Old wealth is always with us

The British aristocracy, judging by what happened in India, may be far from finished, thinks Giles M

Half a century ago a newly independent India made its first assault on its powerful ruling families and their feudal nobles. In 1947 the princely states represented about a third of the land mass. In theory, the maharajas (great kings) and rajas (kings) collected their tributes and ran their affairs guided by a resident British political agent. In practice pax Britannica lightened them of many of their duties and allowed them the leisure to spend their money on palaces, baubles, mistresses and expensive foreign travel. Not for nothing were many of the most sumptuous princely residences in India constructed at the very end of the last century, or the first half of this.

There were fewer than 600 of them in what is now India and Pakistan, a number slightly smaller than that of the hereditary peers now facing abolition in the House of Lords. As cries for independence proliferated after the first world war, the princes had helped to apply the brakes, aware that their bread was better buttered under the British than it would be under the Hindu lawyers who were likely to gain control. They hoped to gain a separate deal, allowing them to opt out of the new Congress-ruled India. Earl Mountbatten, however, showed them no sympathy: he preferred the Hindu pandits and washed his hands of the princes, leaving them to their fate.

There was a small-scale "mutiny", as we might call it now, and the army was brought in, notably to oust the incredibly rich Nizam of Hyderabad at the cost of a few hundred lives. There was a move by at least one Hindu ruler to opt for Pakistan; the rest were "mediatised". In exchange for their lands they were granted annual payments from the privy purse, and they were allowed the use of their high-flown titles.

Compensation continued until the beginning of the 1970s when Indira Gandhi banned the use of royal and noble titles and scrapped the annual payments. She was challenged by the Supreme Court, which found her action to be unconstitutional. She went to the country and Congress was returned with the two-thirds majority required to alter the constitution. All that the princes and nobles had left were their palaces and their dignity.

They were down, but not out. The state of Rajasthan is a case in point. Before independence, Rajasthan had the biggest concentration of princelings in India. Maharajas and rajas ran a classically feudal system: the ruler granted lands to the nobles (rawats and thakurs) and the right to levy taxes and administer justice. In return, the nobles paid an annual tribute and raised troops for the princes in time of war. The rulers lived in sumptuous complexes of palaces like those still to be seen in Jodhpur or Udaipur. The noblemen inhabited castles or "forts" at the centre of what was, in many instances, virtually a small kingdom in its own right.

After 1947 and even more in 1971, the choice of careers for India's noblemen was limited. Some joined the army; others went into the tea trade. Many cobbled together estates from different family parcels and farmed; still others went into local politics, where they earned votes because of the kudos they still enjoyed among the people.

Another solution was hotel management. The man who started this ball rolling was the late Maharana of Udaipur in the kingdom of Mewar. The famous Lake Palace Hotel was opened in the 1960s. Its success led the Maharana to turn more and more of his properties into luxury hotels, while he moved into smaller and smaller corners of his palace compound. It took time before Mewar's nobility followed the lead established by their former ruler, but a sympathetic new law promulgated in Delhi has now offered grants towards converting forts and palaces into "heritage" hotels. In the past few years these have been sprouting up all over Rajasthan.

One of the best of these is the Mahal in Deogargh, run by Veerbhadra ("VB") Singh Chundawat and his brother Shatrunjai. A few years ago their father, Rawat Nahar Singh, a retired history master from Mayo College in Ajmer, which continues to educate most of the Rajput princes, noticed that the fort was beginning to fall apart. He quickly made a present of it to his eldest son, who was away planting tea and coffee in the south. Nahar Singh has seen many changes. He is old enough to remember the days before 1947, when the ryots (peasants) brought in sacks of corn loaded on bullock carts. A good lord, he points out, also had a responsibility towards his ryots. The local nobility stored wheat, barley and hay in case of famine.

The absence of a substantial middle class in rural Mewar means that the old families are as prominent as they have always been. They live up at the big house, and they provide the magnet that attracts the white "sahibs" to the village. As their cars proceed through the narrow streets of the bazaar, almost all the older inhabitants shower them with blessings.

I toured some of the tribal villages in the south-west of Rajasthan with Thakur Bhano Pratap Singh Ranawat, who farms and runs a fine hotel at Fort Dhariyawad. In the past, his family protected the people who occupied some of the 180 villages that lay under his control, and now he carries on the tradition by looking after their interests with the regional authorities. As he walked through the alleys between their mud huts, men and women prostrated themselves at his feet.

In another castle-turned-hotel near the former Mewar capital of Chittor, the local rawat told me that his family had exercised their feudal rights over 90 villages. Many things had not changed: he was still headman in 23 villages, and in nearly 250 he supervised primary education. I walked through his home village on my own. It was one of the poorest I had seen, for the most part without electricity or plumbing, the lanes teeming with oxen and filthy, half-naked children. When I got back to the castle, the rawat was drinking whisky with his friends and laughing at the antics of the local peasants. He reminded me of a hobereau of the ancien regime - a member of the uncouth local nobility who got their comeuppance in the French revolution. Except that, here, the revolution had come and gone, and he was still powerful.

It might be tempting to draw the conclusion that the fate of Rajasthan's nobility provides an indication of where ours will be 50 years on, but direct comparison is hampered by arranged marriages and the caste system, which prevents any real social mobility in India. In what is still very much a poor, agricultural region, the nobility enjoys power and prestige among the locals. The father of Dushiant Singh, who runs a country hotel at Bijainiwas, exchanged the headship of the ruling house of Masuda for the job of chief minister of Rajasthan. His successor today is also a member of one of the old families.

Nahar Singh's brother was in politics, and the schoolmaster told me he would probably be elected by the local people because they respected his family. That was Rajasthan and a special case, but on a national level it is not inconceivable that old families should slip into positions of power. The man who would be Maharaja of Gwalior, for instance, is the rival to Sonia Gandhi for the leadership of the same party that robbed him of his kingdom.

Watch your back, Tony Blair. Stranger things have happened.

This article first appeared in the 01 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An earthquake strikes new Labour

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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the Tory candidate for East Renfrewshire, and the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. As the SNP's shine wears off, could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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