Saturday, 16 January 2010

Election 2010 - Not A Class Act

The picture above has on the left the Grand Inquisitor of Govan, Rab C. Nesbitt, adopting a regal stance with on the right the late Patrick Lichfield, a leading professional photographer related to the Royal Family. Which of them might be a true Nesbitt by descent?

Firstly, Govan is an interesting place to begin a discussion of social mobility. Sir Alex Ferguson is its most famous son presiding over the fortunes (or as it now appears the lack of them) of Manchester United, the elite English soccer club. Of an ordinary ship building family he went from being a player to a publican to manager of one club and them on to the one that brought him wide fame, fortune (much of it gone on the horses), and a knighthood.

Gordon Brown was born in Govan, a son of the manse, a member of the elite of the Presbyterian faith, who went on to higher or lower things depending on your standpoint. Leo Blair, father of Tony Blair was brought up in Govan after adoption by an ordinary Govan family. His two sons, William and Tony went on to higher things, William an eminent Scottish lawyer expert in international law and financial matters (does he know where the money is?), and Tony of whom the less said the better.

Who amongst them might boast a Nesbitt/Nisbet descent is something that might be determined by research, but this is an intricate business. At a first speculative guess it is possible that given the Donegal background to Hazel Blair, born Corscadden, the mother of Tony, might well have that privilege given the presence of a number of Nesbitt families there from Scotland from the 17th Century onward. There are some interesting people and connections amongst them.

Rab C. Nesbitt, alas, is purely fictional, an imaginative creation of the writers’ mind whose life and works are there purely as social comment. On the other hand, Patrick Lichfield, surname Anson, who was Earl of Lichfield is of Nesbitt descent, and descended from the same person who is ancestor to other Earls, including Home and Antrim, as well as a number of other members of the titled aristocracy, some still rich, more rather poorer. It was the impact of death duties that relieved Patrick, along with many others, of the family estates and sent him out to earn a living as best he could.

Social mobility can be up or down. When there are larger families, as in the 18th and 19th Centuries, then there can substantial downward mobility if many marry. Patrick shares his ancestry with many people found dotted about the various levels of wealth and standing, very many of them closer to the foot of the ladder than they would like to be. Patrick Lichfield’s Nesbitt ancestor, Cairncross Nesbitt, lived in County Longford, but was one of a group of Donegal Nesbitt’s descended from the Ilk of Nisbet of Nisbet of the Scottish Borders, and inevitably from King Robert The Bruce.

So if a Donegal Nesbitt lurks in Tony Blair’s genes, we have a connection to the Arnold Nesbitt whose financial speculations made a major contribution to the devastating 1772 credit crunch that brought down so many British landed families, ruined much of commerce and the trades, and inflicted poverty on a large proportion of the American Colonists, to add to his many other talents in that direction.

Patrick Lichfield on the other hand was a cousin of the Queen Mother by marriage. She claimed to be of good family, but amongst the English heiresses wisely married by her male financially embarrassed immediate forebears, it does not take too long for her to have origins amongst persons of wealth whose business interests are decidedly industrial and who have made good by their own efforts.

So we have taken a handful of well known names and already it is looking very complicated. Out there in the real world it is fast moving, complex and uncertain. One feature of the several genealogy and inheritance programmes on TV recently is how mixed up and unpredictable it can all be. Families once rich losing it within a generation or two. Families once poor managing to rise with the efforts of one or two people, sometimes to be lost again quite quickly, rags to rags in three generations. Or in my case one generation with a bare spasm of time with a positive credit rating.

If there is one thing designed to confuse and contradict realities it is the classification and recording of class in government statistics. So if you hear our politicians going on about class, ignore them, they will be mostly spouting rubbish based on ancient ideologies and statistical systems that were deeply suspect even in the period of their origin. In 1881 the wife of a major diplomat was somehow recorded as being the wife of a General Labourer. When you really get down to the detail in the original documents it is not half as simple as it is made out to be.

What matters now, as ever in the UK, is money, contacts, opportunity and access to credit and to lawyers to mind your back. In the UK today you can hide it where you want, avoid or evade tax almost at will, silence anyone who asks questions with an injunction granted by phone by a friendly judge who has been in chambers with or knows someone you know or hire and there is almost no risk of being charged with fraud unless you are too flagrant to be missed or you cross someone who has more power and influence.

The nature and extent of migration is a factor as well. In the past the element that is rarely taken into consideration by historians with fixed dogmas is the religious issue as a barrier. I can recall religion being a major issue in many instances. There are other complications as well. The Temperance Movement, which became substantial in the late 19th Century had its own structure and complications almost parallel in local communities to the traditional one. Quite what vertical divisions there are at present as well as the theoretical horizontal ones I will leave for others to work out.

If class in its old sense is to be an election issue then we will be arguing about the wrong matter at the wrong time and to the wrong purpose. But with Brown in charge what else do you expect? Perhaps he should have got out more back in Govan and Kirkcaldy.

1 comment:

  1. At last I have an excuse for stopping the research on my family tree!!