James, Lawrence. Aristocrats: Power, Grace and Decadence: Britain’s Great Ruling Classes from 1066 to the Present.

NY: St. Martin, 2009.

The ruling elite in Britain — originally simply the warrior class — adopted the Aristotelian concept of “government by the best,” the author says, to reinforce their deep sense of natural superiority, the “long process of collective self-hypnosis by which aristocrats convinced themselves that their distinctive qualities made them indispensible to the nation.” This argument of hereditary superiority was still being made in 1999 even as most of the hereditary peers were being expelled from the upper house of Parliament.

But the aristocracy in Britain also can be quite practical, almost Darwinian, when it comes to survival, as in the Reform Act crisis of the 1830s and the reduction of power of the House of Lords in 1910; “compromise was infinitely preferable to extinction.”

It’s an historical oddity — especially when compared with the role of nobility on the Continent — that Britain’s peerage has so frequently been in contention with the Crown, has so often been a force for moderation in royal control and for broadening the base of power. Not that the peers ever have been natural democrats, but that they have pushed steadily for rule by an elite class — which, though tiny, was still to be preferred to one-man rule by an absolute monarch, as in Austria or Russia or even the France of Louis XIV. Even the present House of Lords, filled with life peers created by prime ministers and their friends, has notably acted as a bulwark in defense of established liberties and legal processes against arbitrary government and executive authoritarianism in an Age of Terrorism.

The peerage in Britain took awhile to develop. William I ran the country the way he wanted. Earldoms were in the king’s gift and even powerful Norman noblemen taking up newly conquered lands in England had to knuckle under to the king’s wishes. It wasn’t until more than a century later that the unlucky and generally incompetent King John, in his twisting of feudal custom to fill his depleted coffers, created an opportunity in his alienation of the large landowners. A coalition made up of a substantial number of his barons insisted on rectification of two generations’ worth of grievances regarding royal power by forcing the king to sign the landmark Magna Carta. Relations between the king and his most powerful subjects were clarified and the principle of rule by consent was established in Britain. And the author describes this process, its origins and outcome, in a very clear and logical prose that recommends itself to any student of Anglo-American political science. He does an equally superior job with the two decades of armed struggle between Parliament and the Crown, in which only about half the aristocracy actively supported the royalist position. Of the rest, about half were active supporters of Cromwell while the remainder tried hard to stay neutral and only wanted to be left alone. The Restoration led to the Glorious Revolution — again, the act of a recalcitrant peerage — and then to the establishment of the Whigs in the 18th century. It wasn’t until the 19th century, of course, that true democracy began to infiltrate the established power structure — and again, that movement was led by those members of the aristocracy who either had a conscience or who could see the shape of the industrial future.

As he moves closer to the present, in an era when the notion of natural, genetic superiority has lost its power to convince, James becomes somewhat more skeptical of the utility of hereditary power. Just since World War II, there has been a great fundamental shift among ordinary English citizens when it comes to the relevance of the aristocracy. If hereditary titles suddenly ceased to exist, if the peerage was stripped of its few remaining huge estates, if dukes and marquesses were required to earn a living like everyone else, most Englishmen would simply shrug. While it’s difficult for most thinking authors to remain neutral when writing about a group of people who for most of their nation’s history comprised the ruling class, James comes close. He apparently sees the development, supremacy, and decline (and possible extinction) of the peerage as an inevitable natural process.

As with most surveys covering more than a thousand years, the title of this one is a bit misleading. The first quarter of the volume covers more than four centuries, from the Conqueror to the advent of the Stewart dynasty. James, while not an academic, has established a reputation through his earlier works for semi-scholarly historical writing that is both dependably rigorous and very accessible. This latest work is highly recommended.

Published in: on 1 August 2012 at 6:40 am  Leave a Comment  
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