Book review: Entitled
Labour MP Chris Bryant hammers away at the ruthlessness and greed of the aristocracy in this no-holds barred critique.
Chris Bryant is a feisty Labour MP and former minister. He is also an author and his most recent work was a two volume history of Parliament which read as he normally speaks in the Chamber.
Entitled is a polemic with emphasis on the sub title "a critical history of the British Aristocracy". The author is well read and has consulted widely both archives, memorabilia and secondary sources. As he explains in his introduction: "This book is an attempt to explore and explain that sense of entitlement; that conviction, running through the ages, held by a tiny proportion of society that they have an inherent right to rule, to do what they will, to lard it over others and to receive special treatment and privileges".
Chris Bryant’s book spans the period from the seventh century to almost today. There is a good case to be made about the aristocracy, and indeed Professor David Cannadine has done so.
The problem with Entitled is that this is a no-holds barred, shot gun approach to a fascinating and important subject. There is no attempt to show the complexities of the development of the aristocracy beyond their greed, their ruthlessness and their eccentricities.
According to the author his study sees four key themes emerging. First, an insatiable craving for wealth and property, second, the politics of
jealously; third, pride and fourth an ostentatious display to be seen to be wealthy.
It is the violence of Chris Bryant’s language that is likely to put off the more sensitive or inquiring reader. Aristocrats are condemned en masse as "avaricious", "insatiable", "struttingly prided" and "phenomenally self-serving". There is no attempt to show how there were differences within the aristocracy, and how many families lived up to a reputation as good people who helped to advance, political engagement, the arts and science.
The author has been criticised for failing to give gender a reasonable mention, although this reviewer believes that criticism has been overstated. It is true that women were excluded from the House of Lords until 1958, but there is an irony that the first life peeresses were a leading social scientist, the founder of the Women’s Voluntary Service, a prison reformer and childcare expert.
In his unrelenting criticism of the aristocracy Chris Bryant hammers away at their ruthlessness and greed to explain their power and longevity. What he fails to draw out is that the British aristocracy was porous, and despite the challenges of the War of the Roses, life under the Tudors and the French revolutionary era they had allies and accomplices, drawn from the gentry and the middle classes, and a sizeable portion of the working class. The latter was important in explaining the success of the old Tory Party before the First World War.
This book is a polemic and suffers from it. There is no doubt that Entitled will appeal to those who hold similar views, and to Chris Bryant’s horror the eventual paperback will do well on Momentum book stalls.
Entitled is published by Doubleday. Keith Simpson is Conservative MP for Broadland and books editor for Total Politics.