Noblesse oblige. At its best, the old aristocracy stood for a commitment to public duty and a sense of fair play. New Labour's money-grabbing cronies are dedicated purely to their own self-advancement. Is the one really better than the other?

In Defence of Aristocracy

Peregrine Worsthorne <em>HarperCollins, 232pp, £15</em>

ISBN 000718315

Readers of the New Statesman might well be sceptical of the views of a romantic octogenarian Tory who has always enjoyed teasing the left. But they might be equally suspicious of a septuagenarian reviewer whose own book, Who Runs This Place?, was recently commended by him on these pages. Sir Peregrine and I are old sparring partners. He has always staunchly defended the old aristocratic establishment I attacked 40 years ago in The Anatomy of Britain. Yet now, reluctantly, I find myself largely agreeing with him. His new book is a convincing and well-argued account of the failures of British leadership. It seems that Tony Blair has forced us on to common ground.

Worsthorne's title is, I believe, a misnomer. His book is really a defence of the ideals of public service and the English gentleman, rather than of the aristocracy as such. Worsthorne fondly recalls his background as an English aristocrat descended, on his mother's side, from old Catholic families, and loyally defends his stepfather, the conservative pre-war governor of the Bank of England, Montagu Norman. But Worsthorne was also an outsider, descended on his father's side from a Belgian banking family. His father had to adopt his English name to stand for parliament.

It was as a member of the intellectual aristocracy that Wors-thorne came to prominence. As an undergraduate at Cam- bridge, he was taught by two outstanding historians, Herbert Butterfield and Denis Mack Smith (the latter was in awe of his clever young protege). He became a maverick Tory, fascinated by ideas and far more questioning than most Conservatives in parliament.

In his new book, Worsthorne too easily plays down the selfishness and philistinism of most pre-war English aristocrats, many of whom sympathised with Hitler. His real heroes are the aristocrats who were seriously concerned with public affairs and who had a genuine sense of noblesse oblige. The social and financial security such men enjoyed made them largely uninterested in short-term gain or party interest, and allowed them to put into practice such gentlemanly ideals as social duty, fair play and responsibility to posterity.

Worsthorne does not, as he explains, advocate reinstating the upper class: he wants only "to highlight the gaping hole left in the head of our body politic by its extinction". And he is now very concerned - like many others - that the new Labour government, closely allied with corporate powers, is creating a society in which the obsession with money-making and self-advancement overwhelms all sense of social responsibility. He admits that the old aristocracy, freed of its historical duty to provide leadership, has itself become preoccupied with money-making, and that the public schools, the traditional educators of gentlemen, have abandoned their old public service ethos. Eton, he complains, "became just as proud of an old alumni who had built up a media empire from scratch as of one who had become prime minister or an archbishop".

Worsthorne's account of how this transformation came about is refreshingly removed from the cliches of party politics. The postwar Labour government, he believes, basically practised a form of patrician welfare and enjoyed the discreet support of civilised aristocrats. "The best of Old England always felt quietly confident of its continued place under English socialism." Worsthorne traces the destruction of the ideal of the gentleman back to the 1960s, when radical populism, social egalitarianism and "me-first-ism" spread around the world. Margaret Thatcher (who made him a knight) helped undermine respect for gentlemanliness with her contempt for the old "one nation" Tories.

But what has finally eroded dedication to public service, in Worsthorne's view, is new Labour's acceptance of purely commercial values and its mockery of the concept of the gentleman. Blair, he says, has deprived the country of its "moral compass", while putting nothing in its place. "For the time being, no one knows how they are meant to behave."

From the standpoint of a social democrat who automatically distrusts many of the values represented by the old aristocracy, I found myself agreeing with many of Worsthorne's judgements. While he sees the old ruling class abandoning its responsibilities, I see the new meritocracy of Thatcherites and Blairites betraying the ideals of public service. Watching new Labour ministers embracing shady financiers with even greater zeal than their Tory predecessors did, and seeing senior civil servants enthusiastically moving into the boardrooms of foreign banks and corporations, I fear that the principal legacy of the current government's desire to modernise will be a permanent erosion of standards in public life.

But Worsthorne weakens his argument by defending the aristocracy as opposed to the broader middle class, which has historically been dedicated to public service and to what he calls "sub-Christian" values. His own values derive less from the landed aristocracy than from the intellectual aristocracy, based in the universities. Today, the concept of academic detachment has been fatally weakened and the academy hardly penetrates into the media or political class. Academics are courted by politicians, not to provide independent views, but to justify their policies with woolly concepts such as the "Third Way" philosophy of Blair's apologist Anthony (soon to be Lord) Giddens.

In the process, new Labour has virtually abolished history. As Worsthorne writes: "No effort must be spared . . . to abolish the national memory." Blair has consistently displayed an astonishing lack of historical perspective, nowhere more than in his decision to go to war in Iraq without studying the disastrous precedents.

Can the old British tradition of public service ever be recovered? Worsthorne's purpose is "to try to engender a change in this climate; to try to show how essential it is to reactivate the aristocratic leaven". He may be too hopeful in supposing that gentlemanly ideals can make a comeback. But even social democrats feel some nostalgia for the old hereditary defenders of those ideals, from Lord Gilmour to Lord Longford, who stood above the immediate pressures of political or commercial expediency.

And the British public, having been betrayed so often in the past few years - whether by directors exploiting them as shareholders or by governments deceiving them as voters - have become more and more distrustful of the money-obsessed, self-serving elite. They have become conscious of a rottenness in the body politic. Within many British professions, I have detected signs of revolt against a creeping commercialisation and politicisation. People no longer take such satisfaction in their jobs, finding them harder to justify to their consciences - or those of their children. As more scandals are uncovered in the coming months - as they surely will be - we may yet see a reaction against the greed and self-interest that is increasingly disgusting the public.

Worsthorne is modest about his own influence. He even suggests, at the end of In Defence of Aristocracy, that he is "quite probably in his second childhood". But his advancing years and original mind have given him a deep grasp of history - which has a habit of coming back to hit those who ignore it. This beautifully written historical essay has a crucial message for younger, as well as older, readers.

Anthony Sampson's Who Runs This Place?: the anatomy of Britain in the 21st century is published by John Murray