The reader will excuse my manners, for it is not often that I am disappointed to the point of disgust, but when it does happen, it tends to rear its head in three distinct stages: first anger, then sneer and finally, despair. Having put off a response for long enough, the passing of those three stages meant that I could finally put “pen” to “paper” and release this review to the public. The Labour MP for Rhondda, Chris Bryant, has had a new book published a little earlier this year: Entitled: A Critical History of the British Aristocracy. Being a student of historical disciplines myself, I was rather interested, not least due to the very title itself: “a critical history”. Huzzah! I thought to myself, for here is a book which will at last examine the pros, cons and grey areas of the long and distinguished (if muddy) history of the British aristocracy. Perhaps I should have known that I would be disappointed, not so much because of my own biases, if only because the book has been written by a Labour MP, and the use of institutions such as aristocracy as a social scapegoat and personal gripe has become something of a tradition since the Blair years if not long before. Here then begins an analysis of the critical truths behind the not-so-critical history of a not-so-critical “historian”.
The first problem of note is that Mr Bryant appears to be unaware of what critical history actually is as a discipline. Perhaps it is the word “critical” which has led him astray, given its modern connotations. We may forgive him for his obvious misconception, but it is a fatal misconception nonetheless. To be critical in the study of history is not to hurl wanton criticism at a topic, but rather to analyse it carefully and diligently. To be critical is to fulfill the etymology of the word: from the Greek, krités, meaning “judge”. A critical history fulfills a similar role to the judge and jury in a court of law: to look at the empirical evidence for the positive and negative impacts of a particular issue, and come to a judgement. Just as in many legal systems, that judgement need not be black and white. It is just as possible to have a verdict “unproven” as it is to have “guilty” or “not guilty”. Unfortunately, Mr Bryant seems unaware of this. Instead, from the beginning of his work, his own predisposition is clear: the first thing the reader sees on turning the first few pages is a quotation from Tom Johnston a 20th century socialist activist and journalist (those notorious purveyors of historical truth!), accusing the aristocracy of theft, violence and fraud. Remind me not to invite Mr Bryant to join the Queen’s Bench any time soon, something tells me he would make for a poor arbiter.
The actual body of the text lends itself more to self-satire than to meaningful discussion. The Introduction to the work begins with a dramatic retelling of Henry Beresford, 3rd Marquess Waterford and his friends’ drunken romp through Melton Mowbray in 1837, hurling red paint over the policemen who attempted to stop them—the origin of our term “painting the town red”. A curious story, and one which Bryant makes clear is intended to provoke moral outrage in the reader; and indeed it would do, if Bryant did not immediately mention, almost glossing over the fact, that the Marquess and his hooligans were brought to justice, and promptly fined for the damages they incurred. A sorry instance of criminal damage, shameful for a nobleman indeed, but one for which he was punished as the law stipulated. I had to re-read the introduction a few times to make sure I was reading it correctly. A man commits a crime and is punished—”Huzzah!” Thought I, here was an example of common law it its greatest, not even this drunken Marquess could escape proceedings. But alas, there was no respite from the barrage of accusation and moral manoeuvring.
Bryant hasn’t even properly begun his treatise before he accuses the British aristocracy of habitual haughtiness, greed, jealousy and ostentation. High charges indeed, reinforced by his strange choice of a historical starting point—the Anglo-Saxon Witan and the rulers of England before the Norman conquest. Throughout the ensuing sixteen chapters, Bryant weaves a grand narrative which portrays the British aristocracy as an example of a great pan-national conspiracy stretching from the age of Bede to the age of Blair, to which the Labour Party’s House of Lords reform was a much-needed death-blow. Today, apparently, we are still oppressed by this ever-extant class of authoritarians, the majority of whom, we are led to believe, habitually avoid tax and appear to hate contributing towards their home country. No wonder they feel that way, what with all the vitriolic hatred and crystalised manure that Mr Bryant and his supporters deems fit to hurl in their general direction. Somehow, I doubt that a system of privilege that was mostly based on a Germanic tribal bellicose culture, which was almost entirely displaced by the Normans in 1066, has much to do with modern tax-dodgers. Perhaps, however, Mr Bryant has finally proved me wrong on this—requiescam meam causam.
The general theme of the book, in short, is that we should be morally outraged by our aristocracy and we should be pleased to be almost-completely rid of this age-old club of charlatans. Indeed, the book’s very tagline is:
“The riveting story of arrogance, corruption and greed, the defining characteristic of the British ruling class.”
Mr Bryant would seem to have us think that he is doing us a service in the process of our liberation. Indeed it is true, the British aristocracy has had its nasty moments. Many of its members have by no means kept their hands clean in the course of its long history, but to offload the guilt of characters like the Marquess of Waterford’s actions on the present generation of disenfranchised nobles? It seems cheap at best and cruel at worst. Arrogance, corruption, greed. Sounds filthy, sounds gossipy. For that is what this book is—a chronicle of salacious public gossip from 700-2017 AD. It doesn’t take much genius to realise that arrogance, corruption and greed are the defining negative characteristics of human nature, and that every government in the history of mankind (our present government most certainly not excepted) has fallen foul of them at some point. Append demo- to the -crat of Mr Bryant’s chronicle, however, and the possibility for moral outrage seems to fly out of the window of possibility. Never mind the fact that many other aristocrats were outraged themselves at the immorality of some of their fellows at different points in our history; never mind that it was aristocrats behind some of the greatest social reforms in British history (Lord Shaftesbury, remember he?). Never mind that for many working class people at the end of the 19th century, certain members of the aristocracy were their only champions under Disraeli’s “Tory democracy”. For Bryant, figures like these, however good their intentions, may as well have been complicit in the great conspiracy to stamp the boot of authority in the British public’s collective face.
I also find it rather amusing that it should be Mr Bryant who is publishing this latest exercise in moral one-upmanship. We’ve all done things we regret, we’ve all fallen foul of our Fallen nature at some point—but please, Mr Bryant, as a man who trained to be a priest but gave it up on account of your sexuality, you should know that one should only ever be honest about oneself. For a man who makes such a big deal out of his Christianity, and the fact that he, like straight couples, can have a committed marital relationship with his gay partner (Bryant and his partner conducted their civil partnership in the Houses of Parliament), the fact that he was caught seeking anonymous sexual encounters online in 2003 muddies the waters a little bit. It’s not my place to comment on someone’s personal life of course, but I wonder whether one can be seeking committed relationships whilst also seeking one-night stands. When you look at it that way, Mr Bryant doesn’t come out all that much better than some of the aristocrats whom he accuses of immorality.
It’s eye-wateringly ironic that individuals such as Bryant, educated at an independent boys’ school and then recipient of an arts degree at Oxford should pour such bitter fire and brimstone upon the people who also thrived off the exact same. Mr Bryant is probably correct to highlight many of the historical problems with British aristocracy as he does—there are many lessons which need to be learnt—but one cannot help but cringe at the writing of his book. Brimming with what can only be described as a painfully self-indulgent “holier-than-thou” attitude and a love for all things “ekwality”, it is no wonder that Mr Bryant is primarily known for being political small fry once caught with his pants down in public, rather than as a public intellectual bringing his “critical history” to the masses.
3 / 10
Chris Bryant’s writing style is clear and it is not difficult to discern his meaning, but critical history this is not. If he had titled the book “My Opinion on the British Aristocracy”, he would have come out of it better, if it were not for the fact that his opinion is actually rather poorly formed, even by a modern politician’s standards. Expect a predictable bias on every page.