I just heard Ari Shapiro on NPR report on an effort in Britain to “modernize” the aristocracy by allowing women of the nobility to inherit the titles and estates of their fathers. Most titles currently preclude that. No one on the show mentioned the most obvious step to modernity, which would be to abolish the titled aristocracy altogether.
There was a time when the battle against sexism and the battle against the aristocracy were thought to be one and the same. No more. As Lady Liza Campbell, one of the aggrieved heiresses-in-waiting, told Shapiro:
Nowhere should girls be born less than their brother. Yes, it’s the aristocracy. You may want to hold a peg over your nose. But it’s still sexism. You can be an atheist and support the idea of women bishops, I think.
It’s easy to pooh-pooh and laugh at this sort of talk, but as I argued in The Reactionary Mind, one of the chief ways the right defends itself against the left, and preserves its privileges more generally, is to borrow the tropes and tactics, the memes and methods, of the left. Sometimes this borrowing is self-conscious and strategic; other times, it happens unconsciously. Railing against their antagonists, or acting in a world their antagonists have created, the defenders of privilege find themselves mimicking the language, adopting the arguments, of their antagonists. Often without even realizing it.
As if to prove my point, Campbell tells Shapiro at the end of the report that if she and her comrades are not able to change the practice in Parliament, they will take their cause to the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg. As if it were the most natural thing in the world for a member of the British aristocracy to press its case before an international human rights tribunal. Edmund Burke, meet Tom Paine.
Speaking of Burke, Campbell’s comment reminded me of that moment in Burke where he drops all talk of little platoons and local tradition and starts insisting that the aristocracy reinvent themselves as “citizens” of Europe. So “sympathetic with the adversity or the happiness of mankind” should counterrevolutionary Britain be, he writes in the Letters on a Regicide Peace, that “nothing in human foreign affairs”—and certainly nothing in the affairs of revolutionary France—would be “foreign to her.” Were the counterrevolution to think of itself in this way, he sighs dreamily, “no citizen of Europe could be altogether an exile in any part of it.” And the aristocracy might just have a fighting chance of preserving itself.
Aristocrats of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your…shame.