Class Gasp

Peregrine Worsthorne died not too long ago, at a great age. A former editor of the Sunday Telegraph and an ensign-bearer in retirement not only of the past, but also of long-passed notions. One of those was aristocracy, something Worsthorne adored and advocated. Yesterday I read his offering on the subject, the slight book In Defence of Aristocracy. This essay, taking in his most cherished notions and his most coherent effort at writing, serves both as review and, after a fashion, as obituary.

It is a terribly muddled book, and lax of definition. Oddly, one never quite knows what Worsthorne is trying to say, although it is very clear what lies at the root of his writing. He never attempts to define ‘aristocracy’ either in etymology or as a congruent political concept. Worsthone simply notes that, when he was a boy and a young man, much of the civilised world was led by ruling classes – ‘top dogs’.

They differed by country and, as time passed, these individual systems diverged yet more. Some were better than others. The English style of government, one where a nation was led by good chaps, was best. In many ways, this is as far as Worsthorne gets in establishing a sound basis for argument.

His view of what constitutes an aristocrat could not be looser. It includes his own Eton-educated idler of a father, and his upright stepfather, Montagu Norman, Lord Norman, a non-Etonian who was governor of the Bank of England. It includes Norman’s idler brother, Ronnie, who chaired the BBC when the corporation was run by good fellows, and when the job was not full time.

The upper class includes Worsthorne himself – educated at Stowe in a distinctly un-Etonian manner. It includes those educated in the old Oxbridge way, or engaged at the heights of the professions and of the religion. It even includes practically every politician of the last century who rose to the altar in what Nye Bevan described in his memoir, from which Worsthorne quotes approvingly, as the ‘church’ of Parliament, a church consecrated to ‘ the most conservative of all religions – ancestor worship’.

Worsthorne even appears to suggest that Bevan himself was something of a ‘natural aristocrat’, part of his stretching the definition not only to cover titled forebears, but also the natural aristocrats of capricious definition. Thomas Jefferson wrote to the effect that in good men there was natural aristocracy unequalled by those of title and favoured blood.

Worsthorne attempts to conscript this terminology, if not its logic. He counts Britain’s post-war politicians as aristocrats – grammar-school-educated though many were, simply because they attained some form of power and were not without imitable qualities.

He deduces in Bevan something of an aristocrat in pretence by the way Bevan drank champagne from silver tankards in cosy clubs, and in the manner which Bevan’s wife left his shoes outside their door to be cleaned by the maid. (That Worsthorne considers this aristocracy cheapens the term; and it suggests he is not entirely familiar with the way people of equal status can nonetheless purchase each other’s labour.)

To consider all these people aristocrats stretches the term to absurdity, not least when considering how unaccommodating Worsthorne is of innumerable others in so doing. His definition of aristocrat is partly determined by simple circumstances – a roomy net that can be thrown around any person one could name; but otherwise, aristocracy is dictated more by characteristics – although only the more favourable that spring to mind.

For Worsthorne, to be an aristocrat is to be dedicated to public service; to be brought up, educated and steeped in duty. An aristocrat is confident but not arrogant. He is brave when called to be, unstinting when laxity might do ill, and cheerful when the masses need someone from whom to take confidence. He walks at the head of the men with a straight back. For the people love a lord.

At home, he is a patron of charities, a Justice of the Peace, a member of the Commons or the House of Peers. He is a keeper of the flame of civility, whereby the opposition and government can dine together hospitably. His club is a comfortable place, and he is clubbable. More than anything else, he is a gentleman – and that is a standard, once set, that must be adhered to.

Worsthrone believes that, in his day, aristocrats carried themselves like gentlemen – and that the gentlemanliness exhibited by his class gave the rest something to which they might aspire. These aristocrats could be either jolly and slothful, like Ronnie, or austere, like Norman, who took the tube to work rather than employing a chauffeur and bade his family sleep in unheated cottages rather than the east wings of great houses with roaring fires.

In both cases, whatever benefit these styles conferred is as much attributed to ease of life than it is temperamental aristocracy. A man is an aristocrat because he has the time to follow his personality – to dither dilettantishly or to move with purpose, unpressured by the business of, for example, earning a modest living.

Worsthrone remembers his mother, Lady Norman, as a bustling woman of affairs. She sat on the bench as a magistrate and took the sort of paternal interest in charitable boards and fundraising that in an earlier age would have fallen to religious men with beards. Her ladyship ‘looked down from a very great height on high society’, disdaining its triviality and slothfulness – something for which Worsthone, in his own analysis of the very same aristocrats, persistently fails to consider.

But even for the good lady, her energies seem to have drawn their effectiveness from the actions of others: in Lady Norman’s case, once she became president of the Mental Health Association, she ‘forc[ed] James the butler, a Great War veteran, much to his embarrassment, to shake the Association’s collection box in all the local pubs for what, at the time, was a most unpopular cause’. Such is Worsthorne’s idea of noble charity. Note that all this was ‘much to [the butler’s] embarrassment’ – no doubt the very essence of noblesse oblige.

To keep a favoured section of society in this position of ease requires that they have something else – property, or private means, or any of the advantages no modern society can expect all its leaders to possess. Worsthorne likes these advantages, and presses for their retention, and opposes for example the traducing of the hereditary principle.

Underneath all the circumlocution, Worsthorne wishes for a certain class to remain sufficiently moneyed and sufficiently titled so that they remain capable of governing the country, and running innumerable small concerns and ministering to private causes – all that they might affect the course of the nation. This is not aristocracy – at least in etymology. It is instead the basis for a system of permanent nobility – merely with an English rather than a continental flavour.

To justify Worsthorne’s central claim – that the English form of aristocracy best approaches perfection – he is left with strange detours into other jurisdictions.

Some criticisms of Worsthorne, which reappeared after his death, were not built on in-context quotation. His remark that the French State under Petain was ‘a blessing in disguise’ came less from admiration of its fascism than a misguided view that, after war’s end, all parts of the French social order were equally tarred with collaboration. No one class was able to steal a march on the others, which would have brought inescapable discord. They were ready, in de Gaulle as president, to receive their king.

This is not a fascist view; it is merely incorrect. The same could be said for Worsthorne’s strange assessment of America. He first announces his almost meritocratic admiration for the nation of Jefferson’s dreams – a land of self-sufficient smallholders, the propertied among them voting, together guiding the destiny of their pared-back republic. But as this fell apart and the great monopolies arose, Worsthorne has little to say. He has a little to offer except breathless commentary in the case of the Kennedy family – and the suggestion that, for them, money really could buy class.

Worsthorne thrills at Joseph P. Kennedy’s dynasticism. He is charmed by John F. Kennedy’s Ivy League ways, and the inflation Kennedy apparently had with the highly political, secure, unshowy, but nonetheless ‘ornate and massive’ world of the Whig aristocracy described in Lord David Cecil’s The Young Melbourne.

For Worsthorne, even a nuclear exchange, which the Cuban Missile Crisis very nearly became, could be ‘a class act on a classic scale’ – so well had those Irish-Americans educated their sons and purchased their manners. (We have his breathless, simpering despatches from Washington in in sixties to prove it – suggesting the younger man could either see his aristocrats a mile off, or that his infatuation with class-bound characteristics caused the occasional departure not only from analytic distance, but also from good taste.)

The book ends on a strange note. With the educational institutions overrun by vulgar types with new money, Worsthrone finds himself recoiling from the public schools now serving this clientele. He muses that perhaps, in a gesture of radicalism, the headmasters of Eton and his own alma mater might make some sort of statement – a statement to the effect that they would like now to work with the pure intention of turning out fine gentlemen rather than rich men, and that – if they had their way – they would like to educate the poor.

It is a strange egalitarian conclusion to an argument that does not favour aristocracy so much as it does residual love for a now dilapidated nobility. Once again, Worsthorne misses another chance to discuss a meritocracy built upon intellect – those now called the ‘exam-passing classes’.

One is left aware that for all its occasional acknowledged debts to a book or so per chapter, Worsthorne’s work seems strangely barren. He refers to Lord Annan, an old boy of his former school, not because Annan wrote a definitive essay on the interrelation and intermarriage of literary life in the first half of the last century, even titled ‘The Intellectual Aristocracy’, but rather because Annan also authored a biography of their old headmaster.

It is a sad conclusion to draw: that Worsthorne writes less to explore than to justify his prejudices and to lament their defeat. His own arguments are born less from clarity than confusion. Perhaps saddest of all, this book is written from a position not only of ignorance, but also of profound incuriosity – an incuriosity extending, most notably of all, to the lives of the people fit only to be ruled by the aristocrats, of ‘natural’ or inherited status, who at the moment merely live in their midst.

This essay first appeared in Correspondence, an occasional journal.

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