Friday, 10 February 2012

The Downton Manoeuvre: where DO the Tories get their ideas from?

You may have noticed that the Tories have floated the idea of letting the super-rich off some of their taxes in return for employing more servants. No, really! As if the rich don't already have enough money, most of it hidden from the Revenue in any case.

It's a mad idea economically: that a modern economy with 60 million citizens can be heaved out of recession by employing a few more maids and butlers. It's offensive too: it indicates that the landed gentry running the government really believe that Britain's salvation lies in returning to Downton Abbey, where contented servants tug their forelocks in gratitude to the Master's generosity. No doubt the sub-minimum wage salaries will be enhanced by a few eggs and the left-overs from banquets. The ultimate in thoughtless trickle-down economics.

However, there's more to this than meets the eye. Although the inspiration is supposed to be a stupid rightwing Swedish tax break, the idea rang a bell in the recesses of my weird little mind.

Come with me on a journey to the outer fringes of the confused, weird and sinister 1930s British aristocracy…

After the depression, most European countries spawned fascist or neofascist political groups: the New Party/BUF in Britain, the laughable Blueshirts and Greenshirts in Ireland, the Nazis in Germany, Action Française and others - loads of them, some successful, others not. We're familiar with the most famous groups, but there was a multitude of groupuscules out there, competing for ideas and space. In Britain, many of these anti-democrats rejected Mosley's fascism - too European, too violent, too political, too proletarian, too urban (according to some, too Jewish!).

Out on the fringes, an agrarian, environmentalist, medievalist movement stirred. Some of them were utopian idealists who fell in with the wrong crowd, amongst them the Kibbo Kift, whose themes of organic, 'natural' communities soon saw them associated with racial purity movements. Starting off innocently, their naive concern for stability, static communities, independence and purity led in small steps towards a much more disquieting set of beliefs.

The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift parade in their clan, tribe and lodge divisions

Others, like the Catholic-inspired Distributivists were concerned with social order and called for the return of Guild practices and a peasantry protected and nurtured by a true aristocracy. Democracy of course was out, but an organic link to the land (which implicitly excluded migrants, the urban and Jews in particular) and a total distrust of finance (those pesky Jews again). From these origins came the rightwing element of the modern environmental movement: members owned rather a lot of England and wanted it to stay green and pleasant.

Amongst the groups urging this return to a quietist English fantasy were the English Mistery and its successor, the English Array, led by Gerard Wallop, the 9th Earl of Portsmouth and Viscount Lymington. Like many of the hyper-nationalist English aristocrats of the day (including Churchill and the Astors), he was half-American and spent his early years in the US, a product of the Victorian-Edwardian aristocracy's importation of heiresses in return for titles.
Banner of the English Mistery

The English Mistery believed that only those who had a long-standing and large stake in English society truly possessed the wisdom required to organise a country - the landed gentry, who would protect an obedient peasantry and maintain the monarchy's prestige against foreign (ironic, given the monarchy's recent origins), Jewish, urban and socialist attacks - it was very similar to Action Française's authoritarian, hierarchical neofascism, though lacking the numbers to be anything more than a Tory ginger group.

Poster for the English Mistery - beautifully illustrating their concerns

Lymington's leadership meant that the Mistery had a degree of respectability: he gathered around himself a motley crew of peers, authors and environmentalists: Rolf Gardiner of the Kibbo Kift was a member, as was Colonel Seton-Hutchinson, later exposed as a Nazi spy. Amongst the ideas they promoted, funding the aristocracy to employ (or shelter, as they saw it) many more servants was a key idea: that way, the working classes wouldn't be subject to the vicissitudes of the coal market, for instance. Organic food and farming were also important: naturally better and requiring more workers - the movement refused entry to women and openly espoused the virtues of benevolent feudalism. They weren't the only ones either: the aristocratic, pro-Tory, pro-Mussolini British Fascisti - who viewed the BUF as upstart commoners - got there first (thanks for reminding me, Simon)

The English Mistery collapsed in the mid-30s, to be replaced by the English Array, attracting plenty more well-known people, such as Edmund Blunden, AK Chesterton (who edited Lymington's New Pioneer) and his Catholic-Distributivist group. Lymington and his supporters, though never making a big impact as a group, utilised their aristocratic network to become leading members of the wider WW2 government, founded what became the now irreproachable Soil Association and other early green groups (alongside former fascists such as Jorian Jenks), and took political and administrative posts under Churchill. Lymington ended up in the pro-Nazi British People's Party and eventually emigrated with lots of other unpleasant aristocrats to Kenya.

The central tenets of the Mistery, the Array and their allies were: an essential link between 'pure' English blood and the soil (key to Aryan German politics too); feudalism; anti-democracy; distrust of finance (which they associated with Jewry); hatred of socialism; a deep and abiding faith in the inherited wisdom and benevolence of the aristocracy.

It's probably a coincidence that David Cameron, a multimillionaire aristocrat and George Osborne, a multimillionaire aristocrat who will inherit a Baronetcy, are proposing a silly policy first dreamed up by some deluded maverick toffs in the maelstrom of the Dark Decade. But that doesn't mean that there's no link between them. These two are directly descended from the circles which formed the Array and the Mistery. They share a deep faith in aristocratic values and contempt for the poor ('benefit scroungers'). Their political mission is to persuade us that they are indeed the 'natural' ruling class, in whom we should put our trust: this is why ideology is rarely mentioned in Conservative discourse. Instead, the narrative is about tradition and benevolence. Our role is to obey, not to question. Despite the modern finance-led economic positions they take (there's certainly no anti-Semitism left), the current Tory leadership is firmly within the tradition of aristocratic patronage.

Do your patriotic duty: become a butler.


Dan said...

That photo of the Kibbo Kift seems strangely familiar. The long Grebo shorts, the home made effigies... Ah, reminds me of camping out as a teenager.

The Plashing Vole said...

Now you mention it Dan, you are prime Kibbo material!

Anonymous said...

I had not been aware of the 'English Mistery', but find all of this is really interesting, particularly the name.

'Mistery' (in legalese) typically speaks of trade between business entities and legal fictions. So perhaps the 'English Mistery' is just an old fashioned way of saying UK PLC.

The Plashing Vole said...

Thanks for that - I've never thought of that aspect of its meaning, but it makes sense: these people were all thinking of Mussolini's Corporate State, so the name must reference that at least as much as the spiritual/medieval spelling of mystery.