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British Aristocracy

_ll and the

rHouse of Lords



Edward Carpenter



London : A, C. FIFIELD



British Aristocracy and tlic
House of Lords



British Aristocracy

ami the

House of Lords



By

Edward Carpenter



London

A. C. Fifield, 44 Fleet Street, E.C.

1908



Reprinted by permission
from " The Albany Review y' April, 1908



WILLIAM BRENDON AND SON, LTD.
IKINTERS, rLVMDUTH



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British Aristocnicy and the
House of Lords



IT has often been said that our victory at
Waterloo was a great misfortune to Eng-
land ; and in general terms the truth of this
remark can hardly be gainsaid. Our successes
as against the armies of the Revolution certainly
kept the current of new human forces and ideas
associated with that movement at a distance,
and warded it off from our shores. The feudal
system, broken down and disorganised all over
the Continent by Napoleon, preserved its old
tradition in these islands. And one conse-
quence has been that, in the matters of our
Land-system and our Aristocracy, we are now
a hundred years behind the rest of Western
Europe.*

Our land-system, with its large estates breed-
ing a servile and poor-spirited population of
tenantry and farm labourers, has had the eftcct

♦ Not to mention our Penal and Civil Codes, so anti-
quated and cumbrous compared with the Code Napoleon.

5



r.iS'iOS'jcj



British Aristocracy

of clogging and depressing British agriculture
— to such a degree, indeed, that the latter has
become a thing despised and neglected by our-
selves and derided by our neighbours. And
our Aristocracy has developed to so monstrous
and importunate a form that, like some huge
parasite, it threatens disease and ruin to the
organism upon which it has fastened. It is
with the latter trouble that I am at this moment
concerned.

It is indeed curious that Britain, which has
for so long a time boasted herself in the fore-
front of human progress, should now be saddled
with this institution — a reactionary institution
of such magnitude and dead weight as no other
nation in the world can show. And more
curious still is it that, all the time, with great
diligence and apparent zeal, she is enlarging
and building up the absurd incubus which
weighs her to the ground.

Poor Britain ! with all her other burdens —
her burdens of crying poverty, of huge popula-
tion, of limited land, of distressing fogs both
in the mental and physical atmosphere — to be
actually fastening and riveting this extra one
upon her own back ! What must one think
of such a nation ? Has she lost her wits, and
does she at all divine what she is doing ? Is
she still lost in a sleep of centuries, and living

6



Alul the Mouse of Lords

in divams of three or four hundred years
ago ?

There has in the past been a certain glamour
and romance about the Feudal Aristocracy.
Perhaps distance lends enchantment. We like
to lose ourselves in a kind of Tcnnysonian
dream of knights and ladies ; we know that
once there were bold bad barons, who certainly
were a terrible pest to their contemporaries,
but whom we rather admire in the far per-
spective ; we do not forget the great historical
families, whose largesses and whose crimes
were on a splendid scale, whose petty jealousies
and quarrels with each other were the ruin of
peasants and the devastation of country-sides,
but whose noblesse oblige had elements of
heroism and sacrifice in it, even on account
of the very fact of its meaning the maintenance
of their own Order as against the world. We
may readily concede that these people did
some work that had to be done, we may allow
that there was a certain poetry and creative
power in it ; but what has all that to do with
the modern Aristocracy ?

Of the 550 hereditary peers who to-day con-
stitute the bulk of the House of Lords, it is
very doubtful if a single one had a relative
present at Kunnymede and the signing of the
Charter. It is said that only five can even



British Aristocracy

trace their families back to that century. In
the reign of EHzabeth the lay Lords numbered
no more than sixty. Even the Stuarts, who
lavished honours on the most dubious favour-
ites, only increased the list of peers by about
100. It was — and the moral is easily drawn —
in the reign of George III that the great growth
of the modern peerage took place. George
himself, anxious to strengthen his weak hand
in the Government, insisted on nominating a
large contingent — his congeners and equals in
point of brains and education — a crass and fat,
snuff - taking and port - wine - bibbing crew.
William Pitt — and this was part of his settled
policy — drowned out the old Whig families in the
House of Lords " by pouring into it members
of the middle and commercial class, who
formed the basis of his political power — small
landowners, bankers, merchants, nabobs, army-
contractors, lawyers, soldiers, and seamen. It
became the stronghold not of blood, but of
property, the representative of the great estates
and great fortunes which the vast increase of
English wealth was building up."* The whole
process was a sort of strange counterblast to
the French Revolution. But with Pitt's suc-
cessors it continued to such an extent that

* J. R. Green, Short History of the English People,
ch. X.

8



And the House of Lords

actually the total number of peerages created
during George the Third's reign was 388 ! *

And from that time forward the same.
Britain, to accentuate her victory over Napoleon,
and to assure the workl of her anti-revolutionary
princi}-»les, steadily added and added to her
tale of titled heads : till now — instead of the
feudal chiefs and royal boon-companions and
buccaneers and sea-dogs of old days — we have
a wonderful breccia of brewers and bankers,
colliery owners and Stock Exchange magnates,
newspaper proprietors, wine dealers, general
manufacturers and industrial directors, among
whom the old landlords lie embedded like
fossils, t It must be confessed that whatever
romance a title may have once carried with it
has now quite gone. It is hardly possible, one
would think, for the most Philistine Briton or
world-foraging Yankee to perceive any glamour
in the present aristocracy. Indeed, one may
say that — although, of course, it includes some
very worthy persons — a certain vulgarity at-
taches to the class as a whole, and that it is

* May's Constitutional History, vol. i. The numlxr of
baronets created during the same reign was 4()4 ! and of
knights such a crowd that the order has never recovered
from the somewhat alderman ic and provincial flavour it
then acquired.

t Since 1800 the new peers created amount to 376 !

9



British Aristocracy

doubtful whether any really self-respecting
commoner would consent to be included in it.

But the curious fact is^ as I have said, that
it continues to grow and be added to. At
present the United Kingdom is blessed with
750 peers in all (not all of them in the House
of Lords), besides an innumerable host of lesser
dignities. The late Conservative Government,
during its ten years of office, scored fifty-seven
additions to the House — not a bad count ; but
Campbell-Bannerman beat all records by creat-
ing twenty in the course of his first eighteen
months ! If the accretions to the ranks of
Rank are to continue at similar rates, imagina-
tion gasps at the probable situation, say in
fifty years.

With regard to this extraordinary freak of
" C.-B.'s," it is difficult to find a rational
explanation, which — in view of the late debate
about the sale of honours to wealthy party
supporters — is not also a rather unpleasant one.
In the story of *' Bel and the Dragon," when
Daniel determined to destroy the great Idol
which the people worshipped, he fed into its
capacious maw fresh lumps of " pitch and fat
and hair " (of which ingredients, no doubt, the
monster was already composed). He seemed
to be nourishing and fattening it, but in reality
he destroyed it, by causing it to " burst in



And the I louse of Lords

sunder." l>iit whrther the Liberal jxirty really
wishes or thinks to break ii}^ the House of Lords
in the same way is extremely doubtful. It is
certainly an odd way of doing battle.

That it can be for a moment supposed that
that House can be converted into a progressive
institution by ample creation of Liberal peers
is out of the question. In the first place, there
is the huge existing Conservative majority
there, to be overcome before anything like a
balance can be established. In the second
place, there is the undeniable and portentous
fact that for turning a man into a Tory, a day
in that House is better than a thousand (out-
side). For reasons ami in ways not very
difficult to see there is a steady social and
conventional pressure going on in those sur-
roundings, which gradually transforms well-
meaning and progressive folk into rigid ob-
structives. Of the ninety-two peers (and their
successors) created by Liberal Prime Ministers
in the last fifty years, only forty-six, that is
one half, are now Liberals. Of the twenty
peers lately created by Campbell-Bannerman,
how many will even call themselves Liberal
at the end of another decade ? Thirdly, it
must be remembered that of those who do thus
call themselves Liberals, and under that head
are created peers, their real liberality and



British Aristocracy

culture and public spirit (for the most part,
and with a few very genuine exceptions) are
only skin-deep. They have worked mainly for
their own private ends and advancement ; they
have been successful men in business or in law ;
they have engineered society influences ; they
have made themselves grateful to highly placed
personages ; they have dumped down enormous
funds on occasions for election and other pur-
poses ; they have even obtained what they
wanted by forbearing to press for the payment
of debts ! In a variety of ways they have been
useful to their own side ; and sometimes they
have been so little useful that for that reason
it has been thought better to remove them to
** another place." But whatever the cause of
their advancement, the end to which it leads
will in most cases be the same. It is hard to
believe — as Mr. Joseph Clayton says in his
excellent little book, The Truth about the Lords —
that the cause of " temperance legislation will
be assisted in the Upper House by Lords Burton
and Blyth"; or that ''the progress of labour
legislation, in favour of a shorter working day
and the abolition of child-labour, will be has-
tened by Lords Nunburnholme, Pirrie, Glan-
tawe, and Winterstoke." Having climbed the
Liberal ladder, the great probabihty remains
that they will scorn the base degrees by which



And the House of Lords

they did ascend, and retire finally to swell the
obstructive influences in the Second Chamber.

Lastly — and most important of all — the prob-
ability that the House of Lords can be con-
verted into a progressive institution by the
creation of Liberal peers is practically nil, for
the simple reason that the Liberal party itself
is not essentially progressive ; and as time
goes on gets less and less differentiated in all
important respects from the Conservative party
— into which in the end it will probably merge.

The whole magnification and bolstering-up
of both the House of Lords and the "Aristoc-
racy " generally in this country is certainly an
extraordinary phenomenon, and one which
would hardly be possible in any other country
of the world in this year a.d. Pausing for a
moment to take a bird's-eye view of it, and
guarding ourselves against undue self-deprecia-
tions or too-sweeping comparisons of the Briton
with other nations, let us just make a plain
matter-of-fact estimate of the situation.

One might suppose that here in the general
Aristocracy, among the pick and pink of the
nation, endowed with wealth, education, and
far-reaching influence, would be found the
leaders and j)ioneers of every great movement ;
that art and science, sociology and politics
would be illuminated and inspired, organised

»3



British Aristocracy

and marshalled by this class ; that abroad it
would stand as representative of what was best
and most vigorous in our people ; and that at
home and in the country-sides it would set the
tone and animate the centres of the most healthy
and useful life. What do we actually find ?
A waste of dullness, commonplaceness and re-
action. This Aristocracy does nothing — next
to nothing that can be said to be of public
utility,* for even the work of the ordinary
country gentleman on County Councils and as
a member of the Great Unpaid can hardly be
placed to its account. It produces (in the
present day) no artists, no men of letters of any
distinction, no inventors, no great men of
science, no serious reformers, hardly even a
great general or political leader. And this is
certainly astounding when one considers the
exceptional opportunities its members have
for success and advancement in any of these
directions, and the ease with which they can
command a hearing and a following.

It is true, of course, that occasionally a man
of decided note and ability — a Kelvin or a
Tennyson, a Beaconsfield or a Kitchener — on

* It is nowadays enormously connected among the
Directors of Joint Stock Companies and Banks and other
money-lending concerns, but whether its labours in these
connexions are of public utility is a question.



And the House of Lords

account of real or generally admitted service to
the nation, and not on acconnt of his swollen
money-bags or his scheming self-advertisement,
is collated into the Aristocracy. But such
individuals are not numerous, and they arc not
the product of the Aristocracy. They arc im-
portations into it which, alas ! do not modify
its general character, but too often, like good
building materials thrown into a swamp, simply
sink into it and disappear. The amount of
useful genius or talent which the institution,
from its hereditary deeps, supplies to the world
is an almost negligible quantity.

Again — not to make too great a demand in
the way of world-wide genius or service, but to
keep to humbler spheres — we may point out
that the class in question does not rise to the
occasion of its most obvious duties. Despite
the efforts of Lord Carrington to arouse its
activity, it does not remodel villages on its
estates, or create experimental colonies on its
broad acres ; it does not meet the very genuine
demand now existing for small holdings ; it
does not even lend farm lands to Boards of
Guardians for the use of the unemployed.
If these things have to be tackled, they are left
to the generosity and {>liilanthr()pic zeal of
wealthy Americans, who come across the water
to polish uj) the old country. It does not

«5



British Aristocracy

exhibit any pride in making its factories or its
quarries or its collieries (where its revenues
spring from such sources) models of excellent
and cleanly management, with the best condi-
tions possible for the workers concerned in them.
It organises none of the social reforms in town
or country which are so cryingly needed, and
which it ought to be so well qualified to initiate.
It sometimes appears (though, of course, this is
not really the fact) as though it could think of
nothing more beneficial for its rural demesnes
and their populations than to shoot over them,
or more appropriate for its town duties than to
employ plenty of dressmakers for Society
functions.

One must not certainly deny that these good
people move up in squadrons, and are greatly
in evidence as Patrons and Patronesses of
Bazaars, or of Hospitals, or of philanthropic
institutions of various kinds. Anything that
is colourless and non-committal, which is popu-
larly helpful, without being a severe tax on
pecuniary funds or physical energies, and in
which 'a name or a title carries weight, is pecu-
liarly favoured. As Mr. Clayton says (p. 102),
" For the laying of foundation-stones, opening
of important buildings, presiding over religious
and philanthropic meetings, the directing of
hmited liabihty companies, the * governing '

16



And the House of Lords

of self-governing colonies, and the entertaining
of political followers, they are in great demand."
And with all these duties, and the demands of
" Society " generally, it really would not be
fair to call them idle. We may even say that
they are enormously busy.

It would be foolish also to deny — what is
sufficiently obvious — that among the titled
people, especially the older families, there are
found some folk of a humane and cultured class
of mind, with charming and genuine good
manners, simple habits, and a real sense of
responsibility and even affection towards those
dependent on them ; and for the existence of
such people, in whatever sphere, we may be
grateful, especially in these days when they are
in danger of being drowned out by tawdry new-
comers.

But all this — in the way of benefits or ad-
vantages accruing from the Aristocratic system
— is very negative. On the other hand, the
positive evils of the system do not admit of
being overlooked. To the mass of meaningless
fashion and expensive idleness created by our
social arrangements generally, it accords an
imprimatur of distinction and desirability. The
ilagrant sale of high honours — worse, apparently,
in the last dozen years than ever before —
corrupts the nation with thr resultant lesson

«7



British Aristocracy

that to make a fortune anyhow and to spend
it for personal aggrandisement is the best way
to gain distinction and pubhc respect. Traffic-
king in titles has become quite a profession,
and a rich man has now little difficulty, through
the mediation of diplomatic but impecunious
ladies of rank, in getting himself made a knight
or a baronet. A quite uncalled-for and dis-
proportionate power is put into the hands of
persons who are really not worthy of it, whose
aims are vulgar, whose education is poor, on
whose tables hardly a book of real merit is to
be found (often, certainly, not as good literature
as is seen in a better-class workman's home) ;
and among whom the questions most important
to be discussed are whether golf or motoring,
baccarat or bridge, shall be the order of the day.
Gangs of similar folk use their " influence " to
get important positions in Army or Navy or
official circles ffiled up by relatives or favourites ;
and the resultant scandals of incompetence or
maladministration, which later years inevitably
unfold, are hushed up by the same influences.
The nation is heavily injured, but the damage
does not recoil on the heads of those most
responsible. " Society " twaddle fills the news-
papers and impresses the uninitiated and un-
learned ; the aimless life and ideals silting
downwards infect the masses of the people with

i8



And the House of Lords

a most futile and feeble conception of life ; and
in little matters of dress and etiquette ultimately
make the middle classes even worse than those
wiiom tiiey imitate, and from whom they sup-
pose the fashions to originate.

To return to the House of Lords. I have no
intention here of dwelling on its record of in-
etTiciency and obstruction. Of its political
history during the last century ; of its meagre
and scanty attendances, even over the most
important questions ; of its marvellous in-
efticiency and want of comprehension in dealing
with the same ; of its indifference when any
human or humane interest has been concerned ;
of its dead obstructiveness when such things
seemed to endanger in any degree its " rights
of property"; of its chnging to the death-
penalty (in 1810) for the stealing of values over
5s., and to the same (in 1820) for values over
£10, and to the same again (in 1839) for sheep-
stealing ; of its maintenance by large majori-
ties of vivisection (1879), and of trap pigeon-
shooting (1883) ; of its turning deaf ears to the
pleading cry of children in the coal mines
(1842), or of little chimney-sweep urchins in
the chimneys (1849), or of evicted and famine-
stricken peasants in Ireland (1880-2) ; of its
steady refusal, until fairly forced, to grant the
rightful and natural demands of citizens for



British Aristocracy

suffrage and self-government and religious equal-
ity and the education of their boys and girls ;
or to grant the demands of women for rights
over their own property and persons, and of
men for the protection of their own labour-
power ; — are not all these things written in the
great books of the Chronicles of the last hun-
dred years, as well as in the pages of the Alman-
acks and the manifestos of Mr. Stead ? There
is only one opinion about them ; and what has
been said a thousand times it is needless to
repeat.

Nor can we fairly expect anything else. If
we indulge in the absurdity and scandal of
making men high legislators because they have
heaped together huge fortunes by selling "purge"
and " kill-devil " to a drink-sodden public, or
have made themselves wealthy and notorious by
circulating lying and sensation-mongering can-
ards among ignorant populations, we must
expect the absurdities and scandals and mis-
fortunes which are the logical result. And if it
only stopped there ! But to go further, and
to make the bodily heirs of these people our
future High Legislators, even to the crack of
doom — well, that is surely midsummer madness,
and a gilding of the refined gold of folly ! As a
precise and practical writer has remarked :
** Our toleration of this costly absurdity is the



Antl the House of Lords
wonder of the world. Its like is not to be found
in any other civilised nation."

The real question which remains is, What is
to be the cure ? Dismissing the supposition
that a syndicate of American millionaires will
buy up the House of Lords comj)lete for the
purposes of a world-exhibition, and, on the
other hand, the supposition that a violent wave
of socialist revolution will drown it suddenly
out of existence — as being, both of them,
though feasible, beyond the range of immediate
politics, we may at least, and as a practical
issue, discuss what considerable and radical
changes would really bring this institution, and
that of the Aristocracy generally, into the line
of human usefulness. There is fair reason to
suppose that in a few years the Labour party
or parties in the Lower House will have a
decisive influence there ; and in view of that
probability some suggestions for a future policy
with regard to the Peers may be useful — though
the following proposals (it must be understood)
are merely individual, and would not perhaps
be acce]:)ted in block by any of the Socialist
organisations.

I think we may assume that, short of a
violent catastrophe, the Second Chamber will



British Aristocracy

be retained. Its total abolition would not be
in accordance with the temper and tradition
of the British ; and^ personally, I think that —
as long as our present general Constitution
remains — a Second Chamber is desirable ; be-
cause our House of Commons — though with an
intelligent voting public it might become intelli-
gent, and even get to know a little political
economy — must always, from the method of
its election, be largely composed of professional
politicians, and must represent mainly popular
ideals, views, and currents of opinion. There
is no harm in this, but it requires to be corrected
by a more searching, accurate, and experienced
spirit (if only, for example, in order that Bills
passed by the popular Assembly may be in-
telligible, and may not become law while still
containing hopelessly contradictory clauses).
Also a Chamber with some intelligent and public-
spirited initiative about it would be very
helpful.

A Second Chamber, then, seems to me on the
whole advisable, and will, I have no doubt, for
a long time to come be demanded by the
British people. It will not necessarily be the
House of Lords ; but here again the British
love of tradition and continuity will come in,
and will probably insist on its being called the
House of Lords — even long after it has come to



And tlic House of Lords

consist mainly of manual workers and advanced
women !

The })ractical question therefore is — how to
begin immediately to remodel the Upper House
with a view to rendering it (in time) a useful
Second Chamber.


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