Political book club: Entitled

Published 30 October 2017

As well as being MP for Rhondda, Chris Bryant’s an accomplished nonfiction writer, with several publications under his belt. His latest book is Entitled: A Critical History of the British Aristocracy, with ‘critical’ being the operative word.

As you might expect, this is no nostalgic romp through the age of chivalry, nor an esoteric tale of upper class eccentricity. This is a damning account of the social and political dominance enjoyed by the British aristocracy for centuries - and of the extraordinary and sometimes pernicious lengths they have gone to to preserve their position.

“Their nobility was not earned, but intrinsic, inherited, in their blood. Yet their defining feature was not a noble aspiration to serve the common weal, but a desperate desire for self-advancement.”

Bryant is certainly not pulling punches. From the Anglo-Saxons to the present day, Bryant explains how a handful of families gained such wealth, power and prestige and how they maintained it through the generations.

We learn about the bloody exploits that have propped up noble families through the ages, including the extent to which the aristocracy funded - and reaped the profits of - the African slave trade. As Bryant makes chillingly clear, many of Britain’s most beautiful and treasured stately homes were built with fortunes amassed through one of history’s greatest atrocities.

Bryant’s account also does not shy away from discussing the contemporary manifestations of the aristocracy and the cultural inheritance this institution has left us. Hearing about the antics of Henry Beresford one rowdy night in 1837 - following a day at the races, he and a group of boozy friends stormed through the town of Melton Mowbray vandalizing buildings, assaulting locals and causing hundreds of pounds worth of damage - the parallels drawn with the Bullingdon Club are not accidental.

This is a partisan account to be sure, but the thoroughness of Bryant’s research combined with his direct and engaging style makes this an eye-opening and enjoyable read. Incidentally, this is an opinion shared by both Owen Jones and Jacob Rees Mogg, and if nothing else, it’s worth reading just to discover the topic on which those two individuals could agree...

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