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The demise of the sharply divided class system is not all good news

By Stephen Barton - posted Wednesday, 3 September 2003

The Blair Government's proposed changes to the position of Lord Chancellor and the periodic attempts to ban fox hunting have a gentle nostalgic air. Such vestiges of class warfare recall cloth caps and suet puddings, the master at the gate and the servant in his place. With the introduction of Life Peerages in 1958 and an eviction of a majority of the hereditary peers from the House of Lords on 11 November 1999, moves to abolish the woolsack seem as anachronistic as the woolsack itself.

Karl Marx and Hollywood have combined to present us with a rather simplified version of the British class system, the latter portrays a virtuous working class exploited by chinless and effeminate aristocrats. In the face of such a crude reduction, some further exploration is required.

In the days of America's War of Independence, class, patronage and corruption were part and parcel of the political system. The aristocrats of the day were the middle class and gentry of the previous century, who enshrined the supremacy of Parliament in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Relatively speaking, the system was surprisingly fluid.


A talented and lucky individual, with judicious patronage, could go from commoner to knight, baron or even viscount in the space of a lifetime. Their children, or rather their eldest son, if luck, talent and fortune held, could advance to an earldom or even marquessate. Fame and fortune was a generational endeavour.

Families went into decline, wealth and power changed hands but the rank and structure remained the same, conforming with British constitutional principle of evolution nor revolution. Of course some families, like the Cecils, displayed Herculean staying power, from William Cecil, the 1st Baron Burghley in the reign of Elizabeth I, to Viscount Cranbourne, now the Marquess of Salisbury, who played an important rearguard action for the hereditary peers in 1999, in the reign of Elizabeth II. But the Cecils are a conspicuous exception rather than the rule. The pace of change or rather the permeability of these ranks continually increased with the industrial revolution, responsible government and later democracy.

The permeability of the system was such that an Anglo-Jew, Benjamin Disraeli, who did not attend a great public school or Oxford and Cambridge, could become Prime Minister in 1868. He was the first truly middle-class Prime Minister to take office, though it must be said his father Isaac D'Israeli was a famous anecdotalist and anthologist, much admired by Lord Byron.

By 1916 Britain had a one time fiery Welsh radical as Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, who of course would later receive his peerage. The first decades of the 20th century also saw the 1st Earl of Birkenhead, F.E Smith, the grandson of a coal miner, a brilliant and heavy drinking barrister who became the Lord Chancellor. Then there was Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson Bt, who somehow managed to climb from private to Chief of Imperial General Staff, serving as an Ulster MP until his assassination in 1922. And of course, Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, Canadian stockbroker, media magnate and Minister for Aircraft Production in the darkest days of World War II.

One strength of the class system was its ability to re-model itself while the facade remained the same, incorporating Welsh radicals, American wives, new money, Canadian newspapermen and unionists. Indeed the current Lord Attlee, the grandson of Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee, is a Conservative Frontbench spokesman. But the system had its disadvantages. It could be viscously snobbish, grossly indolent and inflexible, these traits not only contributed to a general national decline, but had tragic consequences from 1914-1918.

Senior British officers, usually from fashionable Household cavalry regiments, did their level best to destroy Great Britain's next generation in the First World War. Middle and upper class sons paid for the stupidity of their fathers; a working class boy from Glasgow stood a greater chance of surviving the war than a public school boy. A glance at the number of the Great and Good who lost at least one son in the holocaust is truly astounding. One can hear the bitterness, and maybe self-recrimination, in Rudyard Kipling's Common Form "If any question why we died/Tell them our fathers lied". His son John, short-sighted and horribly young, died in France in 1915. Listed as missing, his body was found in 1992.


But the awful death toll reveals one of the class system's few redeeming features. The British class system, particularly during the Victorian era, excelled at instilling notions of duty and responsibility, summed up by the couplet "Duty, duty must be done/The rule applies to everyone". Generations of school boys were bred to go overseas to die in battle in some far flung corner of Empire, the cost captured, once again by Kipling, in the classic refrain:

A scrimmage in a Border Station
A canter down some dark defile-
Two thousand pounds of education
Drops to a ten-rupee jezail
The Crammer's boast, the Squadron's pride
Shot like a rabbit in a ride.

Such a class system had many aspects that we find repellent and its end should not be mourned, however it contained a degree of refreshing honesty. There seemed to be recognition that people were vain, greedy and ambitious, and some were smarter and more talented than others. The class system had some measure of success in harnessing those strengths and weaknesses and using them to the benefit of the state. Furthermore, duty and responsibility tempered vanity, avarice and greed; fame, fortune and title were shackled and constrained by the expectations of class and station.

The Democratic Age, at least in Western nations, has reduced the gulf between rich and poor, indecent inequities have been eliminated, the standard of living has increased and there is greater social mobility. However, vanity and greed have outlived antiquated class systems, and we have promoted materialism and consumerism on a scale that would have scandalised and confused the middle and upper classes of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Furthermore, notions of responsibility and duty are receding and becoming ever more remote.

One wonders what sense of social responsibility and burden of duty falls upon a private school boy in Sydney's Eastern suburbs, who may go from Scots or Cranebrook, to university and then follow a predictable path into finance or law. They may spend their weekends looking at real estate, buying clothes or snorting cocaine in fashionable nightspots. At least that "scrimmage in a Border Station" demonstrated hardship and service to something beyond Mammon.

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About the Author

Stephen Barton teaches politics at Edith Cowan University and has been a political staffer at both a state and federal level. The views expressed here are his own.

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