[Paleopsych] TLS: (Aristocracy) Time, gentlemen

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Time, gentlemen

    Richard Davenport-Hines
    23 July 2004
    IN DEFENCE OF ARISTOCRACY. By Peregrine Worsthorne. 232pp.
    HarperCollins. £15. - 0 00 718315 1

    THE GUARDSMEN. Harold Macmillan, three friends and the world they
    made. By Simon Ball. 456pp. HarperCollins. £25. - 0 00 257110 2

    The recent insistence by British Airways on providing a Scottish duke
    and his wife with tickets inscribed "Mr. Duke of Buccleuch" and "Mrs.
    Duchess of Buccleuch" is a reminder that the British aristocracy,
    despite retaining some privileges and having adapted its economic
    powers, is hedged around with ignorant hostility. This could not be
    clearer than in the critical reception of Peregrine Worsthorne's
    rueful manifesto - it is far too gentle to be called a polemic - In
    Defence of Aristocracy. His book has been caricatured as a
    muddle-headed, snobbish plea for the revival of a hereditary
    aristocracy, and teased for being full of reactionary hankering for
    the days when young men were recruited as journalists at The Times
    over a grilled chop at Pratt's. It is nothing of the sort.

    Worsthorne's real theme is the systematic destruction of authoritative
    opinion in Britain and the diminution of the public service ethic. He
    argues for the revival of "a state of public opinion in which the old
    upper classes and their institutions, shorn of their legal privileges,
    are once again seen as a strength .

    . . and above all as ideally suited - rather than exceptionally
    unsuited - for public service". Worsthorne does not want to reimpose
    obsolete class hegemony but rather to reinforce social equity,
    community responsibility and respect for intelligent expertise in a
    period of unashamed selfishness and brazen ignorance.

    For him, Britain has become "a nation of . . . anti-gentlemen" - the
    best definition of a gentleman that I have heard being someone who
    never speaks harshly or contemptuously to a person who is in no
    position to answer back on an equal footing - for which he blames the
    non-magnanimous temper of the Thatcherite 1980s. There is everywhere,
    he shows, a revolt against authoritative knowledge, bias against
    superior achievements, and a privileging of cheapskate emotion,
    childish resentment and surly suspicion against profundity of
    experience, education and sensibility.

    The long controversy in Britain over the vaccination of children
    against measles, mumps and rubella, which does not figure in
    Worsthorne's manifesto, exemplifies the malaise which he deplores. The
    Government's recommendation of a combined vaccine against these
    diseases and the endorsement of the MMR vaccine by the overwhelming
    weight of disinterested expert opinion was for years treated (by print
    journalists and some shockingly irresponsible broadcasters) as of
    equal authority as the hunches and confused emotional outbursts of
    unqualified people who were convinced that MMR vaccine caused autism
    or bowel disorders.

    "Feelings" were accorded equal authority with the meticulous,
    conscientious and informed research of highly qualified people. A
    Conservative MP, when asked if she doubted the honesty or accuracy of
    MMR supporters in Whitehall, dismissed the question as a side-issue:
    what was important to her was Tony Blair's refusal to confirm publicly
    that his children had been vaccinated with MMR. Worsthorne, who
    stresses that respect for personal privacy is prerequisite to all
    dignity and authority, identifies the press onslaught on privacy since
    the 1980s as part of the movement to devalue expert authority,
    discredit notions of disinterested public service, and mock all
    concepts of personal duty. MMR makes Worsthorne's point perfectly: the
    demotic political temper of the times, combined with the insistence on
    personal choice (however illinformed) as a political priority, means
    that every noodle can reckon themselves the peer of our greatest
    experts and thinkers. The educated (or to Worsthorne "gentlemanly")
    classes are stripped of authority, while the public pronounces with
    crass confidence and emotive verbiage on the thorniest technical

    Peregrine Worsthorne at the age of eighty is still bubbling with
    youthful idealism. He has remained, at heart, the schoolboy of the
    1930s whom he recalls in one of this book's many autobiographical
    asides: a loyal, demonstrative creature who believed in duty and
    self-sacrifice, thought selfishness was the mark of the beast, and
    that altruism was the root of all virtue. As faith in Christianity
    weakened, "the sub-Christian cult of the English gentleman enormously
    increased its hold, and during my lifetime became the main moral force
    holding the nation together and determining the manner and manners in
    which individuals and classes treated one another". The code of the
    English gentleman was for him far more morally influential than the
    Ten Commandments: "Gentlemanliness was a universal presence, like that
    of the Almighty . . . . The moral hold of the ideals of the English
    gentleman was one of the wonders of the modern world". He claims that
    rectitude and self-respect pervaded all classes: curiously his
    description of gentlemanly virtues prompts the thought that Methodism,
    not Anglicanism, is the real creed of gentlemen.

    Worsthorne's idealization is somewhat belied by Simon Ball's
    scholarly, readable and perceptive group biography, The Guardsmen. As
    a study of statecraft, showing how politicians obtain and use power,
    it is the type of history that Worsthorne regrets is being eliminated
    from the school curriculum. Harold Macmillan (afterwards Earl of
    Stockton), Oliver Lyttelton (afterwards Viscount Chandos), Bobbety
    Cranborne (afterwards Marquess of Salisbury) and Harry Crookshank
    (afterwards Viscount Crookshank) all went as pupils to Eton in 1906,
    all served in the First World War in the same battalion of the
    Grenadier Guards; and all entered Winston Churchill's Cabinet during
    the Second World War. Born in the mid 1890s, they were the first
    generation of British politicians whose careers were entirely spent
    under a system of universal suffrage and the last generation to have
    (in the case of Lyttelton, Cranborne and arguably Macmillan) an
    authentically aristocratic style. Ball traces the political
    trajectories of this quartet, examines their motives and assesses
    their achievements. His shrewd and even-handed narrative, which is
    based on sturdy archival research, combines the grand sweep with juicy
    morsels. It makes, though, the code of the Worsthornes seem rather
    starry eyed.

    Each of Ball's egotistically driven quartet recognized that money was
    crucial to political advancement and treated politics not as the
    jockeying for place of Tadpole and Taper, but as a war of attrition.
    "In their age, as in every other, this struggle was projected in
    idealistic rhetoric, aimed at securing and buttressing power", says

    They were men of great fortitude. After the Battle of the Somme,
    Macmillan hovered for months on the brink of death from his wounds;
    Crookshank, who was both buried alive and blown up, was castrated by
    his horrible injuries and had to wear a surgical truss for the rest of
    his life. Aggression, understandably, became central to the course of
    their lives. It seems a metaphor of power politics that Salisbury was
    one of the progenitors of the Atomic Energy Authority and that Chandos
    in retirement headed the company that built the world's first
    privately owned nuclear reactor at Aldermaston. Their long careers of
    public service, as Simon Ball shows, contained much to admire, but
    also much to make Peregrine Worsthorne squeamish.

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