DOWNTON AND THE ARISTOCRACY

Downton AbbeyDownton Abbey is back on PBS.  The fourth season began a couple of weeks ago.

Why is this show so successful?  People are watching it all over the world.

The series began before World War I, took us through that awful war, followed immediately by the flu epidemic; and has now reached 1922.  We are now seeing a reduced aristocracy facing highB taxes resulting in a slow-but-sure decline, the subject of Evelyn Waugh’s classic “Brideshead Revisited,” which depicted the aristocracy between the two world wars.

The aristocracy had started losing its power prior to World War I, with the Liberal Party’s victory in the 1906 election.  The Liberals introduced state controlled pensions, which had to be paid for.  In 1910, the Liberals approved a massive increase in taxation.  The House of Lords, the Upper House, over-ruled the Commons, refusing to approve the budget.  It was a major constitutional crisis, which was resolved by the new king, George V, when he agreed to appoint more liberal aristocrats to the Upper House, who would then approve the proposed budget.  The Lords backed down and agreed to the Commons being able to pass budgetary bills without their consent.  From this point on, the House of Commons was the more powerful chamber.  Aristocratic dominance had ended.  In the last century, their power, influence and wealth have been gradually diminishing.  The country is NOT better off as a result of this.

The aristocracy served England well.  They were not perfect by any means but they cared for the country they governed and did what they thought was best to pass on the nation to the next generation.

In stark contrast to today’s politicians, they believed in sound money and a balanced budget.  They had learned the necessity of this running their own estates.  Over-spend and you will eventually go under!

My wife and I have often visited the stately homes of the aristocracy.  Visiting them has given us a greater understanding of why Britain ruled its Empire so well.  Most colonial governors in the early period of the empire were aristocrats.  Cut off from their home base, they ruled over millions of people in a similar way to Lord Grantham in Downton, who clearly cares for his domestic staff and feels he has a responsibility to look after them.  This may sound patronizing but it worked well until World War I brought the old order crashing down.

In our world of constant upheaval, it’s forgotten that these men gave stability to the nations they governed.  A person could wake up in any part of the British Empire and know that the King was still on the throne and his personal representative, the local Governor, was still in charge and that all was well with the world.  This is decidedly not the case now.  That stability and order owed its origins to the English stately home and the aristocrats raised there.

In World War II, one man with an aristocratic background saved the British people and, indeed, the rest of the world from fascism.  His name was Winston Churchill, the son of Lord Randolph Churchill, the second son of the Duke of Marlborough.  Churchill was born at Blenheim Palace in 1874.  You can visit his birthplace.  The palace was named after the first Duke of Marlborough’s famous victory over France’s Louis XIV at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704, a victory that preserved British freedom and, by extension, freedom for the colonies.

By some accounts, Churchill himself was offered a dukedom upon retirement.  There are only 19 dukes in the United Kingdom.  The title is hereditary.  Churchill deserved the honor but by the time of his retirement in 1955 it seemed antiquated and he turned it down.  He believed in democracy, describing it as “the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.”

Sixty years later, another quote of his is more apt:  “The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.”

Thomas Jefferson, an aristocrat, supposedly said:  “If the common man ever gets his hands on the public purse, the republic won’t last a generation.”  There is now some doubt that he ever said it but whoever did say it captures very well the reality we face today.  Voters will continue to vote themselves ever-increasing financial benefits until the democratic countries go broke.  And leaders will continue to squander vast amounts of money which is not their own.

We should note the following words from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes:  “Woe to you, O land whose king was a servant and whose princes feast in the morning.  Blessed are you, O land whose king is of noble birth and whose princes eat at a proper time – for strength and not for drunkenness.”  (Eccl. 10:16-17)  Surely this is a warning against the weaknesses inherent in democracy!

Judges 21:25 is another one.  “There was no king in Israel in those days.  Every one did what was right in their own eyes.”  Of course, there is a monarch today or a president.  But I believe the verse has a wider meaning.  There is little or no authority today, so everyone does what he wants to do.  World War One has been described as “The End of Order,” the title of a book by Charles Mee.

The death of the British aristocracy can be similarly described as “the end of order.”  A way of life that had given many countries unprecedented stability is gone.

When you think about it, aristocratic dominance constituted a “qualified franchise,” rather than the “universal franchise” we have now.  The aristocrats had a great deal of power and had the vote.  So did many others, but not everyone.

When we lived in Rhodesia, the country had a qualified franchise – and my wife and I did not qualify for the vote!  There were five requirements – citizenship was one.  You also had to pass a literacy test, own property, pay income tax and, if male, do military service or the equivalent.  Only the most responsible people could vote!

Colonial America had a qualified franchise.  So did the US for a long time.  England had one until 1867.  Even then, only men could vote.  It was to be over fifty more years before the vote was given to women.

Our countries would be in a much better state now if we had a qualified franchise!

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12 thoughts on “DOWNTON AND THE ARISTOCRACY”

  1. Agree with all the points made. Churchill’s two contradictory quotes illustrate that truth. When people are not sufficiently skilled and informed in any area they should not be involved– until they are.

    It is also true that aristocrats/elites are almost never NOT greedy; for power, money, prestige, etc. Just human nature. And those that seek that power, money, prestige, etc. are, in most cases, the most greedy of our species.

    I do believe the British, historically, have had a fair-mindeness that is not common. In other words, the British (I believe it is mostly genetic and perhaps somewhat cultural) have set a good example for striving for justice and, again, fair-mindeness.

    Along with that however, it is my observation, they do tend to take that excellent characteristic a little too far and have a strong proclivity toward thinking they always know best and they should “call the shots.” That being a basic reason for the American Revolution.

    God speed the day when qualified leaders stay close to the people (only way to really be concerned for them) and don’t have a lifestyle that the average person can only dream of. After all, if it wasn’t for the “average guy” how would the leaders have what they have.

  2. But that said, our Republican form of democracy is far better than the Greek democracies of Athens in the 400s BC, and our checks and balances have been well set up. We are by far the most free of citizens in the world. But the danger the founding fathers realized this form of government had, was that those freedoms would devolve into anarchy in a godless, God-rejecting society such as we have now, and anarchy would lead to the ever-growing need to restrict those freedoms we are not able to properly exercise, ending up in a police-state, because we have not proven to be mature enough to properly exercise those freedoms. Object lesson: obedience to law brings freedom. A God-rejecting society has no desire to obey laws, be they national or local. As for big industry with PAC money and lobbies running our country, the English shouldn’t thumb their noses at us, as English history during the Industrial revolution, and prior to that where Parliament was run by a strong aristocracy, clearly and painfully shows the worker had no rights, even to vote for members of Parliament until or during the reign of Queen Victory, or shortly afterward. The excesses of big industry influencing government were far more longstanding. So you guys have been there, done that too. England had a 1,500 year history of struggling to achieve a Parliamentary democracy. We achieved a stable Republican form of democracy developed within 20 years, during the time just prior to the American Revolution.

    1. Actually, Churchill was a firm believer in democracy. He chose teh House of Commons over the House of Lords. CBS’s American Ed Murrow who reported from England through WWII said the most remarkable fact of WWII is that, faced with defeat, England maintained it’s democratic system through the six war years. Keep in mind also that all the territories of the British Empire, except for Hong Kong, had an elected legislature. I have a 1946 American travel film that describes the British Empire as “an association of free peoples.”

  3. I just finished a good 800 page “short history of England”, and England’s Parliamentary form of government didn’t approach being a real democratic “by the people, for the people” government for almost 1400 years of England’s 1500 year period the book covered (ancient Britons up to 1932). From 1852 to 1909 they achieved about what the American Colonists achieved in about 20 years, from 1765 1783.

    1. But surely that’s largely BECAUSE the Brits had achieved it around 1400. They brought it with them to the colonies, tweaked it a bit, and were good to go. Looks like America is doing it backwards – started out a democracy and is getting to be not just an Obamarchy but an “Ineptocracy” – pity.

  4. Actually, in reality it was thoroughly “tweaked” and taught to the American Colonists by their pastor in their Separatist congregations (from the 1620s to 1776), which turned into the Congregational church, run thoroughly as a democratic body. And we achieved this free democratic form of government with it’s three balanced arms, House, Senate and Presidency (with a strong Judiciary branch) by 1776, while the true Parliamentary reforms which brought true democracy, didn’t come to England until the period beginning in 1832, and really accomplishing the end-goal not until the period between 1852 and 1909.

  5. And all our democratic forms of government at fast becoming ineptocracies, not just in the US., so to take pot-shots at the US isn’t fair at all. The moral tobagan slide all our English speaking nations are on have us equally matched, as we near the bottom of the moral cesspool. I wouldn’t say the Americans are worse than the Brits in this race to oblivion, we’re just about neck and neck, headed for a photo-finish. It’s just that we have the baton of world leadership now, and GB’s day for that passed at the end of WWII, so naturally that puts us in the spotlight.

    1. Wow. Absolutely agree that the rest of the world is going in the same direction but the fact the US has the “baton” of world leadership and puts in the spotlight makes it worse. I’m not taking pot shots, just observing what IS. No need to be rude.

  6. seems a few have been taking pot shots at the American form of democracy, which until now i view as far better than the Parliamentary-socialist form, and also democracy in Parliamentary England wasn’t fully functional until 1911. Just pointing out historic facts. Sorry if this appeared to be rude.

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