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Swellboy on… civil unrest

The upper classes enjoy a spot of civil unrest as much as the next man

Swellboy on… civil unrest

Image: Brijesh Patel

April 09 2011
Nick Foulkes

I was at the Basel watch fair and therefore was not caught in the turmoil in London’s West End when protesters occupied Fortnum & Mason, reminding me of Fidel Castro’s decision to occupy the Hilton Hotel in Havana as a strategic location during the ousting of Batista, and Hemingway’s liberation of the Ritz Bar in Paris after the war

One thing that has struck me about accounts of this unrest is the surprise in some quarters that one of the activists happens to be a descendant of Scottish baronets: but, as any student of history will tell you, the upper classes enjoy a spot of civil unrest at the weekends as much as the next man.

Besides, I have always thought that “baronet” is a chic title, and what is more it is utterly harmless, as the holder of a baronetcy cannot influence the course of political life, at least not in the way of anyone who receives a peerage and finds themselves propelled, without the tiresome business of needing to be elected, into the upper house. Instead this sort of inherited knighthood was cooked up by James I at the beginning of the 17th century as a way of raising funds; it shows that the flogging of titles is a much cherished national ritual that has been nobly upheld down the generations (if you can uphold anything down).

I am hoping that, as part of the new era of transparency, the Cleggeron coalition will follow the lead set by David Lloyd George, who had a more or less official price list for honours. I can see baronetcies becoming quite the thing: the tariff could be published online and you could pay using secure online banking – just a thought to ease the deficit. In fact I am surprised that it has not occurred to George Osborne, who is of course himself in line to inherit a baronetcy.

My favourite baronet is Sir Vavasour Firebrace, who appears in Disraeli’s 1845 novel Sybil. Sir Vavasour is endearingly preposterous and brings a much-needed breath of levity to what is otherwise fairly hard going; in fact he is a comic creation of which even Dickens could have been proud. Sir Vavasour laments the lack of political clout enjoyed by what he sees as a cadet branch of the nobility. He fondly imagines a time when baronets can take their place among the nation’s legislators, processing in their hundreds to Westminster in ceremonial dress: pennons flying, white feathers in their hats, loaded with swords, spurs, thumb and signet rings, clutching their “coronet of two balls”.

Sir Vavasour has it all worked out. According to him, the massed baronets of Britain are “evidently the body destined to save the country”. As he sees it, their appeal is universal: “Blending all sympathies: the crown of which they are the peculiar champions; the nobles of whom they are the popular branch; the people who recognize in them their natural leaders.”

I wonder if I am alone in thinking that, more than 150 years later, Sir Vavasour’s plans are coming to fruition in the actions of this young scion of a baronetal dynasty. It certainly seems that the young man descended from Scotch baronets has been recognised as a natural leader of sorts and I suppose that with its royal warrants and its reputation for blending tea (which as we know is often dispensed with sympathy), Fortnum’s can also be worked into Sir Vavasour’s vision. And as for the nobles: well, was it not a noble, a duke’s son no less, Lord George Gordon, who masterminded the worst ever bout of civil unrest seen in our nation’s capital?

The Gordon riots of 1780 left much of London a smoking ruin. Hundreds died when rioters, nominally protesting against Catholic emancipation, attacked the carriages of leading parliamentarians, burned Newgate Prison, tried to storm the Bank of England on three occasions, attacked numerous foreign embassies and drank themselves to oblivion after capturing Langdale’s distillery. It took the army and units of militia to quell the mob.

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