British exceptionalism 2: the unique nature of the aristocracy

(Newark, DE) In 2010, I wrote a post entitled “British exceptionalism: how the UK is different from Europe.” It still draws traffic these days, probably because people want to understand Brexit and the roots of anti-“European” sentiment in a country that most Americans consider a part of Europe. My theme was the dramatically different level of economic development in Britain vs. continental Europe ca. 1930. I doubt that such differences explain Brexit, but I remain interested in ways that the UK has diverged from its continental neighbors.

Here’s another way. William D. Rubenstien observes, “In 1789…, it is generally estimated that there were about 250,000 members of the French nobility, but only about 300 members of the British aristocracy!” In France and (I believe) in every continental country, the aristocracy was a substantial caste, delimited by naming conventions and granted hereditary privileges under the law. The French nobility voted away their own privileges during the heady night of August 4, 1789, but until then, they had been exempt from regular taxes while permitted to tax peasants, allowed to wear swords and hunt, guaranteed a separate justice system, and in many other ways, set apart. These privileges applied to whole extended families and were by no means limited to the individuals who held the aristocratic fiefs and titles, from baron up to duke.

In contrast, since the Middle Ages, the English (and then the British) aristocracy consisted of the “peers” who held specific titles, of which there were only a few hundred. These titles were possessions that could be granted, inherited, or confiscated, although not sold. One person held each title at a time (or one couple, if you consider married peers to share in a title). Peers had very limited privileges, such as the right to sit in the House of Lords and be tried there. The rest of their extended families were not aristocrats.

Britain also had (and to some extent still has) a gentry, composed of ladies and gentlemen. Traditionally, they were defined as people who made their living from rents on land, clerical or military offices, or professional fees for lawyering or doctoring–not from labor or “trade.” As economic power shifted to merchants and manufacturers, they increasingly entered the gentry–no longer having to buy land or professionally educate their sons to count as gentlemen.

More like a class than a caste, the gentry has been defined by its social role and power. That makes the borders fuzzy. It creates some opportunities for mobility, and also a stronger ideological assumption that upward mobility (as opposed to equality) is the hallmark of a just society. I’d speculate that this is one reason “neoliberalism” has more of a hold in the UK (especially England) than it does on the Continent.

See also: British exceptionalism: how the UK is different from Europe; two approaches to social capital: Bourdieu vs. the American literaturewhen social advantage persists for millenniasorting out human welfare, equity and mobility; and why some forms of advantage are more stubborn than others.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.