The Blair Government's proposed changes to the position of Lord Chancellor and the periodic attempts to ban fox hunting have a gentle nostalgic air. Such
vestiges of class warfare recall cloth caps and suet puddings, the master at the gate and the servant in his place. With the introduction of Life Peerages in 1958
and an eviction of a majority of the hereditary peers from the House of Lords on 11 November 1999, moves to abolish the woolsack seem as anachronistic as the woolsack itself.
Karl Marx and Hollywood have combined to present us with a rather simplified version of the British class system, the latter portrays a virtuous working class
exploited by chinless and effeminate aristocrats. In the face of such a crude reduction, some further exploration is required.
In the days of America's War of Independence, class, patronage and corruption were part and parcel of the political system. The aristocrats of the day were
the middle class and gentry of the previous century, who enshrined the supremacy of Parliament in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Relatively speaking, the system
was surprisingly fluid.
A talented and lucky individual, with judicious patronage, could go from commoner
to knight, baron or even viscount in the space of a lifetime. Their children, or rather their eldest son, if luck, talent and fortune held, could advance to
an earldom or even marquessate. Fame and fortune was a generational endeavour.
Families went into decline, wealth and power changed hands but the rank and structure remained the same, conforming with British constitutional principle
of evolution nor revolution. Of course some families, like the Cecils, displayed Herculean staying power, from William Cecil, the 1st Baron Burghley in the reign
of Elizabeth I, to Viscount Cranbourne, now the Marquess of Salisbury, who played an important rearguard action for the hereditary peers in 1999, in the reign of
Elizabeth II. But the Cecils are a conspicuous exception rather than the rule. The pace of change or rather the permeability of these ranks continually increased
with the industrial revolution, responsible government and later democracy.
The permeability of the system was such that an Anglo-Jew, Benjamin Disraeli, who did not attend a great public school or Oxford and Cambridge, could become
Prime Minister in 1868. He was the first truly middle-class Prime Minister to take office, though it must be said his father Isaac D'Israeli was a famous anecdotalist
and anthologist, much admired by Lord Byron.
By 1916 Britain had a one time fiery Welsh radical as Prime Minister, David
Lloyd George, who of course would later receive his peerage. The first decades
of the 20th century also saw the 1st Earl of Birkenhead, F.E Smith, the grandson
of a coal miner, a brilliant and heavy drinking barrister who became the Lord
Chancellor. Then there was Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson Bt, who somehow managed
to climb from private to Chief of Imperial General Staff, serving as an Ulster
MP until his assassination in 1922. And of course, Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook,
Canadian stockbroker, media magnate and Minister for Aircraft Production in the
darkest days of World War II.
One strength of the class system was its ability to re-model itself while the
facade remained the same, incorporating Welsh radicals, American wives, new money,
Canadian newspapermen and unionists. Indeed the current Lord Attlee, the grandson
of Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee, is a Conservative Frontbench spokesman.
But the system had its disadvantages. It could be viscously snobbish, grossly
indolent and inflexible, these traits not only contributed to a general national
decline, but had tragic consequences from 1914-1918.
Senior British officers, usually from fashionable Household cavalry regiments,
did their level best to destroy Great Britain's next generation in the First World
War. Middle and upper class sons paid for the stupidity of their fathers; a working
class boy from Glasgow stood a greater chance of surviving the war than a public
school boy. A glance at the number of the Great and Good who lost at least one
son in the holocaust is truly astounding. One can hear the bitterness, and maybe
self-recrimination, in Rudyard Kipling's Common Form "If any question
why we died/Tell them our fathers lied". His son John, short-sighted and
horribly young, died in France in 1915. Listed as missing, his body was found
But the awful death toll reveals one of the class system's few redeeming features.
The British class system, particularly during the Victorian era, excelled at instilling
notions of duty and responsibility, summed up by the couplet "Duty, duty
must be done/The rule applies to everyone". Generations of school boys were
bred to go overseas to die in battle in some far flung corner of Empire, the cost
captured, once again by Kipling, in the classic refrain:
A scrimmage in a Border Station
A canter down some dark defile-
Two thousand pounds of education
Drops to a ten-rupee jezail
The Crammer's boast, the Squadron's pride
Shot like a rabbit in a ride.
Such a class system had many aspects that we find repellent and its end should
not be mourned, however it contained a degree of refreshing honesty. There seemed
to be recognition that people were vain, greedy and ambitious, and some were smarter
and more talented than others. The class system had some measure of success in
harnessing those strengths and weaknesses and using them to the benefit of the
state. Furthermore, duty and responsibility tempered vanity, avarice and greed;
fame, fortune and title were shackled and constrained by the expectations of class
The Democratic Age, at least in Western nations, has reduced the gulf between
rich and poor, indecent inequities have been eliminated, the standard of living
has increased and there is greater social mobility. However, vanity and greed
have outlived antiquated class systems, and we have promoted materialism and consumerism
on a scale that would have scandalised and confused the middle and upper classes
of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Furthermore, notions of responsibility and
duty are receding and becoming ever more remote.
One wonders what sense of social responsibility and burden of duty falls upon
a private school boy in Sydney's Eastern suburbs, who may go from Scots or Cranebrook,
to university and then follow a predictable path into finance or law. They may
spend their weekends looking at real estate, buying clothes or snorting cocaine
in fashionable nightspots. At least that "scrimmage in a Border Station"
demonstrated hardship and service to something beyond Mammon.