The eighth Duke of Marlborough was ‘rude, erratic, profligate, irresponsible and lacking in self-control’, his son was ‘a paranoid and anti-semitic reactionary’. Randolph Churchill was ‘rude, spoiled, unstable, headstrong, irresponsible and argumentative’. Ivor Guest was ‘an incorrigible snob and social climber’; his son Freddie was ‘a snob, a playboy and a lightweight’. Winston Churchill was ‘a shameless cadger and incorrigible scrounger’ who ‘ate, drank, gambled and spent to excess’. F.E. Smith was ‘a drunk, a gambler and a spendthrift ... rude ... and ruthless’. The second Baron Sackville was ‘lonely, unmarried, taciturn, disappointed and embittered’; the fifth Baron was ‘self-centred, ineffectual, delicate, neurotic, lonely and melancholy’. Gerald Strickland was ‘too aggressive, too intemperate, too belligerent, too quarrelsome ... too ambitious, too intolerant, too vindictive’. Harold Nicolson’s brother died ‘a lonely, miserable, embittered failure’; Harold and his wife were ‘marginal people’; Lord Curzon’s political career was ‘an ultimate failure’.
These quotations from David Cannadine’s collection of essays, Aspects of Aristocracy, show that, for all his gifts, he would not be a front-runner for the editorship of Country Life. Few historians bring more energy and relish to chronicling the shortcomings of titled or famous people. But though the book contains iconoclastic reassessments of Lord Curzon, Winston Churchill, the Devonshires and the Nicolsons, none is treated altogether unsympathetically. With a couple of exceptions, all the essays concern individuals and families who are brought to life with a panache that almost disguises Cannadine’s exemplary professionalism and industry.
Despite its subtitle, the book is about decline much more than about grandeur. Assuming an overt, indeed exuberant materialism, Cannadine judges success in terms of wealth and status. By these criteria, many of his subjects failed: they struggled to hold onto portions of family estates, or were at odds with a democratic and machine-dominated political culture. One of the most effective essays is about Churchill’s chequered career before 1940, demonstrating how his disreputable but highly-publicised patrician family associations helped to lower his character among Conservative Party apparatchiks. Other elegiac pieces chart the difficulties which 20th-century professional politics posed for three uneasy members of the propertied élite: Curzon, Harold Nicolson and Gerald Strickland (an Anglo-Maltese nobleman who failed, successively, to be an Imperial proconsul, a Conservative MP and a regenerator of Malta). Cannadine ends with an assault on the contemporary cult of the country house: on the ‘snobbish and nostalgic’ absurdity of thinking of the aristocracy of previous centuries as having enjoyed an unusually ‘cultivated’ and ‘refined’ life of ease, rather than as ‘the national élite of wealth, status and power’, whose houses were ‘machines to be lived in’, and who were preoccupied with ‘getting and spending money, accumulating and wielding power, and revelling in prestige and authority’.
The major theme of the book, then, is how disorienting it was for a class driven by a passion for wealth and status to lose it, to become bystanders in the endless struggle for worldly advancement. And the first essay, a long, general and highly suggestive one about the early 19th century, seeks to discover how that wealth and status had been consolidated. Cannadine shows how prosperity from increased wheat prices and the demand for minerals and canals combined with the effects of the 18th-century demographic crisis to create a uniquely favourable environment for old and new aristocratic families to increase their wealth, contract advantageous marriages and buy estates in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The result of so much upward mobility was to create a self-conscious and self-advertising new élite. It sought honours, extravagant artistic purchases and other outlets for conspicuous consumption. And, Cannadine argues, it exercised great political power: the propertied classes of the United Kingdom were integrated in a coherent counter-revolutionary bloc, with control over the state bureaucracy, the Commons (through pocket boroughs) and the Church of England.
Cannadine is obviously and rightly fascinated by the apparent grandeur of the Victorian aristocracy, and it is a pity that he has not so far devoted as much attention to what he sees as its luxurious heyday as to its subsequent decline. If, one day, he does so, he will wish to flesh out these generalisations. How unchallenged was the aristocracy’s position? On what terms did it enjoy its prestige? If the aristocracy’s position in the last century was not so assured, then the nature of its apparent disorientation by subsequent political developments needs to be re-examined.
In fact, the precariousness of this grandeur is revealed by the other two 19th-century essays in the book, on aristocratic finance, which show that many aristocrats were in debt, but untroubled by it because, until the 1870s, they could easily find credit to fund high spending. Most of this came from the middle classes, through mortgages and loans offered by local attorneys, insurance companies and West End and country banks. Though much of the money was channelled into agricultural improvement and the exploitation of mineral resources, a great deal still went on house-building, providing for younger children and conspicuous spending designed in part to maintain a high social profile. This profile contributed to aristocratic prestige and thus to the middle classes’ willingness to lend money against the security of landed estates. In other words, the fountains, grand conservatory and orchids of the sixth Duke of Devonshire’s Chatsworth played their part in maintaining the belief in aristocratic economic primacy.
But this was largely an illusion, at least after the 1840s. And was the same not true of the notion of a politically powerful landed élite? Aristocrats were wealthier in the early part of the 19th century because Britain was wealthier. Merchants, cotton manufacturers, fundholders, farmers and the service classes of the county towns all benefited from commercial and territorial expansion and from high corn prices. But they were also disturbed by the manifold effects of the French wars. The result was enormous interest in politics from below – the problem of ‘public opinion’ was born. Some commercial men wanted access to Parliament in order to gain sectional financial benefit; many less prominent people condemned high taxes, especially when spent on lining the pockets of propertied state servants. This pressure for reduction of state expenditure carried all before it; the title of the traditional ruling classes to govern was itself challenged. Pocket-borough ownership was ineffective against this tide; it simply meant that pragmatic peers could exploit nouveau-riche anxiety to sit in the Commons. By the 1820s, the landed élite was not entrenched but beleaguered as never before.
This problem was tackled by artful Tory political management and then by the Whig coup of 1830, which led to the development of modern party politics. Parties were a clever aristocratic invention, because they enforced hierarchy, which the Whigs felt was sadly lacking in the anarchy of pre-Reform Act politics. Claiming noblesse oblige, they broadened the electoral system in 1832 and put themselves at the head of the new state, trusting to deference to keep them there. Here, as in the financial sphere, they exploited the prestige which aristocracy enjoyed. Nineteenth-century cabinets continued to be stuffed full of peers; the House of Lords assumed a senatorial grandeur; the stress laid on Parliamentary speaking benefited the recipients of an expensive classical education; invitations to leaders’ London salons dampened the fire of provincial radicals. Status counted for much in Victorian politics, and deceived many superficial observers. Even in the 1860s, Bagehot caused a fuss by questioning 18th-century constitutional maxims and relegating the first two of the old triumvirate of Monarch, Lords and Commons to the status of dignifying symbols which validated rule by other hands.
But aristocratic rule was largely an illusion because of the content of the liberalism over which the Whigs presided from the 1830s. Two of the great principles of liberalism were localism and legislative reform. To begin with, extending powers to elected local bodies strengthened the authority of local gentlemen in many parts of the country – intentionally. But, in an urbanising society, it inevitably led to the devolution of most power to the commercial, professional and shopkeeping classes. Meanwhile, central government legislation was rarely in aristocratic hands. The Exchequer, Home Office and (usually) Board of Trade were always given to MPs. Most domestic policy reflected the interests of the middle classes and the ideals of a minority of dutiful, intellectual and public-spirited gentlemen who were comfortable with liberalism. Free trade was one proof of this: but low taxation and the consequent diminution of patronage and of the effective power of the Army, a policy towards poverty and public health dominated by ratepayer pressure, and a politically – and intellectually – enfeebled Church Establishment all had to be taken into account. Thus, a few progressive aristocrats found 19th-century politics rewarding, while the dominance of localism and the continuing aristocratic presence in both parties meant that the rest did not see central government as too alarmingly harmful.
For this and other reasons, few aristocrats were politically prominent. The changed composition of the Liberal Party after 1886, and its need to unite middle and working-class interests by a cry against land, led to the crisis of 1906-14, which drew many peers into the political arena to make a ‘last stand’. But this was an oddity, provoked by a uniquely trying set of domestic and international circumstances. In general, aristocrats have continued not to mount a collective defence – partly because once the Liberal Party had declined, landed privilege ceased to be a major political issue. For some time before 1914 it had been obvious that even the illusion of grandeur was unconvincing and that, on the contrary, the best way to minimise the decay of aristocratic wealth in what was, after 1880, an unhelpful economic climate was to retreat below the political parapet, while seeking safety in numbers by recruiting allies from other propertied groups.
This alliance became very successful in seeing off political threats to property – such as they were, given the snobbery of English society. The aristocracy was never more seriously threatened than by the governments of Asquith and Lloyd George; yet Asquith saw his children married to two peers’ daughters, a Romanian prince and two scions of the landed gentry, while Lloyd George became an unusually prolific and imaginative bestower of peerages. From the 1880s to well after the Second World War, Britain was governed by a loose grouping of classes which developed a political culture based on deference to traditional economic and moral values. The peerage, London society and the top public schools were all opened equally to landed and to commercial and industrial wealth, while the City became a respectable profession for gentlemen. The universities and the Civil, Diplomatic and Colonial Services all helped to socialise clever children of respectable professional parents – like the Nicolsons. The continuing strength of localism provided many opportunities for small landowners in the countryside and ultrarespectable middle-class families in towns to shape the morals of those below them – through magistrates’ courts, councils, education authorities, public library policy, cinema censorship and so on. The dominant values were respectability, service, Christianity and a dislike of boat-rocking.
It is in the context of this dominant culture that we need to consider the disorientation which, Cannadine shows, afflicted Curzon, Strickland, Churchill and Nicolson. That they were uncomfortable in 20th-century politics is undoubted. That this was because they were aristocrats is more dubious. Rather, the problem for Curzon and Strickland was partly temperamental and partly that they failed to understand that Imperial pomp excited few British voters of any class. Indeed, Cannadine’s sensitive and entertaining treatment of Curzon’s initiatives as a ceremonial impresario suggests that, whereas his majestic pre-war Imperial celebrations were labelled ‘un-British’, his greatest legacy was his simplest, most self-effacing and religious ceremony, that of Remembrance Day. Had he struck this chord with middle England more often, his domestic career might have been more successful.
Churchill, similarly, was not the ‘reactionary class warrior’ between the wars that Cannadine claims. His opinions and personality were less typical of the propertied classes than were those of the Conservative leaders. It was, after all, Churchill and Lloyd George whom the Duke of Beaufort had wished to see ‘in the middle of twenty couple of dog hounds’ in 1909. Perhaps, as we learn here, he was so ignorant of public transport that he once went round and round the Circle Line in puzzlement at its failure to make progress. But he never lacked confidence in his destiny as an inspiring popular leader, which is the great theme of his career. He (and Nicolson) criticised interwar political leaders less because they were products of democracy than because prevailing political structures still seemed obstinately Victorian. The problem with the National Government was that it lacked initiative and adventurousness. Nicolson’s complaint that Neville Chamberlain had ‘the soul of the ironmonger’ concerned his lack of imagination, not his (distinguished) background. Hardly any 19th-century aristocratic politicians had provided crusading popular leadership. National greatness and prosperity had given them the chance to claim that their initiatives – reform and free trade – had secured order and progress, but in fact Victorian expectations of national politicians were extremely, attainably low. Churchill, Nicolson and many other interwar commentators did not understand how little past statesmen had contributed to stability. Fed on a historical and classical education which emphasised and exaggerated the achievement of heroic leaders throughout the ages, and contrasting this with the bleak contemporary reality of economic depression and discontent, they developed an impractically romantic notion of the scope for the dynamic individual in politics (impractical in peacetime, though perfect for rallying millions in wartime). The message of Churchill’s and Curzon’s careers is that the politician’s greatest handicap is a powerful historical imagination.
Cannadine’s book is effervescent, erudite and enormously enjoyable – enjoyable partly because it is so provocative. Not surprisingly, it sometimes provokes dissent. In the 19th century, aristocrats undoubtedly possessed prestige, but this disguised shaky finances and only intermittent interest in the political grind. In the 20th century prestige waned, but much wealth survived, partly because the political culture remained much less unsympathetic and much more deferential than appeared likely in the 1910s. Aristocrats have been prominent in three of the most successful of modern British industries: stockbroking, farming and tourism. Many estates, houses and gardens have been opened to an admiring public. Among the results have been pilgrimages to Vita Sackville-West’s garden at Sissinghurst, and her son’s carefully constructed cult of her ménage. These, together with the conservationist work of the National Trust, arouse Cannadine’s wrath as pathetic perversions of a once virile aristocratic tradition, for which visitors and taxpayers are deluded into paying. But it is equally arguable that the tradition was rarely very virile – that many families quickly rejected swaggering self-assertiveness and developed a more secure identity, concerned not just with wealth and status but with many other things, including the hoarding and preserving of unusual, irreplaceable or tasteful possessions. It may also be that, far from denying inherited traits, Nigel Nicolson and other labourers in the heritage industry are acting in tradition, both in flaunting their ancestors’ rare acquisitions for public stupefaction and edification, and in relying on the middle classes to be sufficiently awestruck to foot the bill for their upkeep.