The Death of ‘Society’

David Cannadine has declined the invitation to spend the weekend at Brideshead. He intends to treat his aristocrats “seriously rather than sentimentally,…to rescue the British upper classes from the endless (and mindless) veneration of posterity.” Their money, status, and power—the three keys to the stability of any governing class—are his concern. When, during the past hundred years, did their superiority fade, when did their wealth diminish, and how did political power, which for centuries had remained in their hands, slip through their fingers?

Sir John Plumb, with whom Cannadine studied at Cambridge, used to urge his pupils to follow George Trevelyan and write for the educated public as well as for their fellow scholars. They were to take pleasure in the exuberance of human beings and not be ashamed to write narrative history. History moves, things change, progress and decay are inevitable, and the present fashion of taking a snapshot of a particular moment in a society and analyzing its structure ignores what the word history—storia, Geschichte—means. Cannadine has followed Plumb’s lead, and the story he has to tell is this.

In the 1870s land was the measure of wealth, and the aristocracy and the gentry owned much of it. Some 7,500 families owned four fifths of the land in the British Isles. In England they owned 56 percent, in Scotland 93 percent. About 6,000 families were squires, parsons, rentiers—small landowners owning estates of between 1,000 and 10,000 acres. About 750 families, many of them peers, owned estates of between 10,000 and 30,000 acres. At the top were the great peers, each owning estates of more than 30,000 acres and by modern standards millionaires. The gentry sometimes came from families more ancient than those of the aristocracy and could well be related to them by marriage. It is this combination of peers and gentry that is the subject of Cannadine’s study.

Peers had considerable political power. They sat in the House of Lords and could block legislation initiated by the Commons. What is more, they dominated the House of Commons and in effect nominated hundreds of its members. The aristocracy obtained through patronage posts for their younger offspring in the army, navy, and public service, in the Church of England, and even in the judiciary. No aristocracy, except the Austrian and Hungarian nobility, could match the milords in power; though the Stroganovs and Demidovs, enriched by the iron ore in the Urals, rivaled in wealth the richest English noblemen until the 1880s. It is true that the English lords could not claim exemption from taxation. It is true that they were divided between Whigs and Tories and the gentry were no friends of the magnates. But Cannadine is right to say that their differences were as nothing to their solidarity. What gave the English aristocracy its strength was the entail. Estates and titles were inherited only by the eldest son.

What brought them down? One …

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