"Not the despotism of a prince but the condition of a gentleman was the great object of the French Revolutionary attack," wrote Edmund Burke in the 1790s. The attack succeeded. The power and status of the French aristocracy was expunged, hurling that country into a century and a half of violent political instability: two emperors, two monarchies, three bloody revolutions and a shabby procession of four different republican constitutions ended only in 1958 with that elemental force, General Charles de Gaulle.
Britain was different. The power of its aristocratic institutions established by the Glorious Revolution of 1688 - glorious because it was the parent of settlement, rather than of future tumult - lasted almost until the present day. As that fine historian, the late Sir Herbert Butterfield, wrote: "When the aristocracy was sent to the cleaners, the dye ran out into the rest of the clothes." Even well after the great radical achievements of the postwar Attlee government, the American sociologist Professor Edward Shils still found Britain "hierarchical". "The members of the government come from all classes," he wrote, "but they participate in the set of institutions which has about it the aura of aristocracy and it enjoys, therefore, the deference which was given to that aristocracy."
No longer. For the first time since 1688, Britain's political institutions are trying to operate without even the lingering aura of that old aristocratic class by whom and for whom they were created. No wonder the body politic today is suffering such dire withdrawal symptoms. At long last, its life support machine has been as near as damnit switched off.
I say at long last so as to emphasise the enormous significance of this self-inflicted mutilation. Hitherto, the best and the brightest of the middle class, and then the working class, were only too happy to accept - indeed to become pillars of - the old aristocratic state. How could it be otherwise? This ancient, aristocratic state was enormously in credit, having had a long and glorious history. Indeed, old Labour conformed to it as to the manor born. Thatcherites and Blairites, however, are very different types of new blood who, again for the first time since 1688, do not want to join, let alone obey the rules, of the club. Instead, pursuing Butterfield's metaphor, they want, using a new detergent called modernisation, to rub out the true blue dye once and for all, thereby, in my view, unravelling the historic garment itself.
Let me put the argument more prosaically. The distribution of power, wealth and even status, which originally established and supported England's hereditary aristocracy, no longer exists and can never be restored in its old form. No disagreement about that. But the veneration for, and determination to emulate, what was valuable in that tradition - a tradition of authoritative and active involvement in every field from politics to culture - did not have to depend on conserving that distribution of power, wealth and status which originally called it forth.
After centuries of continuous observance, passed down from generation to generation, of an open-ended ruling class, it had taken on a momentum of its own. It is that tradition to which old Labour subscribed - central to the survival of Britain's political, administrative, military and educational institutions - but which new Labour, following a Thatcherite precedent, wants to seek out and destroy.
Why does this matter? It matters because, to a degree that perhaps few are prepared today to recognise, Britain's centuries-old tradition of combining strong and stable government with individual liberty has its roots - not surprisingly, since it was the barons at Runnymede who began it - in aristocratic soil. Plough up that soil and you destroy those roots. Our individual liberties did not grow out of abstractions or theories. They were the liberties that a ruling class with unquestioned supremacy in a stratified society felt secure enough to allow; liberties, moreover, of the strong kind - freedom of speech, freedom to associate, freedom to travel, freedom to rise in the world, freedom to live dangerously, freedom to do your own thing, to make money and to pass it on, and so on and suchlike - likely to appeal as much to the lower class as to the upper class.
Deference, however, was the vital ingredient, as it won acquiescence without coercion. The tolerance of nonconformity was never a populist democratic choice, and would not be so now, were it ever put to a people's vote. No, as in the US, it was the voice - not out of altruism, but out of self-interest - of a secure ruling class; and how it will fare in a classless society is quite as relevant a question for de-Wasped America as it is for declassed Britain.
But which party in today's Britain is prepared to ask that question? No longer the Conservative Party for sure, because the new Conservatives are quite as keen on a classless society as are the new Labourites - provided the egalitarianism is social (abolishing hereditary peers, Oxbridge and fox-hunting, for example) rather than economic (redistributing wealth). Herein lies the rub. By abandoning socialism and lifting the threat to private property, Tony Blair has removed the very fear that made the bourgeoisie so eager to accept the protection of the aristocratic state in the first place.
Margaret Thatcher had a hand in this as well. Having broken the power of the trade unions on her own, and in defiance of the "wet" aristocratic tradition - the first purely bourgeois triumph in English history - she encouraged the party to believe that, in the modern world, tradition, far from being an asset, was a positive liability.
If new Labour is now a pro-capitalist party, interested only in equalising social status, and not any longer in equalising wealth, Rupert Murdoch will approve of that.
The removal of the threat to property has altered the balance of power in British politics, allowing the bourgeois wing of the Conservative Party, which accepted the aristocratic tradition only as a marriage of convenience, to show what, out of prudence, they had previously kept hidden: their Andrew Neilish, anti-toff social chip on the shoulder. As a result, we now have a modernising, classless political consensus, consisting of a non-socialist radical new Labour Party and a pro-capitalist radical new Conservative Party, neither of which is in the least concerned about conserving our historic institutions.
Capitalism in Britain was always likely to be a more socially dissolvent force than socialism. Indeed, socialism, by frightening and therefore slowing down the capitalist horses, acted more as a brake than an accelerator - a brake that has now, for better or worse, been lifted. The authority conferring the principle of class, which has been in a protracted process of dilution ever since the First World War, is now in danger of being given its coup de grace without there being any new elitist or meritocratic principle, backed up by suitable institutions and traditions, to fill the gap.
Yet, without the gentlemanly class, confusion reigns. Nothing looks or sounds right. Everything is out of focus, slightly blurred, as if the body politic had just been stuffed into a new set of ill-fitting clothes. All our institutions are disorientated: parliament, the civil service, the judiciary, the armed forces, Oxbridge and so on have all lost their authority. Even the BBC. Having made itself in the 20th century into a broadcasting institution of world renown by encouraging its viewers and listeners to raise their sights, now it is required to show equal expertise in encouraging people to drop their h's. Populism mixed with plutocracy - it is not a happy combination.
Where does this lead the Conservative Party? Without any overriding purpose. If the purpose of the old Labour Party was to use the power of the state to improve the quality of life for the lower classes and to preserve the privileges of their only self-made institution - the trade unions - the purpose of the old Conservative Party was to maintain the quality of life for the upper classes and to preserve the privileges of their institutions, parliament being only the most important. Class self-interest was a major factor, but so was the true-blue conviction that our particularly civilised, open-ended ruling class was the key to a good society. This was a view with which old Labour would have concurred, only adding the proviso that more natural aristocrats should be included, rather than hereditary peers. In other words, they wanted more gentlemen rather than fewer. The great turn-of-the-century economist Alfred Marshall (one of old Labour's early heroes) wrote: "The question is not whether all men will ultimately be equal - that they will certainly not; but whether progress will go on . . . until every man is a gentleman." Nowadays, I fear, both our main parties would want to stand that quotation on its head by ending it with "until no man is a gentleman" - an ideal that we are in danger of realising with terrifying rapidity.
What we must fear in the future is rule by successive classless and unprincipled factions whose access to the levers of power will depend largely on sophisticated demagogic manipulation - their new way of acquiring acquiescence.
Slightly more hopeful would be the slow and painful development over generations of a new governing class with its own, very different and (judged by present indications) very inferior set of people's institutions.
Either way, it is surely understandable that many upper- and lower-class old Tories have little stomach to play much part in the next chapter of our island's story. Hence our abstention in the recent election.