Every schoolboy knows that the two most delightful breeds of dog are the Working Clumber Spaniel and the Newfoundland. Any author who dedicates a book to ‘Wellesley, a New- foundland dog’ is therefore by defin- ition a man of discernment. Sadly, the dedication is the best thing about the book, which is a perfectly readable, if unoriginal, canter through the English peerage since 1066, with excursions into Scotland and Ireland.
For one thing, it teems with distracting howlers which undermine confidence in the author’s broader judgment. Diana Mosley was not Lord Curzon’s daughter. She was Lord Redesdale’s. This Lord Cobbold is an hereditary, not a life, peer. Lord John Manners, the 19th-century politician, was not the Duke of Rutland’s eldest son. As of today, 92, not 95, hereditary peers continue to sit in the House of Lords. John Churchill, before he became the 1st Duke of Marlborough, was neither the son of a duke nor of a marquess. He therefore should not be styled ‘Lord John Churchill’. The same applies to Admiral Lord Cochrane, whom our author refers to as ‘Lord Thomas Cochrane’. Lawrence James quotes Lord Mornington on the ‘importance of following the proper linguistic forms’ in dealing with Indian princes. It is a pity he does not follow Mornington (no doubt a relation of his dog) when addressing his own chosen subject. Instead he merely succeeds in irritating reviewers who, for canine reasons, are initially disposed to be sympathetic.
More importantly, James is confused by his book’s title. He is not the first to be stumped by the term ‘aristocrat’. It is one of those convenient Lewis Carroll words which means what the user wants it to mean. Some claim that, at least since the 15th century, the British peerage was not an aristocracy at all. The Almanach de Gotha included no references to British peers, except for dukes, who were, according to my grandmother, only included once every four years. The British peerage was not a caste, as in France or Germany. The sons and daughters of British peers are not noble, in spite of their courtesy titles, and they enjoy no greater privilege than anyone else, apart from a place in archaic tables of precedence. Life peers’ and, astonishingly, still 92 hereditary peers’ remaining privilege is the right to sit in the legislature. They have felt able, without obloquy, to marry Americans or into the British middle class, whether motivated by lust or lucre. Indeed, from 1485 the English peerage increasingly consisted of people from the middle class and, unlike in France, there was virtually no distinction between ‘noblesse de robe’ and ‘noblesse d’épée’. It is true that Howards, Mowbrays and Talbots resented upstart Cecils and Pettys, but they eventually, if grudgingly, accepted them. James does not mention any of this, but it does help explain why the peerage survived such tricky moments as 1832 and 1911 as much as some of the things he does mention, like interest in games and the ability to adapt to new circumstances.
In his introduction, he gives his interpretation of the word ‘aristocrat’. He quotes Lord Curzon:
The hereditary principle [has given Britain] an upper class which, on the whole, had honourably trained itself in the responsibilities of government.
However, he prefers his own less flattering definition:
The long process of collective self-hypnosis by which aristocrats convinced themselves that their distinctive qualities made them indispensable to the nation.
It sounds as though by ‘aristocrats’ he means the governing class, something rather more complicated than a non-existent, continental-style caste, or even the 18th-century British peerage at the apogee of its power.
And did the possession of a peerage alone qualify a governing elite for ‘collective hypnosis’? Do not all elites feel that they are indispensable to the nation? Did not the merchants of 17th-century Holland so feel, or the Curia, or the nobs of the Serenissima, or even New Englanders, pre-Obama? And, tell it not in Gath, does not our own beloved hereditary Labour Party feel the same way? Do not our Jays, Goulds, Mandelsons and their ilk feel that they are indispensable to the nation?
Nations do need their governing elites. They do also, however, need to enjoy the consent of those they rule, as James rightly emphasises. To survive they must be open to talent and to change. However, it is difficult for elites to survive as castes à la française.
Malgré tout, James’s governing class somehow managed to survive for 1,000 years and drive this country to the summit of its power. How interesting, then, that its eclipse should coincide with Britain’s own.