greed, jealousy and pride. To this, as he demonstrates at length, their lordships have added no small share of lust, anger, avarice and sloth. Bryant’s denunciation proceeds chronologically but ponderously. From the treachery of the eleventh-century ealdormen Eadric and Godwin, via the Norman yoke, attainders, civil war and beheadings, we eventually reach the more familiar uplands of the country house (a machine for self-indulgence, maintained from the sweated labour of the poor), the slave trade (in Bryant’s telling, very much an aristocratic cartel), and even the most recent of parliamentary expense scandals (in which Bryant himself was found to have been a two-times second-home “flipper”).

The usual rogues’ gallery is garishly lit. From the sodomitical 2nd Earl of Castlehaven (executed on Tower Hill in 1631), via the homicidal 4th Earl Ferrers (hanged in 1760 for the murder of his steward, coolly placing his own neck in the silken noose), the more Blackadderish anti-heroics of the peerage are exposed to ridicule and contempt. The result is an indictment richer in indignation than insight.

As was remarked in 1848, on the sale of the chattels of the bankrupted 2nd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, “persons who occupy a rank and station greatly above the ‘common lot’ seldom excite the sympathy of their inferiors”. It is no doubt salutary to escape the cringing of Downton Abbey. Even so, we should spare some pity for various of the privileged whose misdeeds Bryant catalogues with such gloating disapproval. It takes nearly a third of the book’s length to get from Beowulfto Henry Tudor. En route, there is not a little preaching. There are infelicities of expression: for example, “The survival of some historical documents rather than others is often misleading”. Among factual errors or misinterpretations are the standard misunderstanding of licences to crenellate (which were not so much hindrances to privilege, as proud advertisements, rarely refused by the crown), and a perhaps forgivable confusion between Alton and Carlton Towers. More significantly, sneering and insinuation take precedence over more serious analysis. After the 1150s, for example, there was a sudden and unexpected winnowing of the baronage. From this emerged new distinctions between the elite aristocracy (henceforth destined to constitute the parliamentary peerage) and the mere gentry. From the 1420s, the aristocracy embarked on a rampage of self-slaughter, unmatched thereafter until the Crimea or 1914. Neither of these developments, both central to modern scholarly analysis, is noticed, let alone explored. Instead, Bryant’s bugbears are to be squashed whether advancing or in retreat. Denounced for being over-conspicuous through to the 1960s, the modern peerage is then excoriated for retiring into “secretive” obscurity.

Bryant’s charge sheet climaxes with a denunciation of aristocratic tax avoidance. Not even a Channel Islands lawyer, I suspect, could keep an entirely straight face defending the fiscal arrangements of the meat-packing lords Vestey, legal though such manoeuvres were. Bryant writes that “improbably, the court agreed” to the claim by the 5th Duke of Westminster that his brother, the 4th Duke, was exempt from death duties having fallen in the service of his country (he in fact died in 1967 of cancer deemed unrelated to a war wound he had received twenty-three years before). Even so, for an MP familiar with Parliament’s long history, Bryant is surprisingly blind to causes rather than effects.

True, in times of prosperity, the very rich get obscenely richer. Certainly, inherited wealth and idleness have long been close cousins. A supporter of the House of Lords reforms of 1999, Bryant remains uneasy that even ninety-two hereditary peers should have been exempt from a cull that reduced the House from 1,330 to a still extremely well-fed 669 members. Yet nowhere does he consider wealth itself as a curse that, just as much as poverty, will always be with us. Better, surely, that a representative cross section of the upper classes be encouraged into a tradition of public service, and even into an occasional encounter with the Inland Revenue, than that, as elsewhere in the world, their affairs go entirely offshore and their fortunes mushroom uncontrolled across the generations. Better that, even with comfortable advantages to their occupants, the stately homes of England be preserved with their collections intact, in an increasing number of cases as effectively public rather than private assets. As behind so many obsessive hatreds, is there not an element here of odi et amo, of adoration disguised as loathing? Is it possible, even, that we detect the first signs of an ascension already traced in the careers of such firebrands as the 1st Earl Lloyd-George of Dwyfor, or the 1st Baron Shinwell of Easington? Arise, perhaps, the 1st Lord Bryant of Grudge.