Book review: In Defence of the Aristocracy

In Defence of Aristocracy, Peregrine Worsthorne, (HarperCollins, £15)

‘The English aristocracy’, wrote Alexis de Tocqueville, ‘is perhaps the most liberal that has ever existed, and no body of men has ever, uninterruptedly, furnished so many honourable and enlightened individuals to the government of a country.’ This book is a well-measured and reasonable attempt to analyse what has been lost from public life since Britain ceased to be hierarchical.

It is very much not a defence of snobbery, nor a defence of haughtiness, nor a defence of privilege. It is not even a plea for the hereditary peers to remain in the House of Lords. Sir Peregrine, who is much too original a mind to be predictable, is actually against hereditary peers at the present time sitting as of right in Parliament: because he is in favour of members of the old elite, the civilised upper class, once more playing their part in political life, and not being deselected as parliamentary candidates on grounds of class prejudice.

Sir Peregrine defines the word aristocracy with breadth and looseness. He considers the American governing class, and the French administrative classes to be aristocratic. He dreams of the possibility of the public schools, led by Eton, being used to produce ‘a cultivated and civilized ruling class’ ? not wheeler-dealers, not get-rich-quick merchants, but people with a desire to serve their fellow mortals. ‘Once the penny dropped that a public-school education was not a passport to the best posts in private enterprise, but rather a passport to relatively low-paid jobs in the public service ? in politics, in the churches, in the armed forces, even in the social services’ ? the anti-elitist anger of the critics would, he hopes, evaporate.

There are many in Britian today who feel that decency has gone out of public life. For centuries, local government was conducted by squires, and the aristocracy, major and minor, from different parts of the country represented the constituencies in Parliament. Things worked on the whole efficiently. Compared with almost everywhere else in the world, there was hardly any corruption. Compared with all the countries in Europe which did away with hierarchies, such as Nazi Germany or Leninist Russia, Britain was a haven of liberty and civilisation. Sir Peregrine makes out a powerful case for believing that the decency of British public life was based on the fact that a ruling elite, from 1689 until living memory, occupied the positions of authority here.

And, further, when non-aristocrats came to occupy the same positions, they imitated the old aristocratic values of unselfishness and duty. England’s historical peculiarity lay in the fact that ‘aristocracy was the only model for social ambition. For just as in the 18th and 19th centuries the bourgeoisie were persuaded to take the ideal of aristocracy as their model, so in the 20th century were the aspiring members of the working class inspired to do likewise.’

Sir Peregrine remembers his grandmother, who had a jolly life in London. The family pile, Towneley Hall in Lancashire, had been bought by Burnley Corporation, so when she inherited, her house Dynely was a ‘hideous late-Victorian villa’ overlooking a mining valley. But, she considered the exodus of the absentee landlords shameful, so she gave up her social life in London and ‘moved to Dynely where she gave over her life to good works ? running the local Girl Guides, sitting on the county council and on the Bench, and reviving the Townely chapel in Burnley’.

Drawing on a lifetime of historical reading, and of personal acquaintance with, and indeed membership of, the ruling elite class, Sir Peregrine has some sharp and percipient messages to drive home. His book deserves a wide readership, not least among students of political philosophy in universities, and among selection committees for parliamentary seats.