Why Was the Aristocracy Widely Perceived to be in Crisis in 1880-1950
For centuries the aristocracy had remained Britain’s ‘ruling elite’, a few ruling families dominated the social, economical and political spheres. Yet by the 1880’s, as the question suggests, this commanding grip looked to be under threat and thus bringing the aristocracy into crisis. A crisis is often defined as a turning point, a time of acute trouble or danger. Can this definition be rightly used to describe what occurred to the aristocracy post 1880? And what or/and who caused this ‘crisis’ if there was one?
Perhaps the most obvious sign of the aristocracy in crisis was that from the late nineteenth century land had begun to lose its political influence and financial security. Since the advent of Feudalism the peerage and the land had been undeniably linked, but all this changed in those seventy years (1880-1950). Being part of the ‘landocracy’1 was no longer enough in this time of changing opinions and conditions against the old ruling elite. Less landowners made it into the peerage, the post-1880 governments favouring merchants, lawyers, the nouveau rich.
Also, there were less landowners in the House of Commons to promote into the House of Lords. The breaking up of the great estates though not a rapid event hails from the agricultural depression of the 1880’s, and despite a few upturns the market never really recovered till after the Second World War. On average, wheat fell from 50-55 shillings (pre-1880) to just 22 shillings in 18942, and if prices were low then rents had to be lowered too. Though this depression had varying effects on landowners throughout the country.
For instance the Duke of Northumberland was less hard hit than those who possessed arable land, as a good deal of his land was pastoral, and so therefore his finances were not crippled by the agricultural depression. Also many of the aristocracy benefited from their land in other ways other to farming, many gained revenue from mines, and property development, perhaps one of the most famous of all was, the Duke of Westminster. Though these alternatives could not make the ownership of land worthwhile. Several Land Acts at the turn of the century also encouraged landowners to sell to tenants.
The greatest and quickest transformation occurred in Ireland where ‘Landlordism’3 by the 1920’s was almost wiped out. The greatest sales of land took place during the years between wars, and by 1950 it is estimated that one-half of farms in England and Wales were now owner occupied. The trend was clear that the effect of the Wars had brought the aristocracy into crisis and forced them to consolidate by selling their estates. After all the year 1919 was nicknamed the ‘year when Britain changed hands’4. Post 1880, also saw the clearance of other asserts owned by the aristocracy in order to maintain itself in this new hostile society.
Surely the selling one’s once treasured heirlooms, like the land illustrates a class in crisis. This act also demonstrates the aristocracy in decline as the premier keepers of art, and more importantly a decline in status, which was a vital part of the aristocracy. The ownership of land had also suffered unlike before, as it had now become part of a global economy. Whereas previously the landowners had had a monopoly on the nations economy, they were now under threat from cheap grain from such places as far away as the plains of America and on the continent.
This threatened their very livelihood and added to the decline of importance for land. The introduction of Death Duties in the 1894 budget spelt ‘crisis’ for those aristocratic families who suffered with successive deaths of heirs. It could mean the selling of whole estates and the wiping out of the link between landownership and the aristocracy. By 1948, the duty was raised to seventy five percent on estates over one million pounds. Such big names as the Derby’s and the Devonshire’s suffered successive deaths and by the end of it the Devonshire’s had i?? . 5 million owed to the chancellor5. The extent of the number of those forced to sell estates and vast acres of land indicated a clear trend in the dramatic decline of the landed ruling elite in just seventy years. The turn of the century also saw the introduction of the so-called ‘super tax’6; a twenty percent duty on land values when estates changed hands. The liberal need to assert the difference between an earned income and those on an unearned income had again made the aristocracy crisis, and highlighted the changing attitudes towards the aristocracy.
Status, had for a long time been the mainstay of the old aristocracy, it was the way they conducted most of their business from marriages to political allegiances, but this too had come under threat from the 1880’s. The decline in the importance of land had played a major role in creating a social crisis for the old elite. The advent of the noveau riche, created by the industrial revolution and included such as newspaper and railway magnates. They threatened to dilute the social exclusiveness of the aristocracy by ‘buying’ peerages from the government by making heavy donations to the party in power.
This and the lure of big money and intermarriage made it impossible for the aristocracy to rule or defend as a class. They were to become rivals of the old elites, not only fighting social their social exclusiveness, but also for their political power. The decline of the aristocracy in British politics highlights a turning point in their history. Though this miraculous change did not occur overnight as many of the aristocracy had the advantage of not being distracted by such trivial matters such as professions.
The election of 1880 brought back 394 patricians 7; even into the inter-war years the some of the aristocracy had been less effected in political power and wealth as expected8. The aristocracy’s survival in the House of Commons was greatly prolonged by the initiation of women MP’s, like the Duchess of Atholl the MP for Kinross. Though its survival was impressive if looked at from a widely context the aristocracy’s attendance in the Commons had been severely weakened by the 1880’s, when compared to say that of 1865. The rise of Liberalism had seen a want to ensure the demise of the old ruling elite in the Commons.
By 1885 the aristocracy had ceased to be the majority for the first time marking a turning point in their political history. Between the years 1880 and 1939 there was a total of seventy-four non-landed millionaires in the Commons, the plutocracy had arrived in British politics at the expense of the aristocracy. By the start of the First World War the House of Commons had changed from the ‘rule of the noble’ to the ‘rule of the rich’9. In the Lords, they faired slightly better and for slightly longer, though their days were numbered.
It too saw the rise of such plutocrats as Beaverbrook, Astor and Atholstan. The change of composition and the decline of the old ruling elite from the House of Commons had a dramatic effect on what occurred in the Lords; after all it was the House of Lord’s largest recruiting ground. From the 1880’s, the peerage was increasingly used to reward those for merit and who made large party donations, not family connections. Liberal attacks from the Asquith government also threatened to make the Lords impotent of power and thus put another nail into the aristocracy’s ‘political coffin’.
The Lords, for the aristocracy though faired somewhat better than for them in the Commons as ‘a bastion of territorial exclusiveness’10, the dilution by the new wealth and changing ideas on the role of the aristocracy had meant the old ruling elite had been in crisis since the 1880’s, and had failed to recover thereafter. Even the Cabinet could not secure the aristocracy’s place in the running of the country. For the first time in the 1880’s the aristocratic cabinets were criticised for being alien to the needs of ordinary people.
Crisis was to arrive with the turn of the century. In 1895 there were 12 landowners in the cabinet, but by 1935 there were only two. This time also saw the Conservative party no longer willing to protect land and landowners, another sign of the inevitable decline for the aristocracy in British politics. There were no aristocratic Prime Ministers from 1905 with the resignation of Balfour, to 1940 with the election of Churchill, and even he was half American11. By this time and after the role of the aristocracy in the Cabinet was more a fai?? de than a genuine attempt to continue in power. Politics had become more professional than just a family obligation within the seventy years. Many aristocracy could no longer afford to dabble in politics and with rising hostility against them they, like Napoleon from Moscow, made a final tactical withdrawal form government politics altogether. Thee aristocracy was ‘widely perceived’ to be in crisis from the 1880’s onwards because the power by which they dominated for centuries spiralled into decline without them being able to prevent it.
Key factors like the rise of Liberalism (inspiring a change in attitudes) and the growth of capitalism (and thus new areas of wealth) meant that the archaic principles of Feudalism, which had protected the aristocracy for so long, were no longer viable. The term ‘crisis’ is justified in this instance, due to the pace at which the aristocracy declined politically, economically and socially, a mere seventy years. It was a disaster for the old ruling elite, from which they are unlikely ever to recover.
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