The aristocracy and us

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LORD KINGSALE, Lady Megan Edgecumbe, the Hon Patrick Sinclair, the Countess of Mar, the Earl of Ypres and Lady Kenilworth are a sample of British aristocracy. Guess how they spend their weekdays?

Do they hunt, shoot, or fish? No. Do they fly off at a whim to holiday in the sun? No. Do some recline in a fat paid sinecure in the city? No. They have worked respectively as a silage-pit builder, a council gardener, a bus driver, a British Telecom saleswoman, a hall porter and a dental hygienist.

This was the rather racy introduction to a Harpers & Queen publication called the Nouveaux Povres, 21 years ago. On Sunday, on Channel 4, James Delingpole takes the same argument a lot further and suggests, point blank, that the British upper class is under the same threat of extinction as the great spotted cats of Africa, but without the protection. Hence TV advertising for his documentary pleads that "We view generously".

"If these people were some remote Amazon tribe, we'd be queuing up to support their cause," he tells a Channel 4 camera, urgently. Behind him on a misty hillside a small crowd is outlined against scudding clouds. They don't look instantly recognisable, but then few of us spend much time among them.

They are the British upper classes, and Delingpole is delivering an elegy to what he reckons is a doomed sector of society. His surprisingly emotive envoi to the upper crust forms the third and last part of Channel 4's much-applauded examination of the social structure of Britain - and there isn't much to cheer, it seems.

We have a working class that sees itself threatened by immigration, a middle class that has lost its sense of mission and, now, the dynastic dinosaur of the doomed toff. One might ask who, though, would lament the disappearance of the latter?

That the "salt of the Earth" working class feels bitter and betrayed, and that the traditional rewards of middle-class endeavour are steadily eroded may be regrettable, but who would shed a tear for the dismantling of privilege?

Shouldn't we be out there with the nouveau sans-culottes storming stately homes and condemning the aristocracy to a lifetime of Ikea flatpacks? Not according to Delingpole. His argument is grand and sentimental as a chorus of Land of Hope and Glory.

"Since 1977 we have been living under a regime that has persuaded the electorate that our past is something about which we should feel more embarrassment than pride - and among the victims of this campaign to abolish history have been the British upper classes."

What worries Delingpole, he says, is that "in our attempts to create a better, fairer society by hammering the upper classes, we are undermining many of those values that make Britain a place worth living in: oldfashioned aristocratic virtues such as spunk, backbone, honour, duty and noblesse oblige." In the hour-long documentary, Delingpole sets out to identify these character traits among a selection of swells most of whom, it must be said, cold-shoulder him ruthlessly. But that comes as no surprise. He experienced something very similar when he went up to Oxford in the early 1980s "at the height of the Brideshead revival". "While I was at university, my bitterest regret was not having been born the son of a duke or at the very least a baronet," he says wryly. "I remember finding these people at once very attractive and utterly repellent. What I didn't like about them was their snobbery, their cliquishness, their arrogance; the way that never in a million years was I going to be allowed to join their club. But it didn't stop me trying. To feel that way towards toffs today makes you at best an anachronism, at worst a freak."

He is certainly made to feel something of a freak during his initial attempts to re-acquaint himself with the virtues and vices of the upper crust. At a party in Mayfair we watch as Prince Michael of Kent stalks off after the briefest of introductions. Earl Spencer does the same, though with a less curt apology. "They're all scared of being stitched up," a kinder aristocratic accent informs him. "You must understand."

Delingpole does understand: "Look at how toffs are portrayed on television. You've got Harry Enfield's Tim Nice-but-Dim; Lady Isabella Hervey on Celebrity Love Island, former jailbird Charlie Brocket on I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here, and Francis Fulford saying 'f***' an awful lot."

The "notoriously disreputable" Brocket - third Baron of Brocket Hall and Ferrari fanatic - allows Delingpole to sample the exclusive thrill of a spin around Silverstone in one of his beloved racing cars, and is one of the few to offer him genuine assistance in his quest for the aristocratic heart of gold (or, at least, backbone of steel). But then, Brocket has been forced "to reinvent himself in the classless media and earn a crust as a title for hire", in much the same way as Neil and Christine Hamilton have done.

Brocket's crime was insurance swindle, but the motive was quintessential for his class: the preservation of the family home and lands - which he had mortgaged to the hilt to pay for his racing. "I could not have faced the shame if I'd had to sell it," says Brocket. So he faced the shame of jail, instead. Now he has reached a rather cosy arrangement with a consortium of Asian businessmen. They have the use of Brocket Hall and its parkland for golf and conference facilities for the next 50 years, and the estate is returned to Brocket's grandchildren intact and free of tax thereafter. Quite a scheme.

So can you be upper class without land and a huge house, Delingpole asks Brocket. The reply is brisk: "Of course you can. It's in your mannerisms, your attitude and, most of all, your accent."

However it was not these qualities the programme set out to investigate. It was recklessness, verve and a buccaneering spirit; self-discipline and an understanding of tradition.

He does locate it - initially on the Cresta runs in St Moritz, Switzerland, which is a private British club where toffs addicted to danger can toboggan at speeds of up to 80 mph. "These men were the fastest human beings on Earth before the advent of the automobile," says Delingpole, who tries the run himself and declares that "my body is bruised but my self-esteem is inflating rapidly".

Self-esteem or simply arrogance? After all, he says, the upper classes "didn't get where they are today by being nice. They acquired their land and titles because their ancestors were robber barons, paid thugs in the service of the king; gamblers who backed the right horse at Hastings."

Gambling, in all its guises, has remained a special enthusiasm. Another examination of this rarefied and disappearing world of the upper-class gentleman appears this week. The Gamblers: John Aspinall, James Goldsmith and the Murder of Lord Lucan by James Pearson, is packed with anecdotes which might cause Delingpole to tone down his enthusiasm. In one incident in the late 1950s the police raided a Mayfair flat which they suspected was being used for illegal gambling . An officer immediately charged Aspinall with "keeping a common gambling house". Aspinall's mother, Lady Osbourne, replied: "Young man, there was nothing common in this house until you entered it."

Both Aspinall and his mother are now dead. To what extent they assisted Lord Lucan to escape or, as Pearson suggests disappear in a fatal sense, can never be proven. When Lucky Lucan confided to Lady Osbourne, however, that he believed the only way to regain custody of his children was to murder his wife Veronica, she is said to have remarked: "Well, you must do what you think best." Which is a very upper-class response indeed.

The Channel 4 documentary steers clear of anything so controversial - with the exception of fox-hunting, which is photographed with sweeping romanticism amid paeans for the ancient traditions of the British countryside. The Scottish countryside merits not a mention, unfortunately, and the only slightly Scottish voice is that of Clarissa Dickson-Wright. "They're tough, the upper class. And brave," she states stoutly.

But bravery is not enough to see off inheritance tax and the dismantling of political power. "No-one wants to be described as upper-class any more," an anonymous voice tells Delingpole at his first Mayfair party. "People think the worse of you for it. Class has been succeeded by celebrity. The only class now is fame."

I put this point to Patrea More Nisbett, chtelaine of the Drum - a strikingly beautiful house and estate on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Does she feel "threatened, superseded, on the way out?"

She barks a derisory laugh: "I don't feel even faintly under threat, my dear. Though I do worry about some of my chums. They cycle too much you know." Which wasn't exactly what I meant, but More Nisbett is not the sort of person one interrupts. "We should cherish the upper classes, most definitely," she thunders (though as Mandy Rice-Davies famously pointed out following her own dalliance with the upper crust, she would, wouldn't she?) Which of us would seek the extermination of our preferred lifestyle?

If Delingpole is correct, and the now almost exclusively middle-class government seeks to shape the nation in its own image, how long can people such as More Nisbett and the rest of the landed aristocracy of Scotland maintain their unique sense of identity?

"Indefinitely," More Nisbett assures me crisply, citing the increased resourcefulness of the modern laird or lord, despite the crippling iniquity of VAT on repairs to listed buildings.

"We have a little man come round and inspect the roof after every bout of really heavy rain," she informs me. (Now there's a busy man.)

And no, she does not see herself as eccentric. "A few English peers may be a little," she concedes. "But much less so here in Scotland. Particularly in Edinburgh, everyone is far too convinced of their importance to be eccentric."

Should we hope that she is right, and Delingpole wrong? That depends on who you are and where you came from - something the upper crust understand instinctively, of course.

"I'm not asking that you should love them," Delingpole concludes. "But you're going to miss them when they're gone."

• The British Upper Class screens on Channel 4 at 8pm on Sunday 24 July.

• The Gamblers: John Aspinall, James Goldsmith and the Murder of Lord Lucan by John Pearson is published by Century, priced 15.99.

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