A Case for the English Landed Aristocracy

The following was delivered as a speech to the Britain-based Libertarian Alliance on February 10th. You can listen to the speech there.

To understand the rubbish heap that England has become, it is useful to look at the circumstances that prompted the emergence of the modern State in Europe.

Around the end of the thirteenth century, the world entered one of its cooling phases. In a world of limited technology, this lowered the Malthusian ceiling – by which I mean the limit to which population was always tending, and beyond which it could not for any long time rise. Populations that could just about feed themselves during the warm period were now too large.

In the middle of the fourteenth century, this pressure was suddenly relieved by the Black Death, which seems to have killed about a third of the English population, and probably about a third of the human race as a whole. The result was a collapse of population somewhat below the Malthusian ceiling. In turn, this led – in England and Western Europe, at least – to an age of plenty for ordinary people.

However, continued cooling and a recovery of population led, by the beginning of the sixteenth century, to renewed contact with the Malthusian ceiling. So far as we can tell from the English statistics – which are the most complete and generally accurate – ordinary living standards fell rapidly throughout that century. With mild variations, they continued to fall until the last third of the eighteenth century. While the ceiling tended to rise during this period, the corresponding tendency to higher average living standards was offset by rising population. Living standards began to recover strongly only after the middle of the nineteenth century, when renewed warming, joined by the Industrial Revolution, lifted the ceiling out of sight. Even so, living standards in England did not recover their fifteenth century levels till about the 1880s. It was later elsewhere in Western Europe.

I think these natural forces go far to explaining the sudden emergence of religious mania and political unrest in Europe at the beginning of the sixteenth century. The Reformation and Wars of Religion can be explained partly in terms of an unfolding intellectual change. Ideas are an autonomous force. At the same time, the force of the explosion we date from 1517 has its origin in perturbations of the Sun, or whatever other natural cause drives changes in the climate.

One of the responses of the governing classes to the spreading wave of instability was to centralise and greatly to strengthen power. Most notably in France, but in Western Europe generally, kings were exalted far above their mediaeval status. Because they were unreliable members of the new order, nobilities were brought under control, and power was shared with humble officials, who might collectively grow powerful, but who individually could be made or broken as kings found convenient. The various divine right theories of this age were the legitimising ideology of the new order.

In France, the King withdrew to Versailles. The leading nobles were required to live with him, thereby breaking their connection with the land from which they were allowed to continue drawing their wealth. Much government was given to a class of office holders, who multiplied their functions and arrested much tendency to economic improvement in ways that I do not need to describe.

I turn now to England. In some degree, there was a growth of absolutism here during the sixteenth century. The Tudor Kings ended the civil wars, and made themselves supreme and unchallenged. Because England was an island with only one land border – and Scotland was easily managed – there was no need for a standing army; and standing armies, and the consequent arms race between states with land borders, were a secondary cause of the growth of absolutism. Even so, the Tudor Monarchy ruled England through a strong administration centred on London.

This growth was arrested and reversed in 1641, by the abolition of nearly every body of state unknown to the Common Law. The Privy Council remained, but its subordinate institutions – Star Chamber, for example, and the Council of the North – were swept away. The immediate result was civil war, followed by a republic run by religious maniacs. But this soon collapsed, and the Monarchy was restored in 1660.

However, the Restoration was of the Monarchy in name only. It is best seen as an aristocratic coup. The Restoration Parliament finished the work of 1641, by abolishing the feudal tenures, by which the Monarchy had kept control over the nobility. The landed aristocracy gained something like absolute title over their estates, untouchable by the King. The network of fights and obligations that tied them to those who worked the land was simplified to a relationship of landlord and tenant.

From the 1660s, we can see the emergence of an aristocratic ruling class checked only at the margins by the Crown. Before then, Members of Parliament were often humble men from their localities, who needed to look to their localities for expenses and even salaries. Very soon, the Commons was flooded with the younger sons of peers and aristocratic nominees. Andrew Marvell was one of the last of the last Members of Parliament who needed to draw a salary. The commons became an aristocratic club. This process was hastened by the decay of many boroughs and the growth of the more or less unrepresentative system that was ended only after 1832.

There was one attempt at reaction by the Crown. Charles II presided over the growth of a new official class. Samuel Pepys is the most famous representative of this class. But there is also Leolyn Jenkins, the son of a Welsh farm labourer, who was educated in the Roman Law – not the Common Law – and who led the parliamentary resistance to the Exclusion Bills by which the aristocracy in effect tried to seize control over who could be King of England.

But James II overplayed his hand, and was deposed and exiled in 1688. Thereafter, the aristocracy did control appointment to the Crown, and was able to monopolise every institution of state – allowing those that failed to serve its interest to atrophy.

During the eighteenth century, the internal administration in England became largely a matter of obedience to the Common Law. History was written backwards, so that it became a narrative of struggle to maintain or to restore a set of ancient liberties that were usually over-stressed, or even mythical. I suspect that any educated man brought forward from 1500 to 1750 would have failed to recognise his own England in the standard histories. The tension between competing institutions and legal systems that shaped his life had been reduced to a set of struggles over a Common Law that was only one element in what he considered the legitimate order of things.

I repeat that ideas are an autonomous force. The whiggish ideologies that dominated the century were strongly believed by the ruling class, and were beneficial to the people as a whole. Opposition to Walpole’s excise, and the Theatres Bill cannot be simply explained as the play of sectional interests, or the work of politicians hungry for office. There was an almost paranoid suspicion of government within the ruling class, and a corresponding exaltation of the liberties of the people. But English liberty was also a collateral benefit of the aristocratic coups of 1660 and 1688. Self-help and a high degree of personal freedom were allowed to flourish ultimately because the enlightened self-interest of those who ruled England maintained a strong bias against any growth of an administrative state – the sort of state that would be able to challenge aristocratic dominance. People were left alone – often in vicious pursuits – because any regulation would have endangered the settlements of 1660-88.

Our understanding of English history in the nineteenth century is shaped by the beliefs of the contending parties in that century. The liberals and early socialists demanded an enlarged franchise and administrative reform, because they claimed this would give ordinary people a controlling voice in government. The conservatives claimed that extending the franchise would lead to the election of demagogues and levellers by a stupid electorate.

This does not explain what happened. Liberal democracy was a legitimising ideology for the establishment of a new ruling class – a ruling class of officials and associated commercial interests that drew power and status from an enlarged state. The British State was not enlarged for the welfare of ordinary people. The alleged welfare of ordinary people was merely an excuse for the enlargement of the British State. The real beneficiaries were the sort of people who thought highly of Sidney and Beatrice Webb.

If this analysis is correct, men like John Stuart Mill and even Richard Cobden were at best useful idiots for the bad side in a struggle over which group of special interests should rule England. The real heroes for libertarians were men like Lord Eldon and Colonel Sibthorp, who resisted all change, or men like Benjamin Disraeli and Lord Salisbury, who, after the battle for “reform” was lost, found ways to moderate and, in the short term, to neutralise the movement of power from one group to another. Or the greatest hero of all was Lord Elcho, who kept the Liberty and Property League going until he nearly and hundred, and who fought a bitter rearguard action for an aristocratic ascendency that was intimately connected with the rights to life, liberty and property of ordinary people.

This is not to romanticise the aristocratic ascendency. Eighteenth century England was a brutal place filled with injustice – the game laws, the press gang, a chaotic civil and criminal law, pervasive corruption. All the same, utopia has never been on offer. I will end by addressing myself to left-libertarians like Kevin Carson and Keith Preston. Their critique of the corporate elites and the plutocracy that are hurrying us into tyranny is fundamentally correct. But they are wrong to denounce the aristocratic ascendency that preceded the system under which we now live. It would have been nice for England to emerge into the modern world as a land of masterless men – of yeomen farmers and independent craftsmen and tradesmen. But this was never on offer. By the time the eighteenth century radicals found their voice, the only alternatives on offer were aristocratic ascendency and middle class bureaucracy. Old Lord Fartleigh had his faults. He hated the Papists, and thought nothing of hanging poachers. But he would never have thought it his business to tell us what lightbulbs we could buy, or whether we could smoke in the local pub.

Let it never be forgotten that the demolition of aristocratic rule was largely completed by the Liberal Government elected in 1906. This was the Government that also got us into the Great War, and kept us in it to the bitter end. The kind of people who formed it had already given us most of the moral regulation that we think of as Victorian – regulation that was usually resisted in the Lords. Since then, these people have taken up one legitimising ideology after another – national efficiency, the welfare of the working classes, multiculturalism, environmentalism, supranational government. The common thread in all these ideologies has been their usefulness as a figleaf behind which ordinary people could be taxed and regulated and conscripted, and generally made to dance as their rulers desire. Perhaps the main reason why Classical Marxism never became important in England was that, just when it was very big in the world, Keynesian demand management emerged as a more suitable legitimising ideology for the ruling class we now had.

I therefore commend the English landed aristocracy. If I am now, in middle age, an increasingly radical libertarian, it is only because I have realised that the system raised up by that class can no more be restored than the class itself can be made supreme again.