I remember, as a young man, being hugely impressed by Anthony Sampson’s book The Anatomy of Britain – a revelation to me, since up to that point I had believed that we lived in a democracy. (Anthony Sampson wrote a new version for the 21st century just before he died.)
The concept of The Establishment - the unelected forces of the the monarchy, the aristocracy, the big landowners, big businesses and financiers, the permanent civil service, the military, the press barons - standing behind our democratic institutions and processes and effectively either nullifying them or emasculating them became rooted in my understanding of how the United Kingdom actually worked.
This theme has been worked and reworked by many authors since Sampson’s pioneering insight, sometimes well, often badly, but the naivety that characterised all but a few of the electorate in my generation has been replaced by a wide ranging scepticism and sometimes cynicism, often manifesting itself in a nihilistic view that voting in our democracy doesn’t matter.
Is Britain unique in this regard?
Of course not – every democracy in the world has its establishment, not least the United States of America, but Britain has one unique manifestation of it – the power structure that flows from the monarchy down through our society. There is no equivalent to this across the globe – in its antiquity and its extent, it is a British phenomenon.
Norman Davies in his monumental history The Isles - A History (1999) observes that whereas the feudal aristocracies that most European countries were either eliminated or survived in a severely neutered, non-influential from the 18th century on, the aristocracies of England, Scotland and Ireland are still going strong.
The reasons for this unique survival are fascinating, including the facts that the United Kingdom has never been invaded, not has it had a successful social revolution.
From The Isles by Norman Davies
The tenacity of the British aristocracy in maintaining its position at the top of a class-based social system had something to do on the one hand with its unparalleled penetration of all institutions, including commercial firms and businesses, and on the other hand with its masterly command of the psychology of social emulation. The aristocrats stayed on the top of the social and political ladder because so many other groups loved to co-opt or ape them. As the English saying goes, unimaginable in France or America, ‘Everyone loves a lord.’ This means that when the hereditary peers eventually lose their privileges – as they undoubtedly will – the fall-out is likely to be much wider than many suspect.
There are, of course, arguments for an against the aristocracy in the United Kingdom, but one thing is certain beyond a doubt – the aristocracy is profoundly opposed to the independence of Scotland, especially the Scottish aristocracy, including that odd manifestation of it known as life peers.
Consider this – in the 21st century, there is available a heavyweight, two-volume reference work called Burke’s Peerage and Baronetage, now in its 106th edition, describing itself as “This notable guide to the aristocracy, noble families and titles in Scotland, England and Wales”.
Its 1999 edition contained listing for 108,000 living persons, many of whom will have ascended – or descended – to realms other than the United Kingdom, but who will have been speedily replaced, either by inheritance of the titles or created by political patronage or other means, none of them democratic.
The contents and appendices relating to Scotland contain the following headings -
Precedence in Scotland:
Forms of Address.
Scottish Royal Lineage.
Scottish Families Section.
- Scottish Life Peers & Law Lords.
- Scottish Parliamentary (including MPs, MEPs and MSPs.
- The Royal Household in Scotland:
- Officers of the Queen's Body Guard for Scotland. Royal Co of Archers.
- Scottish Lord Lieutenant.
- The Court of the Lord Lyon King of Arms.
- Scottish Chiefs of Names and Clans.
- Knights of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle.
- Scottish Feudal Barons (recognised by the Lord Lyon King of Arms).
- Scottish Archbishops and Bishops.
- Scottish Tartan Section.
I am not quite sure what the Scottish Parliamentary (including MPs, MEPs and MSPs) section contains, but maybe someone can enlighten me on this apparent flirtation with real democracy, or does it only contain those elected representatives who are also peers and baronets?
For those who don’t know – or have forgotten – what precedence is, I quote again from The Isles – a History -
The five degrees of noble peers – dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts, and barons – and the more numerous ranks of non-noble baronets form an extraordinarily cohesive group. They are defined against the rest of society by their ancient hereditary privileges, and amongst themselves by an elaborate code of precedence. By using the criteria of seniority by rank, seniority of title by date of grant, and seniority of male and female heirs within families, Burke’s was able to publish an annual list giving a precise place and number to every individual.
NORMAN DAVIES – The Isles – A History
This ‘extraordinarily cohesive group’ numbers around 1.5% of British society – the rest of us - apologies to any aristocratic readers –that is the remaining 98.5% or so, are out in the cold. But then, so was John Prescott, doughty champion of the working classes, inhabitant of Tony Blair’s sofa during the Iraq War lead-up. He is now Baron Prescott of Kingston-upon-Hull.
The aristocracy has not survived all this time by not knowing who to let into the tent – as Lyndon Johnson said of J. Edgar Hoover “Better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside pissing in …”
Of course, this pyramid of precedence flows down from Numero Uno – Her Royal Majesty, The Queen. The Archbishop of Canterbury was once number 93 – maybe he still is. Mrs. G.H. Shakerley-Ackers (I kid you not!) was number 160,628 in 1953, and maybe still is. After all, I was an adult in 1953, and I’m still around, but without a number …
Now the Scottish National Party is committed to a constitutional monarchy when Scotland achieves its independence, and so am I, even though by instinct I am a republican.
I like the present Queen. I admire her, and believe that she has made an enormous contribution to British society in her long life. I want her to remain Queen of Scots while she lives, and I wish her a long, long life. She is a remarkable woman, and I believe she would have been a remarkable woman if she had not been born into the Royal Family.
What I don’t like is all the hangers-on beneath her, right down into the 160,000 mark or thereabouts, and I hae ma doots about possible successors. Anyway, as a constitutional monarch of an independent Scotland, the 1.5% beneath her might become utterly irrelevant, as they are, for example, to Canada or Australia - but exactly how Alex Salmond figures that might work I dinnae ken.
I leave the English and the Welsh and the Irish aristocracy to take care of themselves, but as for the Scottish aristocracy …
Moraireachd na h-Alba, the Peerage of Scotland - the dukes, the Marquesses, the Earls, the Viscounts, the Lords Baron of Parliament, the Barons - include among their ranks the Duke of Rothesay. Who he? Well, you may know him better as the Duke of Cornwall, or the Prince of Wales – the heir to the throne.
Charles and the other Scottish dukes go back a long way, (Charles to 1398) and all of them except the Duke of Atholl have additional titles. One, the Duke of Buccleuch has another Scottish dukedom, that of Queensberry. The rest have peerages in the UK, in England and in Great Britain. (I won’t go into the history of why there are separate peerages of England, Great Britain and the UK.)
I have never met a duke personally, but I have met a few peers beneath the level of duke, all in the context of business – industry and commerce. All of them were on the main boards of companies for whom I worked.
Anecdote: In the early 1980s, Scottish & Newcastle’s main board had decided to hold their meeting in the Newcastle Breweries head office where I worked, a ten-story building in Gallowgate just across the road from St. James Park Stadium, the home of Newcastle United. The tenth floor had a boardroom, a dining room, a flat, and had formerly housed the butler to the Newcastle Board and a barber! (The old Newcastle board lived well.)
I inhabited the ninth floor, where the Chairman and MD’s offices (and mine) were located, and since my boss and the senior management team were in a flap, I was keeping a weather eye out – in my industrial relations role - from before eight o’clock for unscheduled invasion from posses of militant shop stewards or one of the tiny group of international socialists who were part of the workforce.
Just after eight, a man appeared on the ninth floor, seemingly searching for something. I approached him and asked politely if I could help, and he said he was looking for the boardroom.
I asked if he could give me his name, and he said what I heard as “early”. I said, “Yes, you are early, but could you give me your name?” He again said “early” and I repeated my request for his name, to which he replied patiently “Airlie – the Earl of Airlie …”. (Note: Earldom of Airlie 1639).
I relate this to make the point that the peerage are not just carousing in their ancestral homes, dancing Highland reels and talking in impeccable English public school accents – they are present in every seat of power in the UK, in boardrooms, in local government, in the media, on powerful committees, in tourism and leisure, on boards of enquiry, in the law, in the church and, of course, in the House of Lords.
They hold these positions occasionally on merit, but more often simply because their title buys influence, impresses shareholders and flatters the egos of captains of industry who are not members of the aristocracy, but who may well entertain hopes of penetrating the magic circle.
I have met peers and knights who were able and who richly deserved their boardroom seat. I have also met peers whom I wouldn’t have entrusted with a junior clerical post based on their ability and intelligence, much less have allowed them near the levers of power. (The knights, in contrast, had often been knighted in recognition of a successful business career, and in the main made significant contributions.)
These people were there because they exercised influence and quite simply because they could tap into, and facilitate access to the Establishment networks, and through a system of patronage, both overt and covert, secure the loyalties of those who were not part of the inner circle.
Central to the loyalties of the peerage are their links to the monarchy, the armed forces and to organised religion.
The hereditary peers held their titles because their ancestors had backed the right side in ancient conflicts over who governed the turbulent territories that over many centuries coalesced into what is now the United Kingdom, assimilating by a mixture of bribery and brutal force the formerly independent nations of Ireland, Wales and Scotland, and in more recent centuries, the contribution to Britain’s imperialist aims and conquests and to European wars.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the history of Scotland, which is why our nation’s history had to be controlled, sanitised and romanticised in the telling, so that the common people never knew how this dominance, so inimical to their interests, came about.
This cynical – and sinister – process never stops, and we have very recent manifestations of it in the UK and in Scotland. Democratic politicians who should know better get caught up in it, and absorb, by a process of osmosis, the lies – and the paranoid fear of the truth.
If Scotland really wants its independence, it must be clear where the real blocks to achieving it exist, and the British aristocracy, with few exceptions, rank high among them, especially the Scottish part of it.