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