Thursday, 30 June 1983

Thatcher and Friends: Chapter 4 –Aristocrats and Others

By John Ross

Turning from the immediate personnel of the Tory Party to its more long-term development, there is another feature which authentically marks off the Conservatives from the capitalist parties of almost any other major country. This is the degree to which ultra-archaic social layers have survived within the Tory Party in particular and the British ruling class in general. Furthermore, while these features sometimes appear merely absurd, in reality they reflect extremely profound aspects of the nature and structure of British capitalism and its chief political party.

The aristocracy and gentry

Taking the most archaic layers of British society, the aristocracy and landed gentry, the prolonged influence, and earlier the total dominance, of these forces in British politics is quite extraordinary.

The Parliament of 1841-47, during which the modern Conservative Party was created, first met 9 years after the Parliamentary Reform Act of 1832 and 70 years after the date generally taken as the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. In this House of Commons, however, 81 per cent of MPs still came from the families of the aristocracy and landed gentry. Taking a slightly later period the radical barrister Bernard Cracroft showed, in a famous article published on the eve of the second Reform Act, that 326 out of 658MPs (i.e. 50 per cent) in 1865 were directly members of aristocracy or titled families. A further 170 represented directly landed or territorial interests. In other words, a full three-quarters of the House of Commons was, at this time, still made up of representatives of landowners.

At the higher levels of government the situation was still more extreme. Palmerston's Cabinet of 1865 was made up of two dukes, one elder son of a duke, six lords, two baronets, one son of a peer, one son of a baronet, and only two persons who were not related directly to titled families. Gladstone's Cabinet of 1880 still contained a majority of aristocrats - those involved being a duke, a marquess, and five earls. Gladstone himself was the son of a baronet.

In 1909 members of aristocratic families still made up 16 percent of the House of Commons and non-aristocratic landowners a further 15 per cent (i.e. 31 per cent in all). Furthermore, unlike the situation in other countries, this figure did not drop after the First World War. In Germany, on the other hand, the number of those descended from aristocratic families elected to the Reichstag fell from 14 per cent in 1912 to 4 per cent in 1930. The 16 percent of British MPs who came from aristocratic families in 1909 had only dropped to 15 per cent by 1928. In 1920 the Duke of Devonshire alone had sixteen relatives in the House of Commons.

Finally, even if we take the aristocracy in the most restricted sense - that is sons or daughters of hereditary peers excluding all nephews, nieces, cousins, relatives by marriage, etc - then these still constituted 8.5 per cent of Tory MPs in 1924 (this had fallen to 3.2 per cent by 1974). Taking people who had or would inherit hereditary titles, they declined from 24 per cent of the House of Commons in 1832, to 21 per cent in 1868, 16 per cent in 1885, 16per cent in 1900, and 13 per cent in 1918.

Cabinet and government

At the highest levels of government the prevalence of aristocratic and landowning families declined even more slowly. Prior to the First World War, no British Cabinet contained less than 35 members of aristocratic families. Thereafter, the numbers began to drop rapidly for all parties other than the Conservatives. Only three out of twenty-one members (14 per cent) of Lloyd George's Cabinet of 1916 were from aristocratic families. The figures were then 16per cent in the MacDonald Labour government of 1923, 11 per cent in the 1929 Labour government, 0 per cent of the 1945 Attlee government, and an average of 5 per cent in Labour governments after that.

In the Tory Party, by contrast, the role of members directly associated with aristocratic families continued far longer and no equivalent fall occurred during or after the First World War. Members of aristocratic families constituted 47 per cent of the Balfour Tory Cabinet in 1902, 43 per cent of the Baldwin Cabinet of1935, and 31 per cent of the Churchill Cabinet of 1951. The fall was then to 28 per cent in the Eden Cabinet of 1955, 22 per cent in the Macmillan Cabinet of 1957, 21 per cent in the Home Cabinet of1963, and 22 per cent in the Heath Cabinet of 1970.

If a wider circle than the Cabinet is taken, and other sections of the ruling class are also considered, then the continuation of ultra-archaic features in the British ruling class may be seen simply by considering two central aristocratic families - those of the Dukes of Marlborough and the Dukes of Devonshire. As late as1960 these two families together included in their membership, by direct descent and by marriage, nine senior Conservative ministers(the prime minister, the foreign secretary the secretary for war, the minister for agriculture, the minister for commonwealth relations, the minister for labour, the minister for works, the minister for power, and the attorney general); two junior ministers(the under-secretary at the Foreign Office, the under-secretary for commonwealth relations); five members of the boards or owners of four newspapers (the Times, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, and the Observer); the governor and deputy-governor of the Bank of England; six directors of three merchant banks (Hambros, Lazards, Morgan Grenfell); three directors of the Guinness brewery firm; a director of the Courtauld's textile firm; the ambassador to the United States; and the governor-general of New Zealand. The prime minister (Macmillan) was related through his marriage in the Devonshire family to the president of the United States (Kennedy)and the Marlboroughs contained the supreme icon of the Tory Party, Sir Winston Churchill. Finally, it is worth noting that both families at an earlier period were united through the person of the]Ü Duke of Abercorn and therefore, more distantly, all the above were related to each other.

The last aristocrat to be British prime minister was Sir Alec Douglas Home in 1964. His predecessor was Harold Macmillan - whose Devonshire connections I've just outlined. His predecessor was Anthony Eden - a member of a landed family. Eden's predecessor, in turn, was the grandson of the seventh Duke of Marlborough and for18 years heir to the title - Sir Winston Churchill. No post-war Conservative prime minister failed to come from an aristocratic or landowning family until Edward Heath in 1970.

More structurally, Britain is today of course, with the House of Lords, the only major country in the world in which the hereditary peerage have a right to vote in the legislature. As late as 1893the House of Lords was powerful enough to veto a measure as fundamental as Home Rule for Ireland - although a similar attempt to veto the budget of 1909 was defeated through a major constitutional crisis and two general elections. In 1950-51 the House of Lords could still sabotage the nationalisation of the steel industry.


We have already noted that 81 per cent of MPs in 1847 came from landed families. They still produced 49 per cent in 1880 -when the Liberals, not the conservatives, formed the government.

Turning to the Tory Party more specifically, a clear pattern emerges. The majority of Tory MPs remained landowners until the 1870s. Thereafter, a slow decline began with the proportion of landed families among Tory MPs falling to 46 per cent in 1885 and 39 per cent by 1900 - although even this figure is extremely high. While of course farmers cannot be precisely compared to nineteenth-century landowners, nevertheless it is interesting to note that even in 1979 farmers accounted for 12 per cent of Tory MPs. Thatcher’s 1979 Cabinet still contained two members who were large landowners (Whitelaw and Carrington), and one inheritor of a seventeenth-century stately home (Pym). For some comparison we may note that 0.3 per cent of Labour MPs in 1979 were farmers.

The forces which replaced the Tory landowners from the 1880s onwards were, naturally, those coming from industry and commerce -a process which speeded up after the 1886 split of the Liberal Party. Among new Tory MPs, as opposed to sitting members, the number of landowners declined from 37 per cent in 1886 to 29 percent in 1900 while the number from industry and commerce increased from 28 per cent to 43 per cent in the same period. Overall, however, members of landowning families STILL exceeded the number of Tory MPs from industry and commerce even in the Parliament of 1900 (by 39 per cent to 32 per cent).

Public schools

It is this pattern of development in the Conservative Party which also makes it easy to understand the significance within the party, and the British ruling class generally, of that supremely English institution - the public school.

While the direct role of landowners and aristocrats has declined in the Tory Party in the twentieth century - even if not as rapidly as is generally supposed - the weight of the public schools has not diminished significantly. As we will return to this later we will deal here only with the most essential points.

It has often been said, entirely correctly, that the public schools, in their present form, were the essential institutions created by the ruling class in the nineteenth century to achieve the cultural homogenisation of the capitalist class through a common education of its children. Thomas Arnold was appointed headmaster of Rugby school in 1828 and set about converting institutions which previously had been chiefly famous for dissolute behaviour into serious educational institutions. This task was then consolidated and codified through the official government Clarendon Commission of 1861-64.

The basis on which this homogenisation was to be created, however, was unequivocally clear. The public schools were to embody a cultural supremacy of the values of the landed aristocracy and gentry over the rising industrial capitalist layers which had emerged in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Atits most crude level this was the famous declaration by Gladstone of the value of the ‘classical education’; of Latin and Greek over science and technology:

‘The relation of pure science, natural science, modern languages, modern history and the rest to the old classical training, ought to be founded on a principle
‘I deny their right to a parallel or equal position; their true position is ancillary, and as ancillary it ought to be limited and restrained without scruples.’

This precept was certainly put into practice. At Shrewsbury, one of the nine founding public schools investigated and ‘reformed ‘through the Clarendon Commission, not one lesson in science was given before 1877. At Rugby, the pioneer public school, science equipment was excluded from the school premises and placed in the town hall - where it was ‘locked up in two cases so that the towns people could use the space for other purposes at night’. At Cambridge in 1872 only twelve persons were studying for the natural science examinations - and the majority of these were training to be doctors.

This educational system, and choice of subjects, might of course appear merely grotesque until it is set against its correct framework - its consequences for future economic, social and political development. To understand what the facts given above signify, it is necessary to note that by 1872 eleven technical and twenty other universities existed in Germany. In the United States, well over seventy universities existed by 1870 and the systematic organisation of postgraduate scientific education, copied from Germany, had already been introduced. At that time there were only four universities in the whole of England. There were also a further four universities in Scotland, where the education system was qualitatively superior.

This influence and effect worked itself all the way down the educational system with consequences lasting to the present day. In the late nineteenth century, when Germany was establishing universal primary education and an unparalleled system of technical and engineering education, the future Tory prime minister Lord Salisbury characterised the attempt to establish systematic primary education in Britain as ‘pumping learning into louts’. By 1900 the average German worker had spent a further 5 hours a week for 2 to 4 years in part-time education. The average English worker, in contrast, received 2 years less in school, with only two-thirds of the hours, and with no systematic part-time education afterwards.

If you take that type of difference in education and training, multiply it by 20 million workers, and extend the process over decades, then the directly economic effects, let alone the educational and cultural ones, will be - and were - staggering.

Looking at higher levels of education, the situation is much the same. By 1957 Britain had the lowest proportion of university places per head of the population of any country in Europe except for Ireland, Norway and Turkey. The number of university places per head was 65 per cent higher in West Germany than in Britain, 114 per cent higher in France, 454 per cent higher in the Soviet Union, and 818 per cent higher in Argentina. The famous ignorance and philistinism of the British ruling class is not a mere quirk but has a profound institutional background. Sir Keith Joseph is today building on a Tory tradition.

No matter what happened to the rest of the education system, however, the public schools brought about a profound homogenization of the various elements which made up the British capitalist class, and the leadership of its political parties. If we take the period from 1867 to 1916, then 32 per cent of all Cabinet members, including Liberals, were educated at a single school - Eton. Taking all public schools together, the figure was 59 per cent.

If we take simply Tory MPs and Cabinet ministers, then the supreme peak of dominance of Tory MPs by members educated in public schools was reached in 1935 and 1945. In these years 81 and 85 percent respectively of all Tory MPs were educated at public schools. Between 1906 and 1945 together an average of 79 per cent of Tory MPs were educated at public school when the party was in opposition and 75 per cent when it was in government. From 1945 to 1979 the percentage was 73 per cent when the Tory Party was in office and 78per cent when in opposition. (This difference is accounted for by the fact that, as with constituency chairpersons, public school educated candidates in the post-war period tended to be even more disproportionately congregated in safe Tory seats.)

Taking the higher levels of the Tory Party, 92 per cent of all Conservative Cabinet ministers between 1925 and 1955 were educated at public school. Since then, the figures have been 94 per cent in the Macmillan Cabinet of 1957; 88 per cent in the Home Cabinet of 1964; 83 per cent in the Heath Cabinet of 1970; and 81 per cent in the Thatcher Cabinet had been educated at two schools - Eton and Winchester.

While these figures are of course absurd when judged from the point of view of the general population, they are not so when compared to the leading personnel of the capitalist class itself. In 1982 Eton and Winchester, in addition to a third of Thatcher’s Cabinet, had also educated the chairpersons of all five clearing banks, the heads of the home and foreign civil services, and the head and deputy heads of the BBC. Eton by itself accounted for fifty Tory MPs.

Taking various periods since the Second World War, two-thirds of all under-secretaries in the civil service, nine-tenths of all senior army officers, two-thirds of senior air-force officers, four-fifths of fudges, two-thirds of bishops, three-quarters of directors of clearing banks, and 50 per cent of directors of leading industrial companies were educated at public school. The Tory MPs and Cabinets might be on a different planet from the public at large but they are superlatively well integrated into the capitalist class - not merely in terms of class position, but also in terms of education and upbringing.

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