So what exactly is a baronet? We need to know to understand, in these class-sensitive times, following hard on “plebgate”, whether the appointment of Sir George Young, Bart, as the UK Government’s Chief Whip upsets the delicately crafted social balance of the British Cabinet. Is Sir George a bat’s squeak more posh or a smidgin more plebeian than Hampstead-born, Rugby and Cambridge-educated ex-Army officer and former Lazards banker Andrew Mitchell?
Young is well loved as the gentlemanly bicycling baronet, his copybook slightly blotted by his witty apothegm: “The homeless are what you step over when you come out of the opera” – often quoted out of context, as here. Those were more vulgar, more Thatcherite times. The Conservative party is now, of course, intensely relaxed about the filthy poor.
But back to the baronetcy. Behind it lies a shocking tale of snobbery and social climbing, naked patronage and the original cash for honours scandal.
It was the reign of James I, a man with a reputation for overspending and over-promoting his favourites. In 1610 he had dissolved Parliament in a huff, somewhat foolishly cutting himself off from the tax monies that Parliament could vote him.
His problems had been heightened by the fact that the money he could raise from the very rich was woefully out of kilter with their actual income – a problem even modern Chancellors of the Exchequer still seem unable effectively to deal with. Since years before Elizabeth’s death economic success coupled with inflation meant taxes were levied on out-of-date assessments. (The mighty duke of Buckingham, for example, had an income of £15,000 in 1623 yet was taxed on only £400 of it.)
In the absence of Parliament, one money-raiser James came up with was the creation (or revival) of the title “baronet” – more than a knight, not quite a lord and with no right to sit in the House of Lords.
A hereditary baronetcy (with the courtesy title “Sir”) could be purchased by a reputable knight or esquire (a man who was more than a gentleman but not quite a knight) for £1,080 paid over three years. Between 1611 and 1614 more than £90,000 was thereby collected.
‘If any person accepts or obtains or agrees to accept or attempts to obtain from any person, for himself or for any other person, or for any purpose, any gift, money or valuable consideration as an inducement or reward for procuring or assisting or endeavouring to procure the grant of a dignity or title of honour to any person, or otherwise in connection with such a grant, he shall be guilty of a misdemeanour’ – Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925
There was a vicious scramble to be the first of the order, then to be among the first, since precedence was based upon the date on which each baronetcy was created. On ceremonial occasions those at the head of the order would be placed closest to senior judges and privy councillors or even younger sons of viscounts and barons. Those at the other end would be placed rather too close to ordinary knights who had not paid that little extra for a slightly glossier escutcheon.
England, then as now, jealously guarded its social distinctions and hence the creation of the new artificial cash-based order caused endless dissent among the persons of bon ton since James did not examine too closely the suitability or social standing of his appointees. Eventually James simply sold them to the highest bidder, leading to something of an inflationary spiral as their numbers rose and their price plummeted to a mere £220 by 1622.
James’s son Charles I refused to continue the demeaning business of selling honours – until he too fell out with his Parliament. In two years from May 1941 he flogged off another 128, adding to the 290 already in existence. One could hardly move for baronets.
One must not tar Sir George with the disreputable brush of his order’s origins. His family’s baronetcy was created in 1813 as “Young of Formosa Place” for services to the Royal Navy when the explicit sale of the honour had ceased. Such shenanigans are now dealt with under the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925 following an early 20th Century cash for honours scandal. In 1922 Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd George was discovered to have quite legally sold honours, including peerages, either for his party or personal benefit. Baronetcies were offered at upwards of £25,000.
The Act now forbids such sale in these words: “If any person accepts or obtains or agrees to accept or attempts to obtain from any person, for himself or for any other person, or for any purpose, any gift, money or valuable consideration as an inducement or reward for procuring or assisting or endeavouring to procure the grant of a dignity or title of honour to any person, or otherwise in connection with such a grant, he shall be guilty of a misdemeanour.”
The Act’s strictures were, however, not deemed relevant to the Labour Government’s cash for honours scandal of 2006 since, of course, the cash amounts and loans paid into party coffers were in no way related to the coincidental honours later extended to numbers of the donors.
Since 1965 only one baronetcy has been created – and that, not without a whiff of scandal. It was given to Denis Thatcher, husband of the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The Prime Minister controls the honours system via prerogatives derived from the Monarch.
Mrs Thatcher was keen that her son, Mark, should be able to later assume the hereditary honorific “Sir”. He duly became “Sir Mark Thatcher, 2nd Baronet of Scotney in the County of Kent” on the death of his father in 2003. In 2005 he was fined and given a suspended jail sentence for breaking anti-mercenary legislation in South Africa.
So, for those wishing to pursue the plebs row, the baronetcy is not an altogether noble order nor quite an honourable tradition. But to answer the question, yes, thanks to Sir George (Eton, Oxford, merchant banker) the Cabinet’s blue-blood quotient has just got a little bluer.
Ref: Lawrence Stone: The Crisis of the Aristocracy 1558-1641(Oxford University Press 1967)
A full rundown on the Cabinet’s social profile is here:
Pleb or Posh: the Cabinet’s class position analysed
The Andrew Mitchell legal issues are examined here:
Andrew Mitchell cannot rely on the police’s thick skins