Lawrence Stone

  • The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy by David Cannadine
    Yale, 813 pp, £19.95, October 1990, ISBN 0 300 04761 4

For reasons which are obscure. 1989-90 seem to be the years in which mega-books of history, none them less than six hundred pages, have become best-sellers: for example, Simon Schama’s Citizens, Roy Foster’s Modern Ireland. Jonathan Spence’s Search for Modern China. And now here comes another one, 813 pages of it, which is virtually certain also to be a best-seller, at least in Britain. The general outlines of the decline and fall of the British landed establishment from 1880 to the present day have long been apparent. In status, its members have sunk from haughty idols, demanding and getting deferential respect, to tourist guides for the millions who yearly tramp through their houses. In political power, they used to control the countryside as Lords Lieutenant and JPs, formed a solid majority in the House of Commons, composed almost the entire body of the House of Lords, dominated the Cabinet, and virtually hogged the office of Prime Minister. Now they are politically marginalised, both in local government and in the two major parties at Westminster. In wealth, they used to own about 75 per cent of the land of England and Wales, and large areas of urban real estate; today, only a handful of old landed millionaires are left, and every decade they are obliged to sell off more capital assets.

For a period of about 350 years this hereditary élite ruled Britain amazingly successfully – with the one exception of needlessly provoking the Americans into the War of Independence. Enriched by the spoils of the monasteries in the 16th century, the ruling families were basically in place by 1660, and thereafter proceeded to create a state, a legal system, a church and an army to suit their needs: they manned them all, and used them to further the interest of both the nation and themselves. This landed establishment waged a second hundred-year war with France which began in 1689 and finally resulted in victory at Waterloo. It conquered first one and then a second empire. After 1832, the Whigs presided over the transition of Britain from a laissez-faire patriarchal state to one in which a growing number of members of the small propertied class felt they had a stake and a vote.

The decline and fall of this landed establishment after 1880 is a vast subject, with large implications for the destiny of Britain, and it has met a historian worthy of so important, so, tragic, and yet in the last analysis so necessary and so inevitable a change. What Cannadine has done is, for the first time, to survey and display the whole grand panorama. Taking the Weberian triad of wealth, power and status as his architectural framework, he traces how the British landed establishment has for over a century slid inexorably from an unprecedented pinnacle in 1870. In that year they were the richest, the most powerful and the most arrogant aristocracy in Europe and probably in the world, and the fit between wealth, power and status was near perfect.

Cannadine defines his subject as not merely the titular aristocracy but what he calls ‘the British landed establishment’, or, more vaguely still, ‘patricians’. By this he means three groups: the titular aristocracy (and their children) from the three countries of England, Scotland and Ireland; those members of the titular baronetage who held land (and their children); and those squires whose landed property amounted to well over a thousand acres. This very capacious definition raises methodological problems, since, as he points out, in 1870 ‘the Duke of Omnium and the small squire were half a world apart.’ But great dukes and small squires had four things in common. They were gentlemen; they did not work for their living; their income came from land rather than banking, commerce or – heaven forfend-industry; and together they ran the country and the Empire. In all, in 1870 this group amounted to about seven thousand males – six thousand untitled – plus their wives, children and dependent relatives. But this is too large and loose a definition to be easily handled, and Cannadine mostly tells us about the long but inexorable decline of titular aristocrats, only occasionally taking in the untitled ‘patricians’.

The David who mortally wounded this Goliath was Lloyd George. He was determined to deprive the landlords of both power and wealth – and he partly succeeded. The small squirearchy were for the most part financially and politically wiped out by the 1920s. The aristocrats were a tougher nut to crack, for they had far greater economic, political and status resources with which to defend themselves, as a result of which many were able to slow down their inexorable decay, and in some cases even to halt it. Lloyd George mocked the House of Lords as ‘Mr Balfour’s poodle’, made up of five hundred ‘unemployed’, and in 1911 he deprived it of real power. He also terrified great territorial magnates with threats to redistribute land, which caused many of them to sell up before it was too late.

Like a good social historian of the old school, Cannadine starts with money. He traces how, quite suddenly, between 1875 and 1925 very many of the landed establishment, especially the less affluent, experienced unprecedented financial collapse. This was partly due to a massive 70-year slump in the price of British grain and meat, thanks to huge imports from North and South America, and partly to increasingly crippling taxation, which included income tax rising to 19’s. 6d in the pound and death duties rising to 65 per cent of capital assets. Together, the two spelt the financial ruin of the class.

In terms of power, the landed establishment lost political control both at the centre, where the powers of the House of Lords were crippled and where the House of Commons ceased to be filled with a majority of landed cousins and younger sons: and in the countryside, where elected County Councils took over from the old aristocratic Lords Lieutenant and the gentry JPs. Moreover, radical socialist ideology was all the time chewing away at the status of persons of ancient family and title. Awed respect for titles only survived in plutocratic America – where at the turn of the century many daughters of millionaires were cajoled or browbeaten into trading American money for British titles on the marriage market.

And so by the second half of the 20th century the only bastions of privilege still monopolised by the old landed establishment are the Court, the Brigade of Guards and the Household Cavalry, to a diminishing extent the Foreign Office, and a shrinking handful of not very important colonial governorships. Not a very impressive list. The economic situation is, however, a little more ambiguous. The majority have certainly gone or nearly gone, but for a handful of the very richest dukes and landowners of England and Scotland, three things have happened since 1960 which have enabled them to arrest their economic decline, or even to turn it around. First, agriculture has recently become a highly profitable and highly efficient occupation, and those who held onto a significant amount of land during the bad decades are now reaping the rewards. Second, clever lawyers have eased the pain of the inheritance tax, and even found ways around the capital-transfer tax; third, the transformation of Britain into a gigantic museum has brought an enormous infusion of income and tax relief to the twenty or so owners of major country houses and parks. These have been turned into immensely popular tourist attractions, each pulling in up to a million paying visitors a year. This is money dearly bought, at the cost of making the houses unlivable-in as family homes, and turning the grounds into a kind of Disneyland. There is in addition what Cannadine calls ‘the Getty effect’, which has pushed the value of works of art through the roof. Those lucky few whose ancestors went on the Grand Tour and shipped home huge quantities of European art at knock-down prices in the 18th century now find themselves sitting on a goldmine. Selling off a Titian or a Rubens once a generation will keep the wolves of the Treasury at bay almost indefinitely, at any rate under existing legislation. As a result, men like the current Duke of Buccleuch still live very much as their ancestors did in the 18th century, except that the number of servants has been drastically reduced and their political influence is nil. The Duke still divides the year between his three great country seats and a house in London; he takes justifiable pride in the efficiency and sense of responsibility with which he manages his estates; and he still retains a sense of moral obligation to generations past and others yet unborn, as the temporary tenant of family assets.

The question which is left hanging in Cannadine’s story is who exactly have replaced the British aristocracy as the holders of power, wealth and status. Is it a plutocracy of self-made men, as Cannadine frequently suggests, or is it the professional middle classes? The first seem to predominate up to about 1925, but since then a case can be made that the real heirs are the second, the yuppies of our time. In 1884 Gladstone was afraid of the influx of vulgar ‘neo-plutoi’; in 1910 Lord Esher remarked sadly: ‘Here we are, overwhelmed by the middle classes.’ Who was right? The fact is that we do not fully know, but it seems to be the latter.

The only major defects in this magnificent and comprehensive book are the virtual absence of statistics, and problems with the few that are provided. The book does not lack figures: there are not hundreds, but thousands of them. But they almost all relate to individuals: lists and lists of individual incomes, sales, mortgages, marriages, office-holders, émigrés, wastrels, businessmen. Fascists etc. In Cannadine’s files there are lists of everything, but hard statistics for almost nothing. There are no tables or graphs to nail down a trend, and without any clear idea of the population at risk a list of names, however impressive, does not mean much. A classic example of this dilemma concerns the effect on the landed classes of the First World War. Cannadine devotes several pages to a threnody about the holocaust of the best and the brightest of the British landed aristocracy in the killing fields of Flanders. There are long lists of the dead, and moving quotations from the grieving families and friends. It does indeed look like the destruction of a generation. And then suddenly there is inserted a statistic which throws a totally different light on the situation: four-fifths of those of this class who served returned home safely. Now a 20 per cent death-rate is tragically high, but it does not mean the destruction of a whole generation.

Since land was the key to power and status, the absence of any statistical tables for land sales over time is very unfortunate. If none exist, it is time that economic historians turned their attention to producing some. Another problem is that the hundreds of monetary figures of individual incomes, sale-prices etc, stretched out over a century, have not been adjusted for the massive price inflation which occurred during that time. Instead, we have to make do with a host of individual stories, and an appendix containing a list of the acreages held by a small, randomly-selected group of aristocrats between 1888 and 1950, which is virtually meaningless since the fate of all the others is left to the imagination.

There cannot be any serious doubt that Cannadine’s overall conclusion about massive land sales is correct. What we still do not know, however, is just how many landowners were virtually wiped out, and how many survived with diminished acreage but still enough to provide a comfortable income. Nor can we see at all clearly whether the attrition was a steady process over the century from 1880-1990 or one which went in bursts. For example, how much trust can we place in the observation by a writer in the Estates Gazette for 1925 that between around 1910 and 1924 about a quarter of the land of England changed hands? It may well be true, but how did the author know, and who was he? Hard-nosed economic historians will not be happy with the statistical underpinnings of the argument for an economic decline and fall, even if they can hardly challenge Cannadine’s overall picture.

But it would be ungracious, and wholly misleading, to end on this grumpy note. Cannadine has produced a great book, one that is comprehensive in its scope, and of critical importance in understanding how Britain has changed from the era of Gladstone and Lord Salisbury to that of Mrs Thatcher.

The power of this book does not lie in any new information culled from archives, or even in a new interpretation of the decline of the aristocracy in Britain since 1880. Its claims to distinction lie elsewhere. First, there is the extraordinary erudition that underpins it. Cannadine seems to have read every diary, every memoir, every novel, every secondary study published over the last hundred years. As a result, the book is packed with telling quotations and fascinating anecdotes. Second, there is the bravura exuberance with which he describes the disintegration of a class, the dismemberment of its economic basis, and the destruction of the way of life and set of values that went with it. Third, there is the sheer scope and sweep of the topics covered. This is history on the grand scale. Others have examined bits and pieces of the story but nobody before has had the audacity, the erudition and the energy to describe, with scrupulous objectivity, every possible aspect of the destruction of an ancient ruling class. Cannadine even includes a long and fascinating section on the psychological responses of these aristocrats to the harsh reality of their shrinking fortunes. He treats ‘the politics of paranoia’, thanks to which some, like Oswald Mosley and Unity Mitford, took to Fascism; others went Communist; many engaged in die-hard fights in last ditches – battles which in the end they always lost. Yet others settled for roles as lords mayor of cities, company directors, and minor colonial governors, jobs which required nothing more than good manners, a stately presence and a title.

In his conclusion, Cannadine turns a withering eye on the recent evolution of the surviving country-house owners as guardians of a national ‘Heritage’. In return for providing public access to this heritage, the state allows the owners tax privileges which enable them to go on living in their ancestral seats (or bits of them). Cannadine believes the heritage theory is an implausible con-game. First, he argues that most 18th-century aristocrats were Philistines; and second, he points out that the current tax benevolence towards hard-pressed country house owners by a Tory government run by lower-middle-class politicians like Mrs Thatcher cannot be relied on, to say nothing of the future plans of the Labour Party. He may be right, but I am more optimistic. I believe that a majority of those who are left will now survive well into the 21st century – a confidence which no reasonable person could have had in 1945. Unless destroyed by new legislation, they will be saved in part by the ‘Getty effect’ and in part by tourism. Moreover, it is paradoxical that in this age of mass democracy and party rule, the only feeble defence of individual liberty and the public interest against the tyranny of a prime minister is that long-derided institution, the House of Lords. Some of these landed aristocrats, led by life peers, are coming in useful after all.

Steven Runciman once said that ‘the supreme duty of the historian is to ... record in one sweeping sequence the greater events and movements that have swayed the destinies of man.’ David Cannadine has done just that for the decline of the British landed establishment, although he explicitly argues – quite rightly – that it is pure coincidence that this decline of a class coincided with the decline of Britain as a great power. This is history at its very best. That it is the work of an English historian resettled happily from Cambridge to New York should give pause to those who claim that the transatlantic brain drain is no more than good riddance to bad rubbish.