Review of Sir Peregrine Worsthorne’s In Defence of Aristocracy (2004)

by TBG

Review of Sir Peregrine Worsthorne’s In Defence of Aristocracy (2004)
A society which favours bonds instead of blood is a society given over to radical change and potential dissolution

By TBG Editorial Collective

            Sir Peregrine Worsthorne cut an interesting figure postwar British political journalism. Viewers of a certain voice will recall his sui genesis appearances on After Dark and other programmes. Worsthorne possessed a mellifluous voice, pinstripes and those particular Tory wings of hair over each ear. Such accoutrements suited his position as long-time assistant editor and subsequently editor of The Sunday Telegraph. As such, Worsthorne strove to continue the paper’s tradition as a quality newspaper of traditionalist conservatism. In this, he was rather successful until becoming a casualty of Conrad Black’s relentless championing of Thatcher’s Mancunian neo-liberalism. According to the late Tim Bell of Saatchi and Saatchi and Gupta notoriety, Baroness Thatcher once referred to Sir Peregrine Worsthorne as “Silly Perry’. Readers of Worsthorne’s last book In Defense of Aristocracy will certainly realize why she both gave him his knighthood and this rather dismissive nickname. This long tract attempts to provide a defense of aristocratic presence within the British government and also an elegy for a world now past. However, it proves rather a curate’s egg as was Worsthorne during his long career.

            Worsthorne’s own background perhaps illustrates his own idiosyncratic ties to the British establishment and its transformations over the course of his life. His father was a Belgian banker and general, General Alexander Lexy Koch de Gooreynd and his mother was a daughter of the seventh Earl of Abington. His Father anglicised his surname to Worsthorne and both of their sons were raised as Roman Catholics. Worsthorne’s brother Simon served as Lord-Lieutenant of Lancashire from 1976 to 1997. His parents divorced when he was five and his mother subsequently married Montagu Norman, who held the Governorship of the Bank of England. Such a background is not uncommon to those with SW1 postal codes in that Worsthorne possessed connections to both the aristocracy and the City. While not holding a peerage personally, he knew many people that did. Such a social tier is remarkably British in character and this unfolded in its manifestations during Worsthorne’s life. He was sent off to Stowe rather than Eton and then matriculated at Peterhouse where the Master was then Herbert Butterfield. Wartime service followed in 1943 with an assignment to Phantom during the Italian campaign and latterly a posting in bombed-out Hamburg. The end of the war resulted in his return to Peterhouse where he was given a Second degree and then a resultant career in journalism.

            Worsthorne began in 1946 with The Glasgow Herald and subsequently The Times before securing a position at The Daily Telegraph. While at The Times, he served as a foreign correspondent in Washington, D.C. during the McCarthy hearings. Worsthorne unlike others within the British establishment educated at Cambridge never had to defend himself against insinuations of Communist sympathies or outright treason. He was many things but never associated with the Cambridge Five. Such activities were unfathomable to his mind; which had been tempered by a sense of duty and responsibility to the Realm. However, such seeming patriotic rectitude was undermined by incidents of appalling behavior as described in his memoir Tricks of Memory. While stationed in Hamburg, he slept with a woman whom he’d bribed with his food rations and then turned away the wounded and outraged German soldier who showed up at the door and rightly claimed to be her husband. Spoils of war perhaps but hardly the kind of gentlemanly bearing that Worsthorne claimed to cherish. Despite these personal failings, he emerged as one of the most prominent Tory journalists of the postwar period but one without the high intelligence of the blind and Double-First awarded T.E. Utley. In many respects, Worsthorne epitomized the best that Fleet Street had to offer. Well-dressed, good for a byline and a quip, deeply knowledgeable on international affairs and British society but possessed of a willingness to cut corners when it suited him.

            Such a journalist frame of mind evinces itself in A Defense of Aristocracy. Worsthorne both praises the British aristocracy while also waffling on such measures as reinstitution of the hereditary peerage. The work articulates a rather plaintive note for the decline of aristocratic influence in politics but fails to provide serious policy recommendations for its return to former vigour. However, he does make convincing points as to the vital role of the aristocracy in Great Britain’s success as both a nation and an empire. The work is quite Burkean in its tone but of course Burke was a Pittite Whig rather than a Tory and a journalist rather than a statesman. This echoes within Worsthorne’s own manifesto in which he defends the hereditary peerage as a distinct national patrimony of tradition, memory and the repository of sound leadership for the nation. Yet he will also favorably contrast Stowe’s educational ethos with that of Eton. He writes that the latter wished to primarily educate the sons of the hereditary peerage and gentry while inculcating nouveaux-riche City offspring that their social betters knew best. Stowe’s educational philosophy focused instead on producing a gentlemanly meritocrat who would staff the Civil Service or prominent banks. Worsthorne focuses on the Stowe graduate Sir Nicholas Henderson as exemplifying the qualities that the school wished to produce in its graduates. In many respects, such a worldview demonstrates Worsthorne’s own class background and perhaps class anxieties. 

            For Worsthorne, there exists no defence of rule to right based upon blood or Norman conquest. Rather, the British aristocracy must continually demonstrate their merit in order to deserve their positions within national leadership. This was representative of a moderate Conservative party position under Thatcher with her Ladyship’s insistent defense of the hereditary privilege within the Upper Chamber. However, it ought to be noted that she only elevated one man to the hereditary peerage during her eleven years and this was her bête noire Harold Macmillan. The Tory peers in the Lords supported her government but grew increasingly wary of rude boy behavior in the City, the rise of Essex Man and American tycoons rapidly buying out older British firms such as Alfred Taubman’s takeover of Sotheby’s in 1983. Within Worsthorne’s supposed defense of aristocracy runs a strong meritocratic streak that undermines the claim of the book’s title. Within this extended peregrination, there appears the sense that aristocrats must always strive to prove their worth to the masses. And if so, is there really aristocratic government at all? Prior to the French Revolution, the values of right to rule based upon blood were accepted and understood by the ruling classes of Europe. For instance, the Prussians had the Stände class structure in which there existed concrete tiers of deference and social obligation. Worsthorne reminisces a British collective identity similar to this but undermines it with the argument that the British aristocracy rightly allowed for easier entry by enterprising financiers eager to gain social prominence for their sons. Worsthorne witnessed this over the course of his life with American and Saudi millionaires settling in Belgravia and sending their children to both Stowe and Eton. Over the course of the twentieth century, British aristocratic culture became commodified with both upper-middle class Englishmen and foreigners eager to buy in. He never realized that such a system possesses all the inauthenticity of a Ralph Lauren advertisement or a Harrod’s window shop display. 

            It is this qualification of aristocracy by meritocracy that ultimately produces the sour taste in the curate’s egg. Certainly noble and gentry British families have produced wastrels and men of poor character from time to time. However, this was balanced by noble families whose sons greatly contributed to the life of the nation and served in high politics. Here, Worsthorne’s Burkean inclinations bubble up like a spring within his manifesto. He adopts the Burkean position that “new blood” is required via transfusion into the nation’s ruling class. However, the question must be asked as to why the “old blood” lacks vigour; especially as it is refreshed every generation by the next holder of the title. Useless fathers often produce worthy sons and the converse also holds true. Worsthorne never directly answers this criticism within the work and it is quite possible that it never occurred to him. He also remains curiously quiet on the question of life peerages, which Enoch Powell judiciously opposed as an adulteration of the Upper Chamber by careerist politicians. However, Worsthorne does caution against the British ruling class becoming fossilised by comparing to the American WASP ascendency in the mid-twentieth century. In this, he echoes E. Digby Baltzell’s 1964 sociological study The Protestant Establishment. This comparison proves both facile and false in its simplifications and pro-American sentiment.

            In 1951 Worsthorne was posted as foreign correspondent for The Times to Washington; where he witnessed and approved of the McCarthy hearings. This sojourn allowed him opportunity to survey the American class system and its various shibboleths. Earlier in adolescence he had spent time in Maine as a summer guest of a very prominent Social Register family. His recollection rings rather hollow because of his false comparison between the British aristocracy and the American White Anglo-Saxon plutocracy. He noted that the British upper classes possessed a far greater paternalistic sensibility and while jokes about the pronunciations and habits of the working classes would be uttered, there was no deep hatred. Worsthorne unfavorably compared this to the WASP elites hatred of Irish, Italian and Eastern European immigrants. Yet his descriptions of America are streaked through with praises of its supposed meritocracy. This proves another false note due to a fundamental misconception of the United Kingdom and the United States. The latter has always been a plutocratic society without titles and landed nobility. Despite the efforts of Boston Brahmins and the vain First Families of Virginia to claim to be American aristocrats, this is simply a contradiction in terms. Worsthorne fails to realize that plutocracy only arises due to money and without it, such supposed elites are the same as the masses. Additionally, a plutocracy is tied to finance capital and has little if any sense of an organized ethnic community. Great Britain is a kingdom which up until recently possessed a homogenous population. Sociobiology and common sense teaches us that people feel more kinship with their neighbors when they are from the same race as themselves. Add into this the Church of England as the kingdom’s legally codified confession and a shared sense of noblesse oblige within the nobility and a kingdom exists. America in contrast had an Anglo-Saxon plutocracy that undermined its own finance-justified right to rule via mass immigration and the resultant social transformation. Worsthorne understood the contradiction between WASP belief in meritocracy and their prejudices but bizarrely tries to show the superiority of this plutocratic class both before and after the war. The result amounts to America adulation which has no place within either a traditional Britain or a defence of the nation’s aristocracy.

            This muddled thinking also expressed itself in Worsthorne’s own view of the declining British empire. He initially supported Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence but found himself alienated by Ian Smith precisely because of Smith’s own petit-bourgeois and colonial background. This is simply high-bourgeois snobbery against a patriotic British colonial who felt a genuine sense of imperial and cultural loyalty to the United Kingdom. Worsthorne’s feelings towards the Rhodesian defence minister P.K. aan der Byl were also mixed. He wrote that he liked van der Byl on a personal level but felt that van der Byl had a fascistic streak within his character. One suspects that this is a degree of performance on Worsthorne’s past after the fall of Rhodesia in order to distance himself from its controversies. Van der Byl cut a remarkable and fashionable figure in both Salisbury and London but he cannot rightly be accused of fascist sympathies. He had served in the Hussars during the war and his father was part of Jan Smuts’s government. Despite being Cape Dutch, he was loyal to the Crown during the war and did not join the Afrikaner Ossewabrandwag. Additionally, the insecurities in Worsthorne’s background would have run up hard against van der Byl; who can rightly be claimed as one of the few commoners with the breeding and cultivation to be able to marry into aristocratic circles. Indeed, as Mugabe’s guerrillas advanced into Salisbury and Kissinger plotted the country’s downfall, van der Byl married the niece of Archduke Otto von Hapsburg. Despite their faults, both Ian Smith and P.K. van der Byl proved far more naturally capable of being gentlemen than Worsthorne.

            Indeed, it is precisely Worsthorne’s vivisection of both meritocracy and gentlemanliness that undermines his thesis. Within In Defence of Aristocracy, he criticises the Thatcher Government for its unleashing of unbridled City avarice and use of relentless state power against the miners. However, he also writes that financial leaders within the City ought to be given knighthoods and peerages in order to provide new blood to the decaying upper classes. If they were guilty of greed and showed no sense of national community, then the obvious question is why they should be awarded such hereditary honours? This is the glaring contradiction within Worsthorne’s tract and he never satisfactorily answers it. One can only wonder what Worsthorne privately thought of the 1911 Cash for Honours scandal during Lloyd George’s premiership and the more recent echo of this under Tony Blair in 2006 and 2007. If dilution of the Peerage is done for profit, then the caricature of a wartime spiv purchasing a coronet seems only too clear. A society which favours bonds instead of blood is a society given over to radical change and potential dissolution as it loses precisely the unguent that made it strong. Men and women of character from all social classes contribute to the health of the nation but tradition and family bonds matter. Perhaps Worsthorne forgot the lines in Troilus and Cressida:


“O, when degree is shak'd,

Which is the ladder of all high designs,

The enterprise is sick! How could communities,

Degrees in schools, and brotherhoods in cities,

Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,

The primogenity and due of birth,

Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,

But by degree, stand in authentic place?

Take but degree away, untune that string,

And hark what discord follows! Each thing melts

In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters

Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores,

And make a sop of all this solid globe;

Strength should be lord of imbecility,

And the rude son should strike his father dead;

Force should be right; or, rather, right and wrong—

Between whose endless jar justice resides—

Should lose their names, and so should justice too.

Then everything includes itself in power,

Power into will, will into appetite;

And appetite, an universal wolf,

So doubly seconded with will and power,

Must make perforce an universal prey,

And last eat up himself.”


In all fairness, Worsthorne’s In Defence of Aristocracy is worth reading for traditionally-minded Britons but lacks clear principles and often evinces a rather juvenile sensibility. Worsthorne simply articulates his own class anxieties that began with family background and the fact that he went to Stowe instead of Eton. There is nothing wrong with being upper-middle class except if it creates anxiety and resentment against social superiors. Ultimately, Worsthorne was rather a Pittite Whig rather than a Tory and this appears as a distinct leitmotif through both In Defence of Aristocracy and his own life’s ambit. One gets the sense that Worsthorne made indeed have felt a sense of envy towards both Ian Smith and van der Byl because although all three were commoners, the latter two were respected by men of all social classes precisely because of their characters. In Defence of Aristocracy is very much of its time and lacks the sound wisdom of experience found in Lord Sudeley’s Peers through the Mists of Time. Patriotic Britons would do well to read Lord Sudeley’s book for a more nuanced and thorough defence of the hereditary peerage. In so doing, they would understand an authentic perspective by an aristocrat of the land and one with sound thinking.


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