Forget Harmless Eccentricity, the Aristocracy Still Wields Enormous Unaccountable Power

Monarchy and aristocracy are often considered as a single entity by the British public, whether positively or negatively.  Yet they are two very different animals.  Aristocrats have a love-hate relationship with the monarchy. They hate it because it has historically been a rival for power, privilege and wealth.  In fact many aristocrats have been republicans and that remains so today, though their vision for a republic is slightly different to mine! Conversely, the aristocracy love monarchy as it takes the high profile flak and provides ‘top cover’ for their activities in return for a little bit of pomp and dressing up a few times a year.

Though not being a fan of the City A.M. publication, often finding its articles superficial, one feature published last week nevertheless demonstrated the point about the continuing power of aristocracy. Writing about the vast areas of London owned by a few very old families it stated:

This select group has several significant players. The Grosvenor Estate, owned by the Duke of Westminster, manages Mayfair and Belgravia; the Cadogan Estate, owned by the Earl Cadogan, has Chelsea; the Portman Estate, owned by Viscount Portman includes fashionable Chiltern Street north of Oxford Steet (sic); while the Howard de Walden Estate, owned by the Howard de Walden family, is its neighbour on nearby Marylebone High Street.

I blogged about the Duke of Westminster tax rouse on his Grosvenor Estate when considering the undemocratic nature of investment ptential in Britain. As might be imagined, the aristocrats have their own lackey supporters for this state of affairs who cite ‘long term stewardship’ and ‘tasteful development’ as justification. But let’s look more closely at this 21st Century version of feudalism.

Back in the 1860s newsagent W.H. Smith set up a shop in Sloane Square. In 2004 they complained about their treatment by the Cadogan Estate when their lease was terminated and they were told to leave the premises after 136 years. Meanwhile, elsewhere in Sloane Square the Oriel brasserie was a local exclusive restaurant, mostly famed for its high prices.  Following a meal he didn’t care for at the establishment Earl Cadogan summarily decided to close it down, despite protests from the locals.  The Independent reported the situation as follows:

An Old Etonian, Charles Cadogan said that he “didn’t like the food and the prices were too high”, adding: “I can tell you that we won’t be renewing their lease when it expires …. We are going to have a new development there.”

Autocratically trashing business without any accountability is one issue. Perhaps not many blog readers will shed a tear for simply one shop in a major chain or a restaurant for the wealthy. But aside from the principle of the matter there is also the distorting effect on local democracy, as brought into stark focus at Grenfell. In this Guardian article Anna Minton looked at local authority registers of hospitality which detail some of the interaction between politicians and these feudal relics. In particular she points to Nick Paget-Brown, the erstwhile leader of Kensington and Chelsea who resigned following the tragedy at Grenfell.  In just one week Paget-Brown

..had breakfast with the Grosvenor Estate, the global property empire worth £6.5bn, and lunch at Knightsbridge’s Carlton Tower Hotel. This was paid for by the Cadogan Estate, the second largest of the aristocratic estates (after Grosvenor), which owns 93 acres in Kensington, including Sloane Square and the King’s Road.

Maybe if Paget-Brown had spent less time with the wealthy in expensive restaurants and more time considering the needs of the poorer of his constituents the disaster may have been averted.

In Britain we need to recognize that the old aristocratic families are not some sort of harmless eccentric relic from the past but exert real unaccountable influence on our daily lives wherever you

My Paper to the Shelley 2017 Conference on Reclaiming His Radical Republicanism

I had the great honour in September to present a paper on the radical republicanism of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and how it influences my political activity.  I reproduce it here.

Reclaiming Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Radical Republicanism

1.  Introduction

A number of works have analysed Percy Bysshe Shelley’s (PBS) poetry from a proto-left viewpoint (e.g. Paul Foot 1981*). This paper, however, considers the issue of Shelley’s radical political philosophy with specific attention to Republican principles.

Clearly, PBS could have known nothing about socialism or communism. So any analysis based solely on these principles risks misrepresenting fundamental points of his ideology.  Viewing his work within a contemporary setting not only brings his political concepts on liberty into focus but reveals a surprisingly strong relevance to current concepts of republicanism.  Over the past 40 years researchers such as Quentin Skinner have revealed aspects of republican thinking lost to us for two centuries whilst others have set about the task of evolving them for the 21st Century. When PBS was at the height of his powers liberalism was starting this process of marginalizing republicanism but Thomas Paine and William Godwin, amongst others  would have exerted a strong influence on Shelley.

To illustrate the points, the paper focusses on two of Shelley’s poems where the republican vision is most highly developed, Mask of Anarchy and Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things along with the sonnet England in 1819.

2.  What is Republicanism?republicanMag

In popular conception Republicanism has become synonymous with anti-Monarchism.  But its history and development is vastly richer and it is more accurate to characterise it as ‘anti-Slavery’. The seeds date back over two and a half thousand years when the Roman Republic was established following the defeat of the ruling Tarquin Kings in 509BCE. Indeed our modern word is derived from the Latin res publica meaning ‘public matter or affair’.  The early Roman republic bears little similarity to our current idea of Republicanism but we, along with PBS, owe a great debt of gratitude to that great statesman and lawyer Marcus Tullius Cicero (106BCE-43BCE) for codifying the fundamental tenets.  Predictably for a society heavily dependent on slavery it was important to define just what a constituted a free person.  It is this formulation as an individual free from domination which provides a golden thread right from that era, through Shelley’s time to the present day.

The goal of early Republicanism was to establish the political; system which most effectively liberated citizens to protect their city-state. But around four hundred years ago a significant mutation occurred and republicans began to reformulate the ideas of non-domination explicitly in terms of citizen rights.

So how can we characterise modern republicanism? Professor Stuart White of Jesus College Oxford suggests four overarching principles:

1. Individual freedom defined as not living at the mercy or largesse of another (the famous nondomination doctrine).

2. An economic and social environment promoting and serving the Common Good.

3. Popular sovereignty, appropriately inclusive of all citizens and excluding oligarchic rule.

4, Inclusive and widespread civic participation by citizens.

I shall show how each of these principles are present in the works by PBS under consideration. These ideas were radical in the early eighteenth century and, I argue, are still radical today.

3.  Freedom as Non-Domination; Core RepublicanismLibertySlavery

At the heart of republican philosophy lies a definition of freedom as non-domination or the absence of the condition of slavery.  Non-domination is a far stricter doctrine than non-interference which forms the basis of liberal and libertarian ideology. Non-domination asserts that not only must an individual or group be free from arbitrary influence by another, but further, there must be no possibility of such influence. This guards against the benevolent master condition who allows his slaves latitude and possibly wealth, but could change his attitude at any moment. It is in these terms of slavery which PBS grounded his idea of liberty.  So in the Mask of Anarchy we find:

What is Freedom? Ye can tell
That which Slavery is too well,
For its very name has grown
To an echo of your own.

The late Paul Foot in The Poetry of Protest asserted that slavery is economic exploitation. For a republican this is a narrow and incomplete view which fails to take into account the myriad other ways which slavery can occur, for example gender oppression which concerned PBS. Again in Mask of Anarchy we find:

‘Tis to be a slave in soul
And to hold no strong control
Over your own wills, but be
All that others make of ye.

4, The economic and social environmentwordcloud

But republicans do agree with socialists that sufficient economic resources are essential to individual freedom.  At first, however, republicans took a hardline stance.  Cicero, for example, says this in de officiis:

..vulgar are the means of livelihood of all hired workmen whom we pay for mere manual labour, not for artistic skill; for in their case the very wage they receive is a pledge of their slavery.

But as the Industrial Revolution evolved along with the concept of the Free Contract, wage-earning per se was not viewed as slavery in itself but rather the lack of agency to contest the conditions of the contract. This is what concerned PBS and economic hardship is a frequent theme in the works under consideration.

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