Posts Tagged ‘National Trust’

Private Eye on Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd and the Resurgence of the Aristocracy

April 11, 2015

One of the reviews in the collection of pieces from Private Eye’s literary column, Lord Gnome’s Literary Companion, is of Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd’s The Field Book of Country Houses and their Owners: Family Seats of the British Isles from 1988. Massingberd’s a true, blue-blooded aristo, who wrote a ‘Heritage’ column in the Torygraph. In the book, he made it very clear that he stood for a return of the aristocracy, their power and prestige, after years of Socialism as a ‘social restoration’ under Maggie Thatcher. It’s a view that Private Eye took issue with, and put the boot in accordingly.

Despite being nearly thirty years old now, the review’s still relevant. Cameron is a toff leading a cabinet of toffs – George Osborne, the scion of the baronet of Ballymoney, Nick Clegg, and IDS, who is himself a great landowner, even if he isn’t a member of the titled aristocracy. It is a government that has consistently defended and promoted the interests and power of the rich against those of the poor, and made very sure that the rest of us are kept under their heel.

Their welfare reforms, and the massive curtailment of workers’ rights under the Tories have meant that people with a job now live in fear of being laid off, while those fortunately enough to get jobseekers allowance are effectively treated as helots – state slaves – by the self-described ‘creators of wealth’, who then compete for gaining their free labour on workfare.

It’s a restoration of the old feudal order of serfdom, but under the guise of preparing the unemployed for the labour market, and making them sturdy, self-reliant individuals. As the business leaders imagine themselves to be, all the while they’re demanding more tax breaks and subsidies from the government.

And UKIP are no alternative. They’re further to the Right than the Tories and Lib Dems. The vice-chairman of the Kippers in Wales was a member of the Traditional Britain group. These stand for the restoration of the feudal order, the destruction of the welfare state, the privatisation of the NHS, no immigration and positive no Muslims.

The Eye’s review, then, is a pretty prescient description of the attitudes and motives behind this government, nearly three decades later.

Nob Value

Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd has one great qualification for his line of work. When the toffs he writes about – Cruwys of Cruwys Morchard, Dymoke of Scrivelsby, Fetherstonehaugh-Frampton of Moreton, Houison Craufurd of Craufurdland, Foljambe of Osberton, Steuart Forthringham of Murthly – hear that he is on his way, they must feel pleasantly reassured. For Montgomery-Massivesnob is the only hack in the business with a name as ludicrous as theirs.

It has been the making of him. Massivesnob is no detached architecture critic or social historian. He is himself of the class he portrays: his articles are themselves exhibits in the show, if not the main turn. It is useless to wonder whether or not he realizes that this is why the Telegraph employs him. So much reflection is not in the nature of a nob.

Massivesnob writes a column in the Torygraph called ‘Heritage’. This is the persuasive sales word of our time, signifying anything old and agreeable which might form the basis of a day trip. We have even been encouraged to think that there is such a thing as, contradiction in terms, a ‘national heritage’. Somehow we have accepted that being herded around big houses, behind ropes, by self-important matrons means that we are ourselves the true legatees of the aristocracy.

Massivesnob, quite rightly, has no time for this confidence trick. When he says ‘heritage’ he means it: the inheritance of a name and of a house together, by a private family. He has conducted a long campaign to disabuse us of our belief in a ‘national heritage’ and to reassert the rights of the squirearchy. (His insistence on this has, doubtless, been a reaction to his own family house having been made over to the National Trust before his birth.) And he is admirably purist. These reprinted articles from the pre-lifestyle Field are not about great houses – or interesting people. True squires, they have no other distinction than their success at transmission.

That Massivesnob is now in demand to write similar pieces as a ‘Heritage’ column in a national newspaper says something about the times. For years he snuffled away at family trees as the editor of Burke’s Peerage, scribbling too for the country magazines. he joined the Torygraph as obituaries editor. But now his pieces have become more than antiquarian. Hymns to private property are apropos. The landed are richer than they have ever been in their lives – and even council-house buyers are beginning to feel happier about family seats.

Not that any of this is made explicit. Massivesnob’s appearances in print are winningly slapstick. His own ancestors invariably feature – usually his feminist great-grandmother, who tragically turned the family pub, the Massingberd Arms, into a temperance house. And his ‘robust digestion’ also stars, as he caps each visit by putting himself outside ‘a couple of jumbo cold bangers and a glass of iced lemon tea’, or a large helping of treacle tart. The words ‘ravishing’, ‘luscious’, ‘exquisite’ and ‘engagingly feudal’ exhaust his adjectival resource. Two obsessions recur: Lincolnshire, ‘the still undiscovered Lincolnshire’, and cricket, as played between the big house and the village.

The appearance of this buffoon must be entrancing to the proprietors of what he enthusiastically calls ‘the dimmer sort of seat’. Here is someone who sincerely thinks nothing in the world so fine as ‘the proud distinction of being, say, Fulford of Fulford, Fursdon of Fursdon, Kelly of Kelly or Spurway of Spurway’, who, quite fantastically, is as gratified as they are themselves by their own existence.

Any further qualities are beside the point, though squirearchical accomplishments are loyally applauded. Burrell of Knepp Castle’s appointments ‘have included the chairmanship of the North West Sussex Water Board’; Staunton of Staunton is ‘an enthusiastic beagler’; Sir Anthony Milbank of Barningham is ‘an enthusiastic Gun and enjoys fishing’; while Robert Scrysoure Steuart Forthringham of Pourie and Murthly is a wizard with a bow and arrow.

Clearly the social system that supports such accomplishments must be maintained. As Cookson of Meldon, owner of a measly 5,000 acres, somewhat laboriously explains: ‘If the people of this country wish houses such as Meldon to continue to exist as part of the heritage – especially when the occupants are of the family for whom the house was originally built – then more consideration must be paid to them financially to help keep the system in being.’

Absolutely. And it will be, partly because the National Trust, ostensibly a democratic movement, has transformed public perception of what big estates represent. The houses were the pretty part of the whole social organisation; they are the only part now on view; the system itself is thus glamorized by them. For himself, Massivesnob is quite unembarrassed to state that the fortunes of the Hobhouses of Hadspen were founded on slavery.

Conveniently for the National Trust, those who traipse round the houses, or buy picture-books like this, do so in order to fantasize about themselves as owners, not as scullions. Massivesnob, more lucidly, responded to the ‘euphoria’ of the budget earlier this year with an article looking forward to the return of servants, jovially reminiscing about the days when drunken gamekeepers could be shot.

The ‘heritage’ mania has softened us up for a return to inherited wealth. Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd may be a richly Wodehousian figure, but his book, lauding the privately owned, is symptomatic. It is the correlative to Peregrine Worsthorne’s recent articles about the desirability in short of ‘a social restoration’. Come the day, of course, Massivesnob knows where he will be – in his seat again. But the fans of his snufflings seem curiously unaware of where that leaves them: which is sat upon.

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Anthony Sampson on the Meanness of the Rich

April 10, 2015

Anthony Sampson in his book Who Runs this Place? The Anatomy of Britain in the 21st Century has a passage discussing the way 21st century Britain is now far meaner and much less generous than in the 19th century, and America today. The people most willing to give money to charity, however, are the poor. The rich are the least likely and willing to give to charity. He states:

While the rich in Britain have become much richer, they have not given more away. Their incomes relative to the poor have increased, but they feel much less pressed than their predecessors to share their wealth, whether prompted by social obligations or by a religious conscience. The connections between business and philanthropy which were so marked among Quakers and other practising Christians have largely disappeared. ‘As inequality of wealth balloons back to nineteenth-century levels,’ wrote Will Hutton in 2003, ‘there is no sign of nineteenth-century levels of civil of engagement and philanthropy by the rich.’

It is a striking fact that 6 per cent of the British population provide 60 per cent of the money given to charity, but it is more striking that the poor give away proportionately more of their money than the rich. ‘It’s more surprising because the rich can give away without noticing it, while the poor make a sacrifice,’ said one charity chief. ‘But the poor have more empathy with less fortunate people.’

The big corporations have been equally reluctant, and most boardrooms have shown little interest in charities. In 1986 two leading businessmen, Sir Hector Laing, a committed Christian, and Sir Mark Weinberg, and ex-South African, set up the Percent Club to urge companies to devote 1 per cent of their pre-tax profits to charity, but they soon had to reduce the target to 0.5 per cent, and their results were still disappointing: by 2001 the top 400 companies were giving exactly the same percentage, 0.42, as ten years before. A few big corporations stood out above the average. Reuters gave £20 million in 2001, amounting to 13 per cent of its pre-tax profits, which were sharply down. Northern Rock, the mortgage company based in Newcastle, gave away £15 million, or 5 per cent of pre-tax profits. Other big companies provided gifts in kind, rather than money, though they were not always as generous as they looked. (Sainsburys gave away food that was past its sell-by date, which avoided the cost of dumping it in land-fill sites.) Most companies have shown little interest in more giving.

‘Corporate donations … are worth less now than they were in 1991,’ said Stuart Etherington, the chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. ‘Clearly it is time for the government to get tough with the business sector.’ But the New Labour government showed little desire to get tough.

By 2000 the two chief overarching bodies for charities – the NCVO and the Charities AID Foundation – were so concerned about the lack of funds that they approached Gordon Brown at the Treasury. His budget provided major tax concessions to donors – which are now as generous as the Americans’ – and he also helped to finance a Giving Campaign, chaired by the former head of Oxfam Lord (Joel) Joffe, an unassuming but persistent South Africdan who worked closely with Weinberg. The campaigners have had some success in giving more prominence to charity, but donors have been slow to exploit the over-complicated system of tax relief; and the charities are still very disappointed by the response, both from corporations and from individuals – whether entrepreneurs, corporate directors or the million-a-year men in the City.

Joffe, like other heads of charities, is struck by the contrast between attitudes in Britain and America where giving is part of the culture. ‘If you’re rich in America and don’t give,’ he said, ‘you’re regarded as an outcast.’ Americans give on average 2 per cent of their income to charity, compared to the British figure of 0.6 per cent. The British have often argued that their governments have take over the roles of philanthropists in health, education and social services, to which Americans devote much of their giving. ‘People still expect the government to pay for the basic social and artistic causes,’ says Hilary Browne-Wilkinson, who runs the Institute for Philanthropy in London. But the expectation is much less realistic since the retreat of the welfare state and the lowering of taxes, while the rich in the United States remain more generous than the British, and more systematic and effective in attaining their objectives. ‘British charity is more reactive, sometimes responding quite generously to television coverage of famines and disasters,’ says Joffe. ‘The Americans have a more strategic sense of what they want to achieve and plan their giving accordingly.

Many of the American mega-rich a century ago, like Carnegie, Rockefeller and Ford, converted part of their fortunes into foundations which today provide a powerful counterweight to the prevailing profit motive. ‘He who dies rich, dies disgraced, ‘said Andrew Carnegie, who gave away his fortune to finance free libraries and a peace foundation. More recent billionaires like George Soros and Bill Gates, have continued this tradition. When Ted Turner, the founder of CNN television, gave a billion dollars to the UN 1997 he quoted Carnegie and mocked his fellow billionaires: ‘What good is wealth sitting in the bank?’ The rich lists, he said, were really lists of shame.

But there are only a few comparable British bequests, like the Wellcome, Sainsbury or Hamlyn foundations, and most of the old rich feel much less need to commemorate their wealth through charity. The British aristocracy have traditionally seen their main responsibility as ensuring the continuity of their estates and families, in which they have succeeded over the centuries, helped by the principle of primogeniture which allows the eldest son to inherit the whole estate. Their argument can appeal to anyone who values the timeless splendours of the countryside, with its landscapes of parkland, forest and downland which owes much to the protection afforded to large landowners. Old money in Britain has been interlocked with the environment as it has never been in most parts of America, where land is less valued, and where the rich have more urban and nomadic habits.

But the argument is less valid today, when much of the responsibility for the environment has been taken over by English Heritage or the National Trust. Many old families with large estates still have incomes which greatly exceed the cost of their upkeep, and they still have responsibilities to contemporary society. Many of the new rich are happy to follow the earlier tradition, but they are still less encumbered. Most people of great wealth in Britain today show a remarkable lack of interest in using their money to improve the lives of others.

Above all they feel much less need than their predecessors to account for their wealth, whether to society, to governments or to God. Their attitudes and values are not seriously challenged by politicians, by academia, or by the media, who have become more dependent on them. The respect now shown for wealth and money-making, rather than for professional conduct and moral values, has been the most fundamental change in Britain over four decades.
(pp. 346-8).

So the rich have become much meaner, while the poor are the most generous section of the population. Charitable giving has declined along with notions of Christian morality and an awareness of need. People still expect the government to provide, despite the attack on the welfare state. The aristocracy don’t give, because they’re still concerned with preserving their lands and titles. While the new rich are feted by the media and society, simply for being rich, without any concern for morals or charity. And because universities and the media are dependent on them, they are reluctant to criticise them for their lack of charitable giving.

This was inevitable. Modern Conservative ideology was all about greed, shown most acutely in the Yuppies of the late 1980s and 1990s. And because the Tory attacks on the welfare state concentrate on attacking the poor as scroungers, there’s no incentives for people to give to them either. If someone’s labelled a scrounger or malingerer, giving to charities to support them is just as bad as government tax money.

This marks another, massive failure of Thatcherism. She thought that if the welfare state was rolled back, charitable giving would increase. It hasn’t.

Thatcherism has made the rich meaner, and the Tories continue with the same attitudes and visceral hatred of the poor.