‘The British aristocracy became a spent force between 1820 and 1920’ – How far is this a fair and accurate description?
Greg White July 2016
The British aristocracy
was the dominant political and financial demographic in Britain for 800 years, having established itself as a deeply rooted institution. An enquiry into this area of British social history is therefore equally complex, and must venture into equal depth, thereby
enabling a valid study of whether the British landed classes were a ‘spent force’ by 1920, and why it has survived. The term ‘spent force’ evokes the idea of an exhausted institution which is no longer influential, effective or
robust. The difficulty applying this however to the state of the aristocracy is that a comparison is needed to accurately pinpoint their condition. For example, as a cohesive establishment, it certainly would be accurate to describe the aristocracy as a spent
force by 1920 when compared to the aristocracy of 1832 which was the dominant financial and political force in Britain. However, if looked at in isolation, individual aristocrats were still some of the wealthiest individuals in the country, such as brothers
1st Viscount Northcliffe and 1st Viscount Rothermere, whose newspaper conglomerate was worth £20 million in the early-Twentieth Century, while other aristocrats though had diminished, almost becoming inseparable from the middle classes who had rapidly closed the wealth divide between the two social groups by 1920. This illustrates the complexity and variation of an
analytical enquiry into the state of the aristocracy, and the validity of describing them as a spent force by 1920.
There are various interpretations of the decline of the British aristocracy, including Michael L. Bush (1984),
who argues that the elimination of the peasantry and the creation of large social groups without dependence on the aristocracy, allowed the British aristocracy to decline by means of a process of ‘voluntary retirement’ rather than as a result of
rejection, in particular in regards to the aristocracy’s role in political governance. Whereas Lawrence James (2011)
argues that the aristocracy shed some of its powers so it could regain some sort of influence in an inexorable evolution of a democratic egalitarian society,
while their financial and social decline was brought about from within the aristocracy in the form of indebtedness and scandalous behaviour respectively, caused by a rapid sociocultural evolution throughout the Nineteenth Century. This enquiry is therefore
founded partly on these propositions, and their relation to the aristocracy’s journey to becoming a ‘spent force’. One must appreciate that land and politics are connected when looking at the downfall of the aristocracy. Acreage br=ought
influence, power and respect. When some of this land was sold off, their power diminished. After the tex laws at the end of the century, many were forced to sell off huge estates in order to settle staggering death duties.
wider historiographical debate regarding the British aristocracy is varied with many differing approaches. Marxist school of thought for example, claims that it was key economic rather than political problems that weakened both the French and British aristocracies,
underpinned in turn by the class struggle between the aristocracy and the lower classes, in which the aristocracy would inevitably succumb.
This highlights a central criticism of Marxist historiography, in that it is deterministic and inflexible in proposing alternative directions of history other than one in which the proletariat would destroy the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. Similarly, structuralists
and structural-functionalists argue the decline of the aristocracy was determined by long-term structural elements of society, though criticise the class analysis of Marxist historiography.,  In addition, these theories state that elements of a complex system work together to coexist and create
stability. However, the aristocracy’s decline demonstrates that this is often not the case, for the introduction of new parts to the system, such as the Industrial Revolution which contributed to the aristocracy’s decline, disrupts the equilibrium
that structuralist theories stress. Norman Gash (1989) emphasises the role of the Industrial Revolution and its singular ability to create wealth and skills through meritocracy, and the urbanization of an expanding population this caused. Gash also echoes the argument Bush makes concerning the ‘embourgeoisiement’ of the aristocracy,
although goes further, presenting the controversial case that the apparent wealth divide in Britain is ‘too stark and too artificial’.
Instead, he argues that ‘an immense and complex gradation of classes and incomes stretched between the very rich and the very poor’
with vertical lines of demarcation running through both demographics. Barrington Moore Jr. (1966) argues a number of conditions are needed for a Western-style democracy, namely a weakening of the landed aristocracy and its independence and a ‘revolutionary break with the past’, prerequisites highly relevant to the state
of British society and the aristocracy during the Nineteenth Century, and will therefore be investigated during this investigation.
The subsequent sections will attempt to argue and debate the subsequent value of such interpretations
in an analysis of the decline of the British aristocracy. This enquiry will first consider the political aspects of the aristocracy, why it became politically obsolete, and their subsequent retirement, bringing an end to aristocratic statesmanship. It will
then deal the various financial and economic aspects of the aristocracy and the concurrent context, and how this caused their decline. Finally, this study will look at the changing morals of the Victorian era which challenged the aristocracy’s previously
unopposed behaviour. The focus of this enquiry will be based around the validity of the argument that the aristocracy ‘voluntarily retired’ from political governance, while the aristocracy’s prestige and wealth was overrun by the evolution
of radical political, social and economic thought. In addition, this enquiry will take on aspects of a structuralist and structural-functionalist perspective, as well as using the approaches of sociocultural evolutionary theory, to analyse the validity of
these arguments in question regarding the decline of the British aristocracy and its transition to a ‘spent force’.
According to Robert Lacey, ‘the dawning of mass democracy brought into being a new sort
of popular power which could make the possession of title, money and even land quite irrelevant’, thus putting politics at the centre
of the debate regarding the decline of the aristocracy. The European revolutions of the late-Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century resulted in a realisation within most of an uneasy British aristocracy of the need for a transition of a patrician-dominated society
to a more democratic system in an increasingly volatile world, in which they could one day find themselves in a situation similar to that of the French aristocracy – destroyed and non-existent force, rather than merely spent.
In 1819 Britain, The Six Acts, introduced after a series of mass demonstrations, banned meetings of more than fifty people in one place and clearly showed a desperate measure by a desperate and terrified government intent on keeping democracy and the
great unwashed at arms length. The government could not see how there could be change without revolution; how there could be democracy without aristocratic superiority evaporating.’
Demand for change continued
though and the fear of revolutionary unrest caused by a lack of democracy still triggered a growing demand for parliamentary and electoral reform. Prior to the Reform Act of 1832, the Anglican cleric Sydney Smith wrote ‘the country belongs to the Duke
of Rutland, Lord Lonsdale, the Duke of Newcastle, and about twenty other holders of boroughs. They are our masters!’
Rather than a spent force, such an assertion evokes the idea of a dictatorship of the aristocracy as opposed to the dictatorship of the proletariat, as socialists and Marxists advocated. However, this ‘dictatorship’ is ominously reminiscent of
the situation just prior to the revolutions of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. In fact, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were active in London during this period, and were likely to have had influence on the number of radicals and corresponding societies
calling for reform based on the principles of socialism, which would have undoubtedly called for the removal of the aristocracy, perhaps through force. Engels confirms this use of force is at the heart of the apparent class struggle, arguing ‘the aid
of which [the use of force] social movement forces its way through and shatters the dead, fossilised political forms.’ The idea of
‘dead, fossilised political forms’ is a sinisterly apt description of the aristocracy in view of its age and archaic nature as a system. This demonstrates the absolute necessity of the Reform Act of 1832 not only for the democratisation and survival
of British society, but ironically for the survival of the British aristocracy as well, for the only alternative to becoming a spent force were the propositions of Marx and Engels.
Despite the apparently positive statistics
attributed to the Act, 95 per cent of the population still could not vote. In addition, the Act failed to address many important issues,
and failed in the areas it did address. A major unintended consequence of the Reform Act of 1832 and the later reform acts, was that it may have bolstered the aristocracy’s presence in Parliament, as they were the only ones could afford the property
qualifications and large campaigning costs needed to vote and stand as an MP. This effectively created a form of timocracy. This highlights the importance of the dispersion of landed wealth in politics, and the fact that the aristocracy had much of their power
imbedded in property means that lesser degrees of timocracy were sustained until the reservoir of wealth was opened. This was achieved in 1909 with the People’s Budget which taxed the nation’s richest and invested revenues in radical social welfare
programs, for as Associate Justice Louis Brandeis once professed, ‘we may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both., 
This ineffectiveness of the Reform Act is echoed by a number
of historians who argue that true reform only began to make any significant impact after the Reform Act of 1867, such as E.A. Smith (1992) who notes that ‘when the dust had settled, the political landscape looked much as it had done before’. Judging by the minute increase in the working class electorate it certainly seems to be a fair and valid assumption.
Famed constitutional theorist Sir Erskine May argues that Parliament had become unquestionably more progressive after 1832. Although there seemed to be little change in the composition of the House of Commons in the short-term, there was a shift in the political
stance of aristocrats due to the Reform Act. Many aristocrats moved towards a position of compromise, while maintaining their vested interest in status quo, rather than continuing to stir up dissent through crackdown on civil protest. For example, Lord Melbourne
agreed to the Reform Act of 1832, an example of a voluntary concession that would open the floodgates of reform and transition, ultimately resulting in the aristocracy becoming a spent force. Similarly, Eric Evans (2008) claims the Act ‘opened a door on a new political world’ and was the most significant reform act as it was the first, decisive and most arduous attempt to kick-start democracy
during aristocratic dominance, and was therefore the biggest blow to the political force of the aristocracy. Nevertheless, he claims that the Act failed when it gave the aristocracy an additional half-century’s control of Parliament, a significant postponement
of their ultimate decline. Regardless of the conflicting interpretations, the origins of these events can be traced
back to the rise of the political philosophy and ideology of classical liberalism – the dawn of ‘a new sort of popular power’
as Lacey argues, and its triumph with Reform Act signified a ‘revolutionary break with the past’, as Moore Jr. suggests, presenting
the aristocracy with a bleak future.
This political future could be argued to have ended with the Parliament Act, 1911, which established the dominance of the House of Commons, replacing the Lords’ ability to veto
money bills with the ability to only delay public bills by two years. The Lords passed the bill under pressure from the Liberals who threatened to flood them with artificial Liberal peers, many of whom had noble descent, or were worthy enough to receive a
hereditary peerage. Therefore, it seems that the aristocracy throughout the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries has valued purity of their class over diminishment of their power, highlighting their gradual acceptance and reduction in resistance that would eventually
become voluntary in nature when opportunities for individual aristocrats became threatened. The Peerage Act of 1963
encapsulates this idea political ‘voluntary retirement’, for it gave aristocrats the opportunity renounce their titles and return to the House of Commons, regaining influence as individuals as argued by James, but bringing an end to the remaining aristocratic privileges, thus illustrating the aristocracy as a political ‘spent force’.
Throughout the period
investigated, the aristocracy was the single biggest owner of land – the most valuable resource available, with 66.14 per cent of land held in estates in Britain in 1880. This is echoed by Gash (1989) who argues, ‘land, rather than title or ancient lineage, constituted the real and permanent aristocratic power in British society and politics.’ With such massive ownership of land, the aristocracy was the proprietor of a large percentage of the population, creating an often volatile landlord-tenant relationship, the aristocracy’s dependence
on which would ultimately bring about their downfall.
The issues that arose from this relationship were evident in the case of Irish landlords, such as the 2nd Marquess of Clanricarde, who had his estate and hereditary
peerage confiscated by the government after his sizable tenantry revolted after his oppressive landlordship. Like the
process of democratisation that began in 1832, this example was the culmination of agrarian agitation that began with the Irish Land Act of 1870, which like the first reform act, ‘failed, at almost every point’ according to J. C. Beckett, but also states that it ‘marked a decisive advance towards a solution of the agrarian problem’. However, A. G. Porritt highlights the continuing political power of the aristocracy and peerage, noting the Act was ‘amended into ineffectiveness by the House of Lords’. Nevertheless, F. S. L. Lyons aligns with Beckett, also arguing it had ‘a symbolic significance far beyond its immediate effects’. It is therefore apparent that the aristocracy’s passage towards becoming a political and financial spent force was rooted merely in a challenge to its hegemony, regardless of usefulness, which acted as a springboard
for effective change through legislation. In addition, although the Act was an example laissez-faire legislation favouring capitalist landlordism, which was in line with the classical liberal concept of minimal state intervention; it was a defeat
for the classical liberal concept of absolute right to property.
This highlights the growing challenges to the ideals of classical liberalism, namely the urban population’s unescapable poverty and the land and labour
agitation that private property created. The principles of social liberalism, namely increased state intervention to protect the rights and opportunities of all citizens, were a reaction to these challenges, and despite the failure of the 1870 Land Act to
implement principles of tenantry security, social liberalism grew significantly towards the end of the century, despite resistance from the aristocracy which prevented these principles from being realised by gradual changes in thought. Therefore, it could
be argued that the aristocracy’s decline sped up significantly as increasingly middle-class governments moved to guarantee equal economic opportunities, something that had failed to be addressed throughout the previous century in regards to challenging
the aristocracy. For example, the Wyndham Land Purchase Act of 1903 tried to readdress tenantry inequality, effectively ended aristocratic landlordism by making land redistribution much simpler, facilitating the transfer of 9 million acres of land to 75 per
cent of the tenantry of Ireland by 1914. Later, more radical legislation also occurred including the People’s Budget of 1909, which
addressed the wealth imbalance between the aristocracy and lower classes through an increase in taxes which severely dented the effectiveness of primogeniture in maintaining wealth across generations of aristocrats, contributing to their financial decline
in the early-Twentieth Century., 
This crackdown on the aristocracy is in contrast to the 1815 Corn Laws which protected aristocrats and landowners against deflation of agricultural prices due to increased foreign imports, at the expense of the riled public.
As the traditional landlord-tenant relationship became less profitable as a means of income, agriculture became increasingly important for the aristocracy.The financial depression of 1873 which sparked the ‘Long Depression’ of the second
half of the century which severely affected British land and agriculture, therefore naturally concerned the aristocracy as well, for even by 1830, the aristocracy still had a majority of British agriculture produced on their land. Roy Douglas (1976) and Niek Koning (1994) argue that this financial crisis which inflicted permanent damage to the aristocracy, was due to a proliferation of free trade, and a subsequent increase in competition
from foreign agricultural products., In particular, they cite that the price of British wool, grain and red meat fell under the pressure of foreign imports,,  all products which the aristocracy themselves produced and sold. This pressure that began to mount in the mid-Nineteenth Century was due to the repeal of the Corn Laws due to public discontent with high cereal
prices.,  The repeal
illustrates once again the triumph of economic liberalism and free trade, for it reduced import duties, further reducing the competitiveness of aristocratic agriculture and the purchasing power of the aristocracy in general, indicating their transition to
a financial spent force. However, the realities of the ‘Long Depression’ contradict this however, for the crisis resulted in the widespread abandonment of free trade in Europe, with many governments emphasising domestic industry and business, including
that of the British aristocracy, suggesting a less severe downturn for aristocracy as implied by Douglas and Koning.
Neoclassical economist Irving Fisher (1933) questions this explanation however, by means of his debt-deflation
theory, arguing that aristocratic debts in the 1870s caused a financial panic in creditors, resulting in a mass liquidation of fixed assets
to pay off these debts. This caused in a rise in interest rates to compensate for the reduced capital in circulation, and a deflation of prices including those of agricultural products, both mounting more pressure on the debt-ridden aristocracy.,  This decline originated from
within the aristocracy in the form of debts from their extravagant, decadent and ambitious lives had created, ultimately causing them to become a financial ‘spent force’. However, Ben Bernanke (1995) criticises Fischer’s theory in that the
while the aristocracy would have been worse off due to asset liquidation, creditors would have been better off, therefore the net effect should have been zero.
In theory therefore, the aristocracy, despite being significantly less wealthy, would not have suffered the supposed aftermath of their debt liquidation, suggesting this theory’s disputed validity as an explanation for the aristocracy becoming a financial
Another aspect that has to be considered when analysing whether the aristocracy became a spent force, are the moral challenges the aristocracy were presented with. The ascension of the morally astute Queen Victoria
began a transformation of socially acceptable norms, causing the aristocracy’s behaviour to be increasingly scrutinised.,  This is in contrast to the era of Georgian decadence, during which the loose morals of the aristocracy were more acceptable. In addition,
a number of social and religious commentators of the period led this new moral vanguard, including the prevalent Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon, who once proclaimed in a speech, ‘God is never indifferent towards sin. If, therefore, a man is not in
a state in which God can justify him, he is in a state in which God must condemn him!’,  Such a comment almost suggests a crusade against the aristocracy, illustrating the growing pressures on the aristocracy’s behaviour wielded by heavily influential institutions such
as the Church, which too had evolved, resulting in a decline in the aristocracy’s social, although often not legal exemption.
An obscure scandal of the late-Eighteenth Century was that of William Byron, 5th
Baron Byron, a murderous aristocrat who desecrated and destroyed the family estate of Newstead Abbey, in response to his son’s decision to marry his cousin. Biographer Phyllis Grosskurth brings the scandal into context, claiming the ‘Wicked Lord’ (as he was known) epitomized the profligacy and irresponsibility not only that of the Byron’s, but also that of
the landed classes as an establishment. Although the ascension of Queen Victorian in 1837 changed public perception
of the morality of society’s patricians, the aristocracy’s legal exemption as was wielded in this example, one of its most prized and traditional of privileges, was not eliminated so easily.
By 1889, the situation
had changed, despite the lingering exemptions the aristocracy enjoyed. Britain now expected more responsibility from the aristocracy, and had a tangible stake in the country regarding suffrage, meaning, according to J. Foster (2010) and Anna Clark (2004),
they felt a moral duty to scrutinize the nation’s elites.,  Nevertheless, the 1889 Cleveland Street Scandal, which implicated a number of aristocrats visiting a homosexual youth brothel in London, demonstrated that their behaviour was perhaps, unfortunately
for the aristocracy, the aspect that was most stubborn in holding onto Georgian exuberance, although according to H.
Montgomery Hyde (1976) such a scandal was destroying the aristocracy by the late-Nineteenth Century through their moral degradation as an establishment. None of the implicated aristocrats were charged, and there is strong evidence to suggest the Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, a throwback to aristocratic conservatism, was heavily implicated in the ensuing conspiracy and
cover-up, illustrating not only the inability of common law to prosecute those traditionally deemed above it, but also the continuing importance of political influence in many areas of life the aristocracy found themselves threatened in. Nevertheless, subsequent
legislation of the early-Twentieth Century which was effectively crippled the aristocracy’s political and financial power, illustrates that the ability of the aristocracy to wield political power unjustly in their favour had come to end after the Cleveland
Street Scandal, perhaps indicating that this event signified the aristocracy becoming a political spent force thereafter, despite not having any direct infringements on the aristocracy’s political power. The repute of aristocrats such as Benjamin Disraeli
and the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury challenges Hyde’s position that the aristocracy were destroying themselves, for Disraeli and Shaftesbury were more popular and well-known to the general populace for their public services than those visiting
homosexual brothels. Therefore, the aristocracy’s behaviour seemed to become less shocking, highlighting the diminishing respect society’s exclusives were held in, perhaps due to their shortcomings exposed in scandals.J. Davies supports this idea,
arguing that once aristocratic reputation had become a spent force, the aristocracy could be exploited and used as a political tool to ‘further civic dignity’, for as the Marquess of Bute once wrote: ‘They only elected me as a kind of figurehead’,
illustrating how the process of exploitation had come full circle – the exploiters had become the exploited. This not only reaffirms the end of aristocratic political dominance and its effective clout, but also the end of their social prestige and dignity,
which once was regarded as at the heart of the British aristocracy, was now used as a political campaign tool, a force spent and manipulated by others.
In conclusion, this enquiry has investigated a number of concepts that
have been linked to the decline of the British aristocracy and its description as a ‘spent force’. Although the structuralist approach to this enquiry has declined in popularity among contemporary academics, it nonetheless appears that recent analysis
of this subject has overemphasised the role of primary causality such as political legislation, without investigating the wider and more profound sociocultural evolution which caused it. Therefore this enquiry has focused on the rise of classical and social
liberalism during the time period as an aspect of the theory of sociocultural evolution to explain the British aristocracy’s decline. The British aristocracy has demonstrated a considerable adaptive capacity through the idea of ‘voluntary retirement’
and other concessions, and consequently they themselves have contributed to the description of their class as a ‘spent force’. However, the enquiry maintains that labelling the aristocracy as a ‘spent force’ by 1920 is not entirely
valid or accurate, although this depends significantly on whether the aristocracy is being viewed from a comparative perspective with the rest of society, or the current state of the establishment in isolation. Although historians have developed much understanding
about the history of the British aristocracy, logically, prospective research into this area of British social history must investigate the future of Britain’s established elite and landed classes. However, the study of Britain’s modern aristocracy,
in some people’s opinions, may already be at an end, for as Peregrine Cavendish, 12th Duke of Devonshire laments ‘The aristocracy is not dying. It's dead’.
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