How to think about the entrenched wealth of the aristocracy

I was recently talking to a constitutional historian whose main interest is in the royal family. He was frustrated and amused by the fact that people’s default assumption about him was that he must be some sort of royal fanboy. I think that formed a part of my default assumption – people like Jenny Bond popped into my head (is she still around? Does the BBC have a “royal correspondent” now, or is that one of those last-gasp 1990s things?), and of course Starkey, Schama et al – people who comment on royal affairs (figuratively and literally speaking) and who show every appearance of being in some sense fans. But why should I assume that? After all, the royal family occupies a unique and odd place in British constitutional and political life. It is, as the historian implied, rather a matter of fashion and personal politics than rigorous historical principle that it isn’t much studied, and is perceived as less “serious” than the study of “real” politics. Somehow it’s just too big to tackle, too obviously a Thing, and anyone who does it is suspect.

This made me wonder if the British aristocracy is similarly under-scrutinised, and whether we are missing a very basic trick if we want to deal with entrenched privilege – at the very top, as it were. This week the Duke of Westminster died, and one of the quotes that went around was this:

An FT reporter, working through a standard set of questions, once asked him what advice he’d give to young entrepreneurs keen to emulate his success.

“Make sure they have an ancestor who was a very close friend of William the Conqueror,” he replied.

It’s interesting because, while pithy and amusing and self-deprecating and all the rest of it, it isn’t actually true in any more than a trivial sense, as the Duke was presumably well aware. I’m not sure how much people know about the medieval aristocracy here, so bear with me. I mean, we all have ancestors who were very close friends with William the Conqueror, that’s just a demographic fact. But what I’m interested in is this – is the commonly held idea that the aristocracy’s privilege was laid down in the eleventh century and has been essentially unbroken ever since actually damaging to the socialist revolution, by appearing to put the goal unimaginably out of reach? (Assuming you want to have one of those? I’m unsure. I mean, by all means, start without me and I’ll see if I want to join in. It’s just, I’ve made this cup of tea now.)

Over the last thousand years privileged families have risen and fallen. I was a medievalist as a student, and I hardly noticed the Grosvenors. Technically Norman in origin, I’m sure, but bit players, the kind of name you might see popping up in a list on a Letter Patent of oyer and terminer, or in a worthy study of gentry networks in any number of counties. Certainly not the stuff of government – nothing near the power of the Fitzalans or the Beauchamps or the Nevilles or any of the other names that will be much more familiar to late medieval historians who are now nowhere to be seen. The real “privilege” of the Grosvenor family dates from a lucky marriage to an heiress 300 years ago, whose inheritance was composed of the green fields of what is now West London.

I say “lucky”, which is both true and false. Clearly, it was the kind of calculation these people made with every marriage and in every generation, so in that sense the luck was not unforeseen. It was all a numbers game, and some of those marriages were bound to be the ones that paid off. And yet the luck is also false in the sense that it’s not a complete explanation – you have to be in a position to attract such an heiress in the first place, and that is where the Conqueror bit comes in. The same goes for a lot of the “great aristocratic families” who are commonly understood – and who for all their history have very keenly let it be understood – that their lineage and power go back a thousand years. The Spencers, for example? Northamptonshire sheep farmers to a medievalist.

But it was always a numbers game, and the winners in the eleventh century were different to the winners in the fifteenth, who were different to the winners in the eighteenth, and so on. What this boils down to is that if we are serious about society moving forward we should not be seeing aristocracy in terms of a thousand year old protected and privileged bloodline standing at the very head of Privileged People, some terrible locus of power to focus a sort of awed opposition. We should be seeing it in terms of, in this case, three hundred year old protected spivvery and speculation. And spivvery and speculation are a lot easier to tackle in terms of any movement that seeks to attack entrenched privilege and reduce inequality.

It’s a philosophical and linguistic point but I think it might be an important one. In public understanding of history, being mates with William the Conqueror is what aristocratic privilege is, and whence it draws its power, and by implication that’s what all wealth and power in Britain ultimately derives from or seeks to emulate. But it just isn’t true, any aristocratic power and wealth that we see today is generally much more recently located than that. The things they have done to capture and concentrate their power are not mystical or quasi-Arthurian or rooted in deep ill-understood stretches of hallowed time. They have generally been done in what you might call “the modern era”. And that means they, or rather future examples, can be tackled with legislation on wealth taxes, or any other of the fairly humdrum campaigning aims available to any modern movement that seeks to tackle privilege.

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1 Comment

  1. I think the take away from the Grosvenors is in order to provide well for your off-spring marry someone rich. Or someone who owns greenfield land about to become very expensive. Well, about to become in say 200 years time!

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