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The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy.

The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy. By David Cannadine (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press 1990. xiv plus 813 pp. $35.00).

David Cannadine has written a very long book in order to illustrate an apparently simple and straightforward thesis: "As the last quarter of the nineteenth century opened, the traditional, titled, landowners were still the richest, the most powerful, and the most well-born people in the country. Today they retain but a fraction of their once unrivalled wealth, their once unchallenged power, and their once unassailable status ..." (xii). After setting the late-Victorian scene, Cannadine proceeds in eleven topical chapters to explicate the manner in which that process of "decline and decay, disintegration and disarray" (8) went on between the 1880s and the onset of the Second World War. The last three chapters assess the negative impact first of that conflict--the prime ministership of the "aristocratic" Winston Churchill notwithstanding--and then of the ministries, Labour and Conservative, that have governed Britain since.

The major mile-posts in that process as set forth by Cannadine will occasion little surprise in most students of modern Britain. There was the late Victorian agricultural depression that caused land values to plummet; as recently as the mid-1930s agricultural land "was selling for barely one-third of the sum it had fetched in the mid-Victorian period" (94). As a consequence of turn-of-the century land laws and of the establishment of the Irish Free State (1921), the Anglo-Irish component of what had once been a supra-national territorial entity fared worst, but Welsh, English, and Scottish landlords were also compelled to sell both land and London houses and to curb their expenditures. By the 1980s, the thirteenth Duke of Bedford had turned historic Woburn Abbey into an amusement park while the ninth Earl of Buckinghamshire had become a municipal gardener and the most recent Earl Nelson a police constable.

During the same six decades, the Reform Acts of 1884 and 1918 precipitated Britain into the age of mass politics, and the Parliament Act of 1911 gravely curbed the political powers of the hereditary peerage. In the meantime ever higher death duties made it increasingly difficult to pass on estates to future generations. Inheritance taxes levied at 8 percent in 1894 (on estates worth one million pounds or more) had been raised to 60 percent by 1939. A related factor was World War I, which killed off a fifth of all peers and their immediate heirs and sharply curtailed the supply of domestic servants. Another was "corruption," the multiplication and the outright sale of "honours" to unsuitable upstarts, a process associated most closely with that bete noire of landlords, Prime Minister David Lloyd George. In successive chapters Cannadine describes how some some landed aristocrats or their close relations found temporary succor as largely ornamental museum directors, mayors, county council chairmen, imperial governors, and even as (increasingly less significant) members of British cabinets. A good many peers and their relations moved completely into business or the professions, and a few sought to revitalize the interwar Church of England. A handful of others flirted with fascism or communism, but the vast majority appeared to accept their gradual demotion in wealth, power, and status with stoic good grace.

Cannadine has scoured hundreds of memoirs and novels, unpublished dissertations, articles, and monographs--as well as earlier syntheses by F. M. L. Thompson, W. D. Rubinstein, J. V. Beckett, M. L. Bush, Robert Lacey, and others--in order to fashion a work that is in some respects more an encyclopedia than an integrated treatise and analysis. It is accompanied by useful appendices and excellent illustrations if an erratic index. As his reviews in the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker regularly demonstrate, Cannadine wields a facile word processor, and although the book's organization seems at times unduly mechanical, his titles can be cleverly allusive. Thus Chapter 10 is made up of "The Land: Love's Labours Lost," "The Lords: A Comedy of Errors," "Ireland: The Winter's Tale," and "The Church: Much Ado About Nothing." One emerges from the work with both an appreciation of Cannadine's industry and a willingness to assent to most of his broad conclusions--and yet a nagging sense of discomfort remains.

(1) Cannadine's subject remains more ambiguous than he concedes. His professed concern is with the 11,000 people (and their descendants) who c. 1880 possessed at least one thousand acres and who then owned two-thirds of all the land in the kingdom, but he subsequently pays most attention to the 580 who held hereditary titles as peers (and their successors). Did the owner of a thousand acres and the owner of more than a million (the Duke of Sutherland) necessarily constitute or define themselves as members of the same class? Titles are more numerous than ever in today's Britain. Is the author consistent in excluding from his definition as "aristocrats" all the hereditary peers created after 1880, even those who became substantial landowners?

(2) Cannadine is not unaware that over the centuries numerous individuals had been moving into the gentry and titled aristocracy even as other titled families were dying out, but when he writes that "five centuries of aristocratic history and hegemony were irrevocably reversed in less than one hundred years," (5) he seems to exaggerate the continuities and to minimize earlier social transformations. Thus many of the best-remembered aristocrats of the early nineteenth century turn out to have been first generation--e.g. Earl (Horatio) Nelson, the son of an obscure clergyman; Lord Eldon, the son of a coal seller; Lord Lyndhurst, the son of a painter born in the American colonies; Sir Robert Peel, the son of a pioneer cotton spinner. When he points out that of the 658 members of the still aristocratic House of Commons of 1880, "twenty-three MPs were directly descended from families who had sat in the Long Parliament" (185) of the 1640s, the reader is surprised that the number was not far larger.

(3) After perusing many hundreds of doom-laden pages, the reader is surprised to be reminded that, as Britain entered the 1990s, a predominantly hereditary House of Lords had not been abolished, that Labour prime ministers in retirement are called barons, that the sixth Duke of Westminster remains one of the richest men in the country, and that--even if 65 percent of the land is now owner-occupied--of a sample of five hundred country houses standing in 1880, 106 had been demolished but 150 were still occupied by members of the same family. According to the Economist (Dec. 15, 1990), when the sixth Marquess of Cholmondeley died earlier in the year, he left Britain's largest-ever legacy, an estate worth 118 million [pounds sterling].

The author defines himself as "a lower-middle-class product of the Welfare State" (3) who writes as a self-professed skeptic of"the patrician elite" and who "tries to lay bare the reality behind the myths that they invented or believed about themselves ..." (4). He is indeed skeptical about the claims of some aristocrats to latterday political importance and to guardianship of their nation's artistic heritage. Yet the implicit spirit of the book is one of regret and even of nostalgia for aristocratic values; thus Cannadine takes note of the chronological correlation between the decline of Britain's aristocracy and the eclipse of Britain's power. Like most left-leaning academics produced by the Oxbridge of the 1960s and 1970s, he shares with traditional scions of aristocracy a profound distaste for industrial capitalists, a deep distrust of the "arriviste, thrusting, vulgar wealth that successfully challenged the patricians' position...." (183), and little love for the policies of "a shopkeeper's daughter from Grantham who believes in self-advancement rather than hereditary advantage ..." (675).

Walter L. Arnstein University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
COPYRIGHT 1993 Journal of Social History
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Author:Arnstein, Walter L.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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