Western Standard

The Shotgun Blog

« Very much not your John Tory candidate | Main | Tick, Tick, Tick »

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Mother of the free or the fall of the aristocracy

Flail Britannia.

Brought up by drug-addicted parents in a poor neighborhood of London, she was transformed by the glare of reality television into a multi-million-dollar product whom the public was urged to celebrate, especially after being diagnosed with cervical cancer, Mr. Parkinson noted.

"Jade Goody has her own place in the history of television and, while it's significant, it's nothing to be proud of," he wrote in the Radio Times.

"When we clear the media smokescreen from around her death what we're left with is a woman who came to represent all that's paltry and wretched about Britain today. She was ... barely educated, ignorant and puerile. Then she was projected to celebrity by Big Brother and from that point on became a media chattel to be manipulated and exploited till the day she died."

What made Ms. Goody stand out in her reality-TV appearances was her shocking ignorance of her country's geography, her naked and drunken exploits and her racist bullying of an Indian housemate.

To generations of outsiders their image of Great Britain was captured in films like "Goodbye, Mr Chips" and the "Brideshead Revisited" miniseries. Dignified, well-educated men and women, often reserved to the point of being aloof. Everyone had been to one of the great public schools, then Oxbridge. They governed a third of the earth's surface with a detached, albeit often farsighted, paternalism. Over the skies of Southern England in 1940 a few hundred men, many of them toffs, flew Hurricanes and Spitfires while wearing neckties and using cricketing metaphors.

Much of this was myth, a skillful exaggeration of a Britain that never really was but many assumed should be. If the quintessential American was the businessmen, so the quintessential Englishman was an aristocrat. Unlike the continent, being a peer of the realm was a sign of genuine social distinction. Pre-revolutionary France was full of thousands of minor members of the nobility who lived little better than the peasants over whom they held often only a nominal lordship. In Britain only a few hundred were genuine aristocrats, though younger siblings were given courtesy titles. The law of primogeniture, much maligned by egalitarians, created a class of aristocrats without real titles and little money.

They married into the upper reaches of the productive middle class, worked in the City, sat in the House of Commons, served in India, or the Navy or the Army. Noblesse oblige was their code, which they followed more or less well. Their paternalism could become authoritarian and their class system was rigid and obtuse in its manners and customs. A gentleman was anyone who behaved as such, and could demonstrate some independence of means.

This gave the governing classes of Britain a remarkable flexibility. In three generations, the Peels of Tamworth went from humble merchants to founders of the industrial revolution to the very pinnacle of political power, under their most famous son, Sir Robert Peel, who governed as Prime Minister in the 1830s and 1840s. For North Americans this seems unimpressive, raised on the themes of Horatio Alger, rising to the top is something a man does before middle age, not something his grandchildren accomplish. The old American saying is "shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations." Compared to continental Europe, however, the British class system was self-renewing, adapting to changes in the economic and social structure of their society. Had it not been, Britain would have gone the way of France, Germany or Austria, a blood-soaked nineteenth century and the jackboot ridden twentieth.

The class system, however, was unjust, denying men of talent the relatively unobstructed rise that they could obtain in the colonies or the United States. It's unlikely that Andrew Carnegie would have become the great success in Britain that he became in Pennsylvania. Injustice breeds resentment, especially among the talented and ambitious. That resentment found its outlet in politics, especially in the New Jerusalem promised by the socialists.

Had this hatred of the aristocracy simply been directed toward the economic sphere, the wrecking of great fortunes through the workings of the inheritance tax, the damage would have been contained to there. The Jacobin spirit which moved these men could not stop there. They found that while taxation had destroyed the fortunes, ruined great family manors and embarrassed more than a few heirs to the continent -- back when the pound was much stronger than today -- it could not destroy the lure of the aristocracy. Many of these jacobins were also republicans, but few dared attack the monarchy openly. So much easier to subvert it and the peerage.

However impoverished many great families became, the lure of a title was strong. The middle classes, while mocking the idleness of their social superiors, wanted to adopt the manners and customs of the elite. Britain was an aspirational culture. While the vast majority of men and women were necessarily absorbed in the daily struggle for life, the aristocracy was able to focus on cultivating the softer elements of civilization. Manner of dress, manner of speech, the revised code of chivalry, a conception of honour.

These things trickled down. It was pointless, reasoned the Jacobins, to economically destroy the aristocracy if its spirit lived on and grew. The culture of aspiration was replaced with the culture of degradation. In America a similar phenomenon was seen among the blacks. To aspire to a higher standard of living and behaviour was labeled as "acting white."

During the Second World War Greer Garson became one of the English-speaking world's biggest stars. Playing middle class housewives, Garson spoke the received pronunciation and was seen as the exemplar of English womanhood. She was a lady, though from a comparatively modest background. The middle classes had aspired and achieved. In the 1960s the descendants of the Minivers began to aspire down. In three generations we have sunk from Mrs. Miniver to Jade Goody. The schools, which once taught classics, behaviour, mathematics and history are now focused on:

A new report on the primary school curriculum in England and Wales encourages educators to place more emphasis on technology than on traditional subjects.

According to its recommendations, students would not necessarily have to learn about the Victorian era or the Second World War -- teachers could choose two "key periods" of British history -- but learning skills such as blogging, podcasting and Twittering would take a central role.

Plutarch or Twittering? Mrs. Miniver or what Americans call trailer trash? Does Britain aspire up or down? Is there an up or down?

(Cross posted)

Posted by Richard Anderson on April 15, 2009 in International Affairs | Permalink


I have never heard of an education system that abandoned the 3 R's in favour of trendier subjects that did not regret it a generation or two down the line. Wake up, people. The three R's are more relevant today than ever. You can't use a computer if you can't read.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-04-15 7:04:12 AM

FYI: In Britain, they use the term "Chav" instead of the American term "Trailer Trash". http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chav

Posted by: anonymous | 2009-04-15 7:52:59 AM

The dumbing down in Britain started with the end of the 11 plus exam c.1950 which sorted us into 3 streams,Grammer schools(25%)Technical(5%)and secondary modern or comprehensive.Next came the end of National Service(1959)which like it or not instilled discipline and a sense of pride, all males(so PC) at 18 served 2 yrs unless sick lame or lazy tho' you could get deferred until 21 if at University or apprenticed.

Posted by: Goff Tayler | 2009-04-15 10:02:07 AM

Thatcher dragged Britain out of the toilet and Labor Put it back in. Hopefully, the Conservative Party(which is expected to easily win the 2010 election) will safe that country from the left-wing nut jobs!

Posted by: Joe | 2009-04-15 8:30:52 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.