How the aristocracy preserved their power
Publisher: The Guardian
Date Written: 07/09/2017
Year Published: 2017
Resource Type: Article
Cx Number: CX21270
After democracy finally shunted aside hereditary lords, they found new means to protect their extravagant riches. For all the modern tales of noble poverty and leaking ancestral homes, their private wealth and influence remain phenomenal.
Today, of course, we are accustomed to thinking of Britain's aristocracy as a quaint historical curiosity. Under Tony Blair's first government, most hereditary peers were removed from the Lords. Some might think this a fall from grace, but the very fact that 92 hereditaries were to remain (a larger number than had attended most debates over the previous eight decades) was a victory that proved their enduring strength. They had not just delayed but prevented democratic reform of the Lords, and they had entrenched their reactionary presence.
Historically, the British aristocracy's defining feature was not a noble aspiration to serve the common weal but a desperate desire for self-advancement. They stole land under the pretence of piety in the early middle ages, they seized it by conquest, they expropriated it from the monasteries and they enclosed it for their private use under the pretence of efficiency. They grasped wealth, corruptly carved out their niche at the pinnacle of society and held on to it with a vice-like grip. They endlessly reinforced their own status and enforced deference on others through ostentatiously exorbitant expenditure on palaces, clothing and jewellery. They laid down a strict set of rules for the rest of society, but lived by a different standard.
British laws on land tenure, inheritance tax, corporate governance and discretionary trusts still make it easy to hide wealth from public view. Land is subsidised, and taxed more lightly than residential property. Unearned income bears less of a burden than earned income. All this quietly underpins the continued power of the aristocracy, wrapped in the old aura of entitlement, counting its blessings and hoping that nobody notices.