The idea of a homogeneous, nation state is a comparatively recent development in history. Originally, mankind organised itself into a few empires, a herd of city statelets and a myriad of tribal lands with simpler cultures sprawling across the globe.
States that advanced accrued power, which they exercised over those that did not. Prior to the mid-18th century, the most successful organisation of government to best achieve this was a rigid (and therefore stable) hierarchy, consisting of:
- a hereditary potentate ruling over…
- an elite of nobles who, in turn, controlled…
- a mass of peasant workers and soldiers
Flawed though simple class hierarchy may seem, it worked, leading to a variety of increasingly developed civilisations from Cuzco to Beijing to Delhi to Venice.
Half a millennium ago, the Spanish and Portuguese turned maritime adventure into an inflow of wealth by tapping into the riches of the Americas and Orient,. Thus wealth served mainly to enrich the upper class. It was not invested to catalyse development, nor to benefit the lower class masses. As elsewhere, noblesse oblige was a rarity..
Other Europeans tried to get in on this lucrative act, with France, the Netherlands and England having the geography and maritime technology to do so. The French and Dutch soon elbowed into the lucrative Portuguese spice trade with the Indies. The English started—with their Queen’s blessing—by plundering Spanish gold on its way home from the Caribbean. Though ennobled later, captains like Drake, Frobisher and Hawkins were brigands who set the tone for much of subsequent English exploitation of global trade opportunities. In colonising North America and the Caribbean, their plantations soon thrived on a trade in sugar and tobacco. What choked rapid growth was insufficient labour among colonists and indentured servants available.
The Portuguese ‘solved’ their labour problem by rounding up Africans from explorations there and transporting them to Brasil as slaves. The English soon followed, as James II & VII founded the Royal Africa Company. The RAC became so proficient that the largest portion of the 12 million Africans shipped to the Americas were transported by them and English plantations boomed.
The English also came late to the East with their East India Company. Competition on the spice trade was fierce, so they approached the Mughal Empire to permit modest trading posts on the Indian coast.
The EIC operated very different from colonisation elsewhere. The Mughal Empire was at its peak, more sophisticated in culture, manufacturing one quarter of the world’s goods. It was in no way inferior to that of the Europeans. Unlike in America, here respect, patience and humility were essential for success. EIC ‘writers’ (clerks) and merchants learned languages, adopted customs to trade cotton, calico, silks and indigo. The only aristocrats involved were investors and directors back in London.
Meanwhile, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 brought Protestantism, William III, and sophisticated banking to England from the Netherlands. Flexible access to capital accelerated economic growth: plantations and ambition overseas: factories to process the goods and canals to distribute them.. The revolution became industrial.
New wealth enriched the whole king/noble/peasant model, But it was split between the aristocracy and anew middle class of business men inserted below them.
A wealthy middle class challenged the aristocracy, never historically ones to relinquish prestige, wealth and the power they conferred. They did not meet this challenge head-on, but in five more subtle ways:
- invested in these new enterprises.
- restructured the land holdings they had, enclosing common lands, adopting methods of the agricultural revolution, like mechanisation and day hiring.
- exploited their estates for industry, building mines, factories, canals and railways of their own.
- built country mansions to impress, surrounding them with ornate parkland few could afford.
- circled their wagons linguistically by developing speech as an indelible badge of noble rank.
This last may seem inconsequential, but has proved to be the most durably effective.
For years, aristocracy and peasantry in each area of Britain all spoke a local dialect in common. But in the 18th century, English aristocracy developed a speech unique to them, known today as ‘received pronunciation’ (RP) or standard or BBC English. It is defined in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary as “the standard accent of English as spoken in the South of England”.
But it has a strange distribution. The vast majority of Southern England speaks a variety of dialects—Cockney,, Dorset, ‘Zummerzet’, and so on. RP occurs in this are in pockets: Belgravia; Oxford; Tunbridge Wells; Cheltenham. But it occurs still in pockets all across Britain, some as small as a country estates, some as large as Harrogate or St Andrews.
All accents have a range of intensity from mild to abrasively unintelligible. Broad Scots has a terrible reputation but most people find David Tennant or Nicola Benedetti pleasant to listen to. Similarly, the RP spoken by Helen Mirren or Jeremy Irons is mellifluous and engaging.
But, before getting there, RP went through a century or so of being the medium of authoritative command that expected obedience, at worst becoming a braying drawl that the Scots deride as “bools in the mooth”.. Remains of this exist to this day. Decent chap though he is, Jacob Rees-Mogg MP verges on the incomprehensible and quite deserves his moniker of “Member for the 16th century.”
Class distinction by accent blossomed the 18th century becoming a rigid pillar of society by the 19th. This was underpinned by elite education. Choice public (i.e. very private) schools—Eton; Harrow; Winchester; Sevenoaks; Charterhouse, Westminster and few others—dinned stiff upper lips as much as knowledge into would-be patricians. It was boot camp without the rifles..
Thus groomed, few outsiders could penetrate the ‘old boy’ network that resulted. To them as such, doors opened, careers bloomed—for the more adept as directorships; judges, bankers; civil servants.
For the less adept and younger scions of nobility, the Army, Navy and colonies offered more risk, but more rewards than staying home. Those who survived often became generals, admirals or governors. But. no matter the career followed, effortless, mannered superiority inculcated at school carried them through with the same authority.
By 1800, a linguistically unmistakable aristocrats had seen off middle class ambition for equality. Now it was now hard to tell where any of them hailed from; Kent or Cork, Sussex or Sutherland. All spoke an affected RP”. See almost any British film from the 1930s for reference.
At first, RP was seldom heard in the colonies, where stropily classless pioneers, artisans ad indentured servants were not given to forelock-tugging. India was distinct, with no colonists and just a few merchants clinging on under Mughal suffrage..
Then came Robert Clive.
Taking advantage of unrest in the rich Moghul province of Bengal, he used a stunning victory at Plassey to annex the place in 1757. This changed everything.
Despite Warren Harding’s best efforts to restore amity, a Bengal colony, driven purely by profit led to the serial pillage of others. The repatriation of eye-popping loot (an Indian word that came to English from this action) instigated by Clive continued over the next fifty years.
Prime Minister Peel sought to curtail excesses by posting aristocrats like Cornwallis, Wellesley and Dalhousie as governors tried to moderate actions as callouslt predatory as the slave trade in Africa. But they were steeped in class ascendency, amplified by racial bias of other British colonies where non-whites formed a slave class below even the peasant/working class. The idea of humble supplication to the Mughals was intolerable. The Moghul Empire’s fall was hastened by through EIS perfidy which learned to play its factions off one another to seize its riches.
So pernicious was this and subsequent treatment of Indian sensitivities, culture, language and taboos so disdainful that the 1857 Mutiny seems inevitable. The brutal suppression that followed brought a direct takeover by the British crown.
The leadership of a series of Viceroys under the Raj was paternalistic racism, peddled both in India and at home bringing enlightenment to the benighted. It was taken as axiomatic that, only when the Indians learned English, wore proper clothes and imbibed Shakespeare could they become civilised. To cling to the Qu’ran or the Bhagavad-gītā was to stay mired in the primitive past.
In the 1820s, Macaulay and Trevelyan started imposing English language, Englidh law and arrogant attitudes. The Raj built magnificent residences, exclusive clubs, polo fields and tennis courts. Pith helmeted white nabobs each dominated the lives of millions for the next century.
Under the Viceroy stretched a hierarchy of collectors and other administrators, who lived like lords, with a houseful of servants from factor to the punkah-wallah who pulled the fan. The complex Indian caste system was ignored and submerged beneath the lowest white sahib.
An objective observer might think that two world wars, Indian independence and the economic decline of Britain would have eroded its aristocracy and its identifying accent. But not a bit of it. While aristocracies across Europe crumbled into historic irrelevance, the English variety has survived, retained power as mandarins in key callings.
As when threatened by an upstart middle class, they have adapted. In the swinging sixties, Tory governments were still peppered with peers, bowler-hatted gents crammed the Waterloo & City line; debutante ‘coming out’ balls glittered; the Duke of Westminster still owned most of Mayfair and Belgravia.
In our egalitarian age, initiative, enlightenment and success are to be welcomed. , no matter what their starting point. But the inbred culture of a dew thousand English aristocrats have ruled the roost across Britain throughout centuries of transformation that sank their less adaptive peers elsewhere
Today, the old school tie may be less obvious, but RP still predominates where it matters. There is obviously still good reason why it worth paying £45,000 a year to attend Eton and the rest; is an investment, not an expense.
With a mere 7% of children in Britain attending public school, only 10,000 at the ‘good’ half-dozen, is it not amazing that, a half century beyond the end of empire, they still groom:
- 62% of senior armed forces officers
- 63% of diplomats
- 50% of the House of Lords
- 55% of Junior Ministers & 35% of the Cabinet
- 55% of Permanent Secretaries
- 53^ of newspaper columnists
- 56% of public body chairs
- 71% of senior judges
- 44% of the Sunday Times Rich List
- 54% of the Top 100 Media Professionals
It’s democracy, Jim—but not as we know it.