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 cause was certainly beyond their control. In the late 1870s the railroad in North America had reached the prairies, and cheap wheat hit British agriculture just when a series of disastrous harvests co-incided with disease striking the herds. Those with urban estates such as the Dukes of Westminster and Bedford could alone survive relatively unscathed. The collapse of land values destroyed their power. In 1880, 394 out of 652 members of the House of Commons came from the nobility or gentry. Between the wars barely a tenth came from the landed interest. They had been replaced by “a lot of hard-faced men who looked as if they had done very well out of the war,” as Baldwin described the intake after the general election of 1919.

It was inevitable that when land values collapsed, the power of the aristocracy would be challenged by those who were now the richest class in society—the financiers and industrialists. They had too much respect for the aristocracy’s wealth and status to do so before 1880; and even then these men cared less for acquiring political power than for gaining social status. The aristocracy did not lose political control for another twenty-five years, and indeed became more united as a group when the Whigs deserted Gladstone over Home Rule for Ireland. No; the predators hunting the aristocrats’ political supremacy belonged to another pack. They were the Radicals. When the Liberal party came into power in 1906 the aristocracy were confronted with their most ebullient and bitter opponent. If any single man can be said to have brought aristocratic rule to an end and undermined their social status it was Lloyd George.

The peers brought it on themselves. The Tory leader Arthur Balfour boasted that the great Liberal victory of 1905–1906 would change nothing: the House of Lords would sabotage any Liberal legislation of which they disapproved. Soon the shores of Westminster were littered with the wreckage of the Liberal government’s legislation which had been torpedoed by the House of Lords. So in 1909 Lloyd George fired a missile at the Tory peers in revenge. In his budget he introduced a supertax and various land taxes: the landed rich were to pay for naval rearmament and for pensions for the poor. The peers screamed abuse, and duke after duke made an ill-considered speech. Lloyd George turned on them. He singled out the Dukes of Northumberland and Westminster as leading extortionists and later said that dukes were more expensive than Dreadnoughts and lasted far longer. Ridicule, he recognized, was a more effective weapon than indignation. So he asked why the will of the elected House of Commons should be thwarted by a second chamber composed of “five hundred men, ordinary men chosen accidentally from among the unemployed.” When the Lords committed the unheard-of act of rejecting the budget, the Liberals determined to limit the power of the peers to delay and reject legislation. The Parliament Act of 1910 broke the power of the House of Lords forever. The leadership of the Tory party passed from the nephew of the former premier Lord Salisbury to an obscure Canadian businessman.


But Lloyd George did not end his vendetta there. His ridicule turned to contempt. Having broken the political power of the aristocracy, he undermined their status. The plutocracy supplicated to be made peers. Well, he would satisfy them—at a price. Lloyd George was not the first premier to sell peerages in return for contributions to party funds. When Home Rule lost the Liberal party its wealthy supporters, that soul of rectitude, Gladstone, had to accept the party managers’ advice to ennoble two nonentities. The Tories, always the party of the brewers, followed by creating the Beerage, and made businessmen peers.

Cannadine notes that some ancient families did well out of the democratization of the peerage. Their younger sons were ennobled and by 1941 nine Cecils sat in the House of Lords. But Lloyd George took pleasure in debasing the coinage.

With the loss of political power went the aristocracy’s control over local affairs. As Britain edged toward democratically elected parliaments, aristocrats lost the power to nominate MPs and appoint the magistrates. They were expropriated in Ireland. During the civil war they lost their property as well as their offices. The posts the aristocrats now held were honorific. Peers were asked to serve as chairmen of public bodies and to become mayors of cities or chancellors of civic universities. Indeed the first four chairmen of the BBC governors were peers. Cannadine follows in detail the way in which the aristocracy after losing real power was left with the shadow of it festooned with emblematic titles at home and in the empire.

They also lost control of the bureaucracy. Not all at once. The division of the legal profession in Britain between barristers and solicitors enabled the aristocracy to fill a number of the leading places among the judges until 1918. The stipends of the clergy which depended on land were too low. So fewer younger sons were ordained. Their standing in the army and navy was not diminished but staff officers and professionals began to displace them. (Perhaps Cannadine might have mentioned that before the aristocracy lost their power their title to it had been questioned—the aristocrats in the cabinet and in the army were blamed for the gross mismanagement of the Crimean War.)

They did not lose their influence in the civil service. Cannadine has a fine passage in which he shows how long the civil service was manned through aristocratic patronage. The Northcote-Trevelyan report of 1853 had recommended that entry to the public service should be solely through competitive examination, and this indeed was adopted for the Indian civil service. But the day of the meritocracy was not to dawn in the Home civil service for many years. It was still possible to be nominated to a place in Whitehall even after Victoria’s reign, though one had to pass a formal examination after entry. Not until after 1900 in the Colonial Office, 1908 in the Home Office, and 1911 in the Treasury were the middle-class, civil-service ideals of probity, loyalty, secrecy, and detachment from party politics enshrined. The workaholic bureaucrat replaced those who, like Anthony Trollope, expected to get three days’ hunting a fortnight. Nevertheless, Max Weber was right. Bureaucracy is as great an enemy of an aristocracy as democracy. How hated were those Tudor bureaucrats, Thomas Cromwell and the Cecils, by the ancient Plantagenet nobility.

Much of Cannadine’s book is spent in examining how the aristocracy met adversity. He scouts the claim that the aristocrats cared much for the art treasures their ancestors had bought. Their descendants today may pose as the guardians of the national heritage and plead for more generous terms by which they can safeguard their country houses and bequeath their paintings to the state. But at the turn of the century they sold their paintings and libraries to American collectors and married, when they could, American heiresses. (Not many of them were heiresses: although between 1870 and 1914, 10 percent of the aristocrats’ brides were American most of them were not especially rich.) Eight leading families married Barings, and bankers’ daughters were at a premium. Aristocrats were slow to learn how to avoid Lloyd George’s death duties by passing their estates on to their eldest sons before they died, or by forming private companies that owned the property, or by selling their agricultural land even at knockdown prices to invest in equities. By the time they had learned these tricks a Labour government introduced capital gains and capital transfer taxes. How prescient Wilde’s Lady Bracknell was when, fourteen years before Lloyd George’s budget, she said, “What between the duties expected of one during one’s lifetime and the duties exacted from one after one’s death, land has ceased to be either a profit or a pleasure. It gives one position, and prevents one keeping it up.”


Some went into the city and succeeded. Others were taken in by dishonest promoters. By 1920 over forty peers were directors of companies, most of them put there to give the activities of the promoters respectability. Cecil Rhodes had two dukes and Lord Grey in his pocket. Lords Rayleigh and Acton became dons and Rayleigh started a dairy farm. Rolls, the younger son of a peer, met an engineer, Royce, and sold the cars Royce made. Some became writers, others like Castlerosse, Donegal, and later the eccentric Boofy Arran, made (or lost) their names as newspaper columnists or became, as Cannadine calls them, “parasites of the plutocracy.”

In one of his best chapters Cannadine hunts his aristocrats through the Empire. They did not govern it: they left that to the middle class. They were content to be offered the honorific posts of viceroy and governor-general. Some emigrated to Canada or Australia. Often they were remittance men paid by their families to keep out of England; most were failures unable to adapt to a world without servants and others to do manual work. Cannadine is excellent in illustrating his themes from the fiction of D.H. Lawrence, Nancy Mitford, and many other writers. I commend to him Sapper, the creator of Bulldog Drummond: in his yarns the dull aristocrat who has to be rescued by the hard-living hero from the bully-boys of the goldfields or ranch is a familiar theme. A later generation took to Kenya, where labor was black and cheap, and where Lord Erroll, Lady Delamere, and other settlers made Happy Valley synonymous with drink, adultery, and murder.

Thus in the post-1914 world the aristocracy had become marginal. They fought lost causes such as reform of the House of Lords or the Church Assembly, and were deserted by Conservative governments who refused to raise tariffs. Some were driven into the politics of protest, vivid Irish patriots like Countess Markiewicz or socialists like Lady Warwick or Wilfrid Scawen Blunt. A few peers after 1918 joined the Labour party; others veered to the extreme right and supported Oswald Mosley. Mitfords shot off in both directions. Cannadine follows Robert Skidelsky’s biography in seeing Mosley as a typical example of the landed gentleman who has lost his land and hated plutocracy, democracy, and the indifference of both Chamberlains to unemployment. Mosley was searching for some way to revive the paternalism of his boyhood. (Was this especially aristocratic? Surely sections from all parts of the middle class, particularly veterans of World War I, shared these sentiments.)

The decimation of the aristocracy’s sons during the first two years of the First World War put paid to any hopes of an aristocratic revival. True, in the Second World War Churchill became prime minister and brought Oliver Lyttelton, Antony Eden, and Archibald Sinclair into his cabinet, and Sir Alexander Cadogan (son of the fifth earl) ruled over the Foreign Office. But the deep class resentment that built up between the wars drove Churchill from office in 1945. Macmillan may have given the impression of running an aristocratic government though in fact his cabinet ministers were nearly all middle class, the aristocrats being appointed to junior posts. And his attempt to impose an aristocrat, Alec Douglas-Home, as leader upon the Tory party was a disaster. With the exception of Nicholas Ridley (who committed political suicide this year by his uninhibited denigration of Germany and the European Community and had to resign) Margaret Thatcher has eliminated the last remnants of aristocratic influence from her government. Cannadine concludes that although a few individual aristocrats survive with their wealth reduced but intact, the landowning aristocracy today has ceased to exist as a class; its status is regarded as irrelevant by most of its countrymen; and its power, except marginally at Court, is negligible.


Such is David Cannadine’s story and no praise can be too high for the skill with which he has stalked his quarry. He must have ruined his eyes reading the small print in Burke’s Peerage. The wealth of examples, the tireless pursuit down trails never previously explored, and the vitality of his writing make his book a major achievement. At the end he reminds one of an aristocrat on shikar in India, gun in hand, one foot resting on an enormous, recumbent tiger.

The tiger certainly looks dead. But how could it possibly have survived? Nil admirari is characteristic of Cambridge, and I enjoy Cannadine’s cool tone. Like Trollope he hates snobbery and hat-touching and he enjoys describing how the lions of 1880 became the unicorns of 1980. But what could the aristocracy do about it? Nowhere in the Western world as it moved into the era of parliamentary democracy or dictatorship could a hereditary aristocracy retain its power. It was never in the cards for the aristocrats to destroy the institution—Parliament—through which two centuries earlier they had defeated the Crown. In 1910 they tried to persuade their countrymen that they were Platonic guardians of the constitution who demanded the right to veto laws passed in the House of Commons. Their countrymen were not to be fooled; it was too evident that the self-interest of the aristocracy as a class was at stake, not the constitution.

Defeated, could they do more? Cannadine’s faintly contemptuous tone suggests that they were unimaginative and inert. But he surely cannot believe that they should have formed a conspiracy against democratic government and formed a Herrenklub. Anyway, they still had one—that agreeable club, the House of Lords. Precisely because they did not make a desperate last stand against the forces of modernity, they still exercise a symbolic power for better and for worse.

To be able still to belong to this club more than any other factor persuaded them to go quietly. Cannadine allows that they were more public spirited than most aristocracies, but he puts that down to the stability of British government, not to noblesse oblige. After all they were not subjected to land reform, or shot or strung up by Stalin or Hitler. Compared with those two, Lloyd George “emerges as an almost genial and benevolent character.”

So long as the House of Lords continued to exist they could kid themselves that they still had a voice in the decisions of government. Today, as yesterday, the House of Lords debates measures with zeal and solemnity, and spends days in committee proposing, withdrawing, and occasionally passing amendments to the government’s bills. But if the government does not wish to accept an amendment passed by the Lords, it gets the Commons, when the bill comes before them again, to vote against it. The Lords then acquiesce. But perhaps self-deception is endemic, even necessary, in all government. It has certainly proved the most beguiling of mistresses in Britain both in regard to joining the European Community and in adjusting to the reality that Britain is no longer a great power.

With such a carcass before one there are bound to be a few bones to pick.1 Did young aristocrats opt out of the House of Commons because it was no longer a gentleman’s club? If so it was because Lord Hugh Cecil and the “Hughligans,” not the few Labour MPs, turned it into a barnyard. In fact the House has always resounded to catcalls. Peel used to go white when they yelled at him, “Who killed Mr. Canning?” implying that Peel’s opposition to Canning’s measure for Catholic emancipation had hastened Canning’s end. And, after Edward VII’s death, Asquith in the middle of the debate over the Parliament bill could not make himself heard above the screams of “Who killed the King?” The reason why so few aristocrats in embryo sit in the Commons is simple. The electorate refuses to elect them, and constituency party committees will not nominate them to fight the seat.

Were the Prince of Wales’s smart set in late Victorian years and another Prince of Wales’s fast set after 1918 among the causes of aristocratic decline? There are always fast sets among the aristocracy. Almack’s Club was the social arbiter in George IV’s day, and the three beautiful peeresses who were its patronesses blackballed peer and commoner alike who did not measure up to their standards. Palmerston went to bed with all three of them. It is hard to say which of the two generals concerned in the Charge of the Light Brigade—Lords Lucan and Cardigan—was the bigger cad and bounder. Marrying actresses was a variant on marrying the widows of highwaymen. Most aristocrats were not much surprised if one of their sons got into a scrape at Eton or was sent down from his Oxford college for riotous behavior. Across the vale from an earl’s household where his wife and daughters taught village children in Sunday school and the sons were models of rectitude might be the estate of a baronet, where after a day in the saddle the host and his guests at the end of an uproarious dinner shouted the familiar toast, “Here’s to fucking and fox-hunting” and drank until they slipped under the table. Victorian novels were peopled with lords going, in Mr. Mantalini’s phrase, to the demnition bow-wows, ruined on the turf or at the tables, and in the hands of moneylenders.

It is, of course, true that in Victoria’s reign part at least of the aristocracy was cajoled by evangelical religion and middle-class censoriousness into sobriety and godliness. Thackeray and Trollope told them how gentlemen should behave and Dickens how they did not. It was no longer fashionable to express one’s contempt for a contemporary as Lord Cobham did for Lord Hervey by spitting in his hat. But fast living was a symptom of normal aristocratic behavior, not a cause of decline. Cannadine is right to criticize aristocrats for their sloth in devising new strategies to meet their changed circumstances. But it seems to me that he impales them upon Morton’s fork. If they take advantage of the ostentatious wealth of the seriously rich and get help from them—as young men making their way in politics and affairs have always done—they are betraying their standing as aristocrats. If, on the other hand, they will not touch filthy lucre, they are written off as supine.

Anyone who tries to grasp the aristocracy finds it is as elusive as an eel. What are the sons of a younger son of a peer? They used to slip into the gentry and the professions; today they hold a multitude of middle-class jobs. Cannadine sometimes claims as “patricians” men such as the Chief of the Imperial General Staff Alan Brooke and General Montgomery. They both descended from Ulster squires, but no one considered them aristocratic. Officers in the artillery and line regiments came from the gentry; aristocrats joined the Household Brigade and the cavalry. Can Rider Haggard really be cited as an example of a patrician turned writer when he was the sixth son of an impoverished barrister? One might as well call that forgotten writer Hugh Walpole, the son of the Bishop of Auckland, New Zealand, a patrician because he descended from Robert Walpole.

The word that applied to them all was “gentleman.” But what did that mean? In 1880 Trollope’s Duke of Omnium tells his daughter, who pleads that the man she wants to marry is a gentleman. “So is my private secretary. There is not a clerk in one of our public offices who does not consider himself a gentleman. The curate of the parish is a gentleman and the medical man who comes here from Bradstock. The word is too vague to carry with it any meaning that ought to be serviceable to you in thinking of such a matter.” By 1945 the word was no longer serviceable as a social indicator to anyone.

None of this matters much. But why did Cannadine go on stalking his tiger when it lay stretched out dead before him? The British aristocracy as an important political order and force did not survive the First World War. The Parliament Act killed it, democratic government and modern commercial and industrial society buried it. In a sense, though, I am glad Cannadine succumbed to temptation and continued to examine until the present day the aristocrats’ goings-on. What could be more engaging than the story of Lord Leconfield out hunting with his heir and a solitary hunt servant in the Second World War and coming across a group who were watching a village football match. “Haven’t you people got anything better to do in wartime,” he bellowed at them, “than to play football?” But certainly since the Second World War no one thinks of aristocrats as some separate order, a political influence let alone a force. Since 1945 the aristocracy—or bits of it—has become part of a more potent entity.

That entity is the establishment. The concept was invented by A.J.P. Taylor to describe the network of people and institutions with power and influence who rule Britain: the cabinet, the leading members of the Houses of Parliament, the judiciary, the powerful men of business in the city of London and in industry, the chairmen of the quangos, tribunals, professional bodies, cultural and educational organizations, and the like. In the Fifties it became common to depict society as a number of interlocking circles, each controlled by men from the top public schools, in particular Etonians, who were neither expected nor trained to manage. Yet they ran these institutions confident that common sense and social status alone were required for success. Tom Lupton put flesh on this notion by analyzing the antecedents of those who appeared in 1958 before a tribunal set up to examine how an impending rise in the bank rate had been leaked. He pointed out the high percentage among ministers and the directors of banks (including the Bank of England) and the eight top insurance companies who had been to the top six public schools, Oxbridge, or the colleges of the armed services.

Englishmen like to stress the changes that have taken place in social relations since 1945 and indeed much of the prewar snobbery and exclusivity has disappeared in the far less formal, less stuffy and deferential atmosphere today. But why is it that Europeans always tell them that what differentiates Britain from the Continental countries is their class consciousness? The Germans, whose traditional elites were destroyed by inflation, Hitler, and defeat, are especially ironic. They point out that in Germany practically no one is educated in private schools; that accent is irrelevant; and that the dozens of tiny gestures by which the British detect in a flash a person’s background are irrelevant. There are princes and counts and barons in France and Germany, but their titles are no longer used. They are in Britain. When life peers were created it might have been expected that they would not have been given the title of baron or baroness but given some other designation such as LP—Lord of Parliament—after their name. This would not have been inappropriate for some of the life peers since LP is shorthand for a long-playing gramophone record. But berobed and escutcheoned, they were made to look as far as possible like hereditary peers. The elaborate twice-yearly system of honors, and the passion in official British life for ceremonies and the disbursement of royal favors accentuate distinctions.

And yet the classes have certainly changed their shape in Britain. The old solid manual working class is fragmented. The gentry no longer exists; it is merged in the multitude of those who follow country pursuits and occupations. The aristocracy has diversified their range of jobs. Cannadine has identified a movie producer, an auctioneer, a professor of ceramics, a landscape gardener, a bookbinder, and a mining engineer. Some have slid down the social scale. They number a bus conductor, a police constable, an assistant in a deli, and the director of a chain of sex shops.

And the Establishment, the ruling classes? One must picture them living in a large block of luxury apartments owned by Britannia, Inc. Every so often a bailiff arrives bearing a writ from a new government and expels some of the tenants for nonpayment of rent. In the Sixties, when Wilson was forming his government, the sidewalk began to fill with disconsolate gentlemen, quite a few of them peers; an ill-dressed assortment of dons, scientists, economists, journalists, lawyers, and experts on social deprivation elbowed past them and took over their apartments. In the Eighties it was their turn to be expelled. They departed muttering, some by now with coronets on their heads, and were replaced by a different set of tenants—entrepreneurs, monetarists, financiers—and a new but much smaller set of dons and media men. The bishops, whom no one can expel but who don’t count for much, blanched. So did the old gentlemanly part of the Conservative party. But then the appearance of Conservative MPs has changed. Today they are smooth-faced young men who look as if they have done very well out of the class war. Hardly a knight of the shires among them.

Enchanting though Cannadine’s last chapters are, he does not concern himself with what some regard as the curse that the aristocracy laid upon their country as they expired. The curse—so it is said—impelled every middle-class entrepreneur or industrialist that succeeded and rose to the top at once to turn his back on his origins, buy a country house, shoot pheasants, send his sons to public schools, and watch them follow more gentlemanly pursuits. Certainly none of the new generation of managers engaged in rescuing what is left of British industry comes from the aristocracy: they are all products of the state schools. Asked how he relaxed, one of them answered that he read the annual reports of other companies. These are the men who, like the head of the Institute of Directors, declare that Britain’s industrial decline must be laid at the door of the public schoolmasters and Oxbridge dons who have been teaching the young to despise industry and hold up before them the false ideals of culture, classical languages and the arts, and pure science. That diet, so they say, may have been suitable to civilize the Victorian aristocracy but is out of place in today’s competitive society. This is the message that Westminster and Whitehall have been receiving from the social historians Corelli Barnett2 and Martin Wiener.

The theory of gentrification can be overdone. One of its most recent critics, Charles Dellheim of the Harvard Business School, has pointed out that English culture is not a unity. In Victorian times the culture of the landed gentry was based in deference to status; and status depended on birth. But it was challenged by the culture of the class society, in which status depended on income and men were bound to each other by the cash-nexus. This was the culture of Manchester and the north of England, where municipal buildings favored the Gothic, not the classical style of the aristocracy. In their love of the countryside the English were not aping the aristocracy. They loved it because they knew that they could get out of the grim towns of Bradford, Oldham, Newcastle, and Sheffield and onto the moor and hills within an hour or so. “We were all at heart Wordsworthians,” said J.B. Priestley.

No doubt some industrialists preferred to pursue the fox rather than profits, but there were plenty who combined gentlemanly style with aggressive competiveness. The more potent causes for the decline of British industry were the failings of management and workers rather than of entrepreneurs: their opposition to technological innovation was disastrous. Meanwhile the city of London always preferred making quick profits to providing long-term investment in British industry; and the government dithered. Today if British businessmen buy second houses in the Dordogne or in Tuscany it is because they enjoy leisure. But they are not counting the days when an invitation from the Buccleughs at Drumlanrigg or the Devonshires at Chatsworth will drop through their letter box.3

But do one’s eyes deceive or is that tiger’s body still twitching? Quite a number of the hereditary aristocracy are doing very nicely in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, and the flag still flies over Belvoir Castle. A recent book4 suggests that if their political power has waned, the wealth of quite a few of them has not. The rise in land values and discreet methods of legitimate tax avoidance through trusts and other devices have helped them to retain at least part of their wealth. Among the 400 richest people in Britain are 13 out of 24 dukes; 19 out of 156 earls and countesses; 12 out of 27 viscounts; and a further 27 barons. (Only 7 life peers figure in the list.) Seventy-eight of the 400 went to Eton, 11 to Harrow, and 3 to Winchester. Cannadine guessed that the Duke of Westminister was worth a billion pounds and Buccleugh a hundred million, but Beresford estimates West-minster’s wealth at £4.2 billions and Bucclaugh’s at £300 million.

Old wealth is considerably less fragile than new wealth. In the list the industrialists of Victorian and Edwardian times hardly figure: gone are Geddes, Sopwith, Morris, Armstrong, Siddeley, Wedgwood, Cunard, Ellerman. Many of the new rich are immigrants but some of the most successful were wiped out in 1976 and the skids are under others in 1990. Some of the old aristocrats, per contra, are displaying the same commercial acumen that their ancestors did in the eighteenth century. The gentry too. The heritage industry is booming. A family home can now be handed down from one generation to the next free of tax. Over eight hundred stately homes welcome (paying) visitors; the Historic Houses Association is one of the most successful lobbies in England.

Those hereditary peers who still live in stately houses, and the good number who don’t but possess comfortable country houses—in other words those who have made money in recent years—keep a low profile in public since the press hounds are often on their trail. No patrician insolence sullies their reputation. They are unfailingly polite to their contemporaries. The respect they get depends on the milieu. London hostesses will give them precedence in the place à table at a dinner party, and what Gladstone called a “sneaking kindness for a lord” is not yet extinguished. But Society is as dead as the Season. The aristocracy count only if they have found a role for themselves within the Establishment. The nation at large regards the order of nobility with skepticism or levity. It hears Oscar Wilde laughing, “You should study the Peerage, Gerald…. It is the best thing in fiction the English have ever done.”

This Issue

December 6, 1990