It would not become the daughter of a former Chairman of the Conservative Party to disapprove of Dukes, but Lady Clare Kerr, the daughter of Michael Ancram, has a reason to be unhappy about the good fortune of Hugh Grosvenor, the new Duke of Westminster. He has two older sisters – and she has argued that primogeniture, the arrangement by which the oldest son inherits his father’s title and estates, is unjust to women.
Some will agree and others will not, but what is striking, amidst the controversy, is the paucity of calls for estates, in this case and others, to be divided up equally between the children. This is the practice on much of the continent. In France, for example, “neither land nor a firm is the freehold property of the individual, belonging rather to the family’s bloodline with an automatic right of inheritance within the family for all the children,” as David Willetts puts it in the The Pinch. “This is how the principle of equal inheritance is delivered in practice.” But in England, property is owned by individuals, who usually have the right to do with it as they please.
Much follows from this cultural difference – including, in part, the rise of capitalism in Britain. Those younger sons who become clergymen in Jane Austen’s novels usually do so, as their real-life counterparts did, because their older brothers had bagged their father’s property and money. Those fortunes provided capital for investment. And it was that capital, applied to invention and ingenuity, which made the industrial revolution possible.
Conservatives are probably more defensive about wealth and privilege than they were ten years ago, and a decade of leadership by an old Etonian doubtless has something to do with it. (“There are six people writing the manifesto and five of them went to Eton; the other went to St Paul’s,” one Tory MP complained last year.) Michael Gove has objected to “the undeserving rich”. Robert Halfon is so seized by the issue that he wants to rebrand the Conservatives as the Workers’ Party.
There is even an organisation called Blue Collar Conservatives, a name that puts unease about the Party’s image at the heart of its own identity. This is not a problem that Labour has, whatever its other troubles may be. If you doubt it, try imagining a group of that party’s supporters calling themselves White Tie Labour – with members writing articles boasting that their families are posher than Tristram Hunt’s or Harriet Harman’s.
The very first statement by our new Prime Minister pledged that “the government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours”. And, to be sure, her Government should crack down on crony capitalism: energy cartels, taxpayer-financed lobbyists, Goldman Sachs-type tax avoidance, executive pay divorced from executive achievement, and so on. But there is none the less a connection between Hugh Grosvenor’s inheritance and a right that most of us take for granted – that our property is our own.