The new feudalism

The Poundbury Toryism of Zac Goldsmith and his posh pals is ripe for caricature, writes George Walde

I have a vision of Britain: not mine, I hasten to add, but one that seems to be catching on in Tory circles, where the rejection of big business and the state, coupled with environmental anxieties, suggests nostalgia for life a century or two ago, a yearning for a return to simpler, squire­archical times. The last person to want to do away with the state and big business was Karl Marx, but that does not seem to trouble an increasingly non-ideological Conservative Party.

We all want to see more localism and fewer Tescos. Yet, at its extremes - and Zac Goldsmith's apparent attempt to make a rotten borough of Richmond is a startling example of the new gentry's unashamed sense of entitlement - the movement has feudal overtones and lends itself to caricature. So here is one. The vision seems to be of Britain as a village from which the state and its appendages have been banished - to Brussels, or wherever. Poundbury Toryism, it might be called. Villages can be hierarchical places, but this one fairly reeks of top-down compassion. As in ancient times, local problems are dealt with locally. The village's public services are financed not through extortionate taxation, but by charitable donations, and are staffed by volunteers.

The village people

In this seductively antique community, bureaucrats have been largely done away with, as three bodies are deemed sufficient to run village life: the health and hospital board, the school board and, for those in need, the charity board. The reason they tend to be administered by the squire's friends or family is that the populace, a splendidly unchippy lot, are honest enough to recognise authority when they see it.

On health, the first thing to be said is how highly the village folk speak of the considerateness of the squire and his circle in not hogging beds or doctors' time for themselves or their families, preferring to take pot luck in less hard-pressed private institutions, paying money from their own pockets. As with their eagerness to fork out for their children's schooling, their sacrifice is seen as all the more commendable in the light of the praise they shower on village facilities.

Those in need are dealt with by a more feeling version of the Poor Law. The local charity commissioners are no stovepipe-hatted Gradgrinds, however. If they can be a little brisker than their state equivalents of old, it is just that, charitable donations to the welfare budget coming in at rather lower levels than expected, they have to watch the pennies when handing them out.

Education in the village is of two types:selective private establishments for the select, and non-selective for the non-select. Villagers are free to open any type of school with school-board cash, from Seventh-Day Adventists to Muslims - with that single exception. By long-standing agreement between the school board's upstairs and downstairs members, aspirant meritocrats are barred from establishing anything resembling selective schools.

The policy goes to the heart of the village ethos, whose ideal is a stable - and therefore static - society. The squire and his friends can often be heard quoting Troilus and Cressida on the matter: "Take but degree away, untune that string,/And, hark, what discord follows!"

It would be wrong to see anything elitist or backward-looking in such attitudes: it is simply that, as with everyone else in the village, there is nothing that irritates the gentry more than people getting above themselves.

The genial atmosphere between the classes is made easier by there being only two: the squirearchy and the peasants. The lower-middle and middle-middle classes, with their tiresome insecurities and social alpinism, are actively discouraged. If such pushy folk had their way, the gentry grumble, there'd be another ­industrial revolution before you knew it, and time-honoured social relationships - not to speak of the village environment - would be for the birds.

Self-made types and whining about social promotion are widely seen as un-British. As one of the squire's more ebullient friends put it: "There's something foreign about all this thrusting self-improvement. A bit squinty-eyed, if you ask me." And nine-tenths of the
villagers would agree.

“Take but the middle class away/And see what concord follows . . ." Or so the Bard might easily have written. And sure enough, the result of a two-tier rather than three-tier village is a harmonious society, in the 18th-century mode. How could it be otherwise, when the squire is careful to defer to the people's tastes in all things, which gives no one any excuse not to defer to him in return? His indulgence towards them is most evident in cultural matters. Disinclined by nature and tradition to highbrow pursuits, apart from his endless citations from Troilus and Cressida, and preferring open-air pastimes, he keeps a low profile in the field.

Family affairs

Not that the village is short on creativity. Far from regarding the arts as being in any way subversive, the squire and his lady wife are happy to smile on the villagers' little amusements, whether it be their jolly rock bands or frightfully contemporary and really rather saucy art. Populism? Perhaps, but there is nothing de haut en bas about it. If anything, it is de bas en bas. The village library is patronised by everyone, being light on books but heavy on DVDs, pop videos and Merchant Ivory films in the main. The only people to trouble this cosy
egalitarianism are, inevitably, the would-be meritocrats and other misfits.

Like any modern community, the village has its antisocial elements. But there, too, the squire takes a personal hand, endlessly available for a corrective word with miscreants and malefactors, be they muggers, knife-carriers or the wilfully and obtusely fat.

“All right, there's a bit of us-and-them about it," an elderly local at the village pub admitted. "But there's nothing stuck up about them, no way. Seen the squire down 'ere on 'is bike many a time. Don't 'alf love 'is pint." The man is reported to have winked as he added: "Tell you what, though - 'ealthy man's appetite for the ladies, 'e's got. Which 'as its problems. When somebody puts up the banns and 'e does 'is ius primae noctis number, the girls don't know what 'e's on about. Don't get taught Latin no more, see? Ne' mind, they're all up for one-night stands nowadays, might as well be with the squire as anyone else.

“An' it shows all right, don't it? Look about. 'Alf the people in this place is 'is spittin' image. One-nation village, 'e said we was. Must 'ave been 'aving a laugh. One-family more like it, way 'e's goin'."

George Walden's "New Elites: a Career in the Masses" is published by Gibson Square (£9.99)

This article first appeared in the 01 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Dave Ultimatum