I studied in Australia for many years, where the parliamentary system is modelled on the UK’s. I still remember my housemate and I would actually bother to watch the early morning news just to snigger at the mutual contempt spewed across both sides of the House. Here in London, I rarely bother to watch PMQ’s except for that familiar dose of cynical comedy. I’m not a supporter of any political party because I don’t know enough about them. But I confess that Ed Miliband’s fiery response to Chancellor Osborne’s 2012 Budget was most entertaining to watch. It was not necessarily inspiring or “statesmanlike”, but it did have a certain force behind it.
Later on, I read a piece by Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian about what Conservatives are most terrified of: not an opposition in high morale, or even urgent, widespread protests to their most controversial policies. No, what they fear most is the inescapable perception that they are a closed, rich boy’s club, a party for the wealthy and their interests. And I think part of the power of Miliband’s response was his carefully calculated and explicit likening of the Tories to the family of Downton Abbey: a circle of out-of-touch millionaires born into privilege and power, but inept at exercising it. By portraying them as such, the Conservatives look like a regressive gang who look at Downton Abbey as a blend of nostalgia and historical truth. It was a joking insult; it’s impossible that Miliband really believed that the Tories see the drama as a fly-on-the-wall docu. But he was interested in hitting a weak link in Tory public relations.
…blue blood in England is much older than capitalism or democracy…
Downton Abbey is the most recent and probably the most popular in an on-an-off, mainly Anglo-American interest in noblesse oblige. The state of nobility obliges one to be noble in personality: those who are born fortunate enough to never have to worry about the basic necessities of life (and are raised in opulence and social capital) have a duty to work for the benefit of those less lucky than themselves.
Yes, the attitude is patronizing, as the Earl and Countess of Grantham would insufferably be if they lived in this day and age, but it is not malevolent. Forgetting even the idea that British and London politics should be one of an unbiased democracy, noblesse oblige runs deep through antiquity, medieval, and even modern history. The institution of blue blood in England is much older than capitalism or democracy in Great Britain. The conflicted Crawleys are part of a reluctant consensus of national self-understanding much more deeply rooted than any of the political parties, influential though the latter have been in the last two centuries of democratization and liberalization.
Downton Abbey is part of a perfect storm…
Part of the anger that even some readers of The Telegraph and the Daily Mail are feeling about the Cruddas scandal is that policy itself is seemingly “sold” to those wealthy enough to pay for dinner with Mr Cameron, while the Budget is feared to hurt the vulnerable and protect the people who are most capable of protecting themselves. This is a narrative that Labour is trying to push, with varying degrees of success. But more viscerally, Miliband is trying to indicate that the time-honoured tradition of noblesse oblige – what the powerful and wealthy owe to the common person – is being repeatedly compromised at all levels by this Government. Downton Abbey is part of a perfect storm involving the weakest links of public perception and popular media. In the big scheme a popular drama doesn’t matter much in politics, nor does Miliband’s hyperbole. But their minor roles in this escalating conflict are fascinating to say the least.