'A fully equipped duke," thundered David Lloyd George nearly 100 years ago, "costs as much to keep as two Dreadnoughts - and they are just as great a terror."
Now, it seems, the highest ranks of the nobility are not considered dangerous enough even to merit inclusion in Harpers & Queen. The magazine, traditionally more "country" than the flashier, "towny" Tatler, is to drop "Jennifer's Diary", the column in which the slightest doings of the upper classes have been chronicled with slavish sycophancy for 60 years.
In truth, the receding chinlines possessed by those with impeccable bloodlines were already less in evidence in Jennifer's. When Melissa Knatchbull, former daughter-in-law of Countess Mountbatten of Burma, and Emily Oppenheimer Turner, of the diamond family, took over the column a couple of years ago, they announced themselves as "new Harpers". "We don't want to be seen as rather useless upper-class girls," they said. Those were, of course, just the type of people that the original Jennifer, Betty Kenward, used to cover so assiduously. But the change at Harpers & Queen is part of a wider trend.
Only 10 years ago, newspaper gossip columns would eagerly seize on any story about obscure peers or their families, the title being enough to ensure that Nigel Dempster or Ross Benson would turn in an elegant paragraph "revealing" that Lady Anastasia FitzGrafton had come second in a gymkhana, during which - tragically - she had broken a toenail.
"Doesn't exist! Doesn't exist!" one diary editor used to wail whenever an understrapper suggested writing about a pop singer instead of a toff, smiting his forehead at the thought of the degradation involved in recording the activities of such a person. But the revolutionary concept that aristocratic pedigree alone was not reason enough to print a story about someone - they ought actually to have done something interesting - gradually gained currency.
To where now does the reader turn who is hungry for news of, say, the Earl of Elgin, who brings the jaw of Robert the Bruce with him when he gives talks to "jolly things along", or Lord Teviot, who enjoyed a successful career as a bus driver after Eton (expertise he put to good use speaking on transport in the Upper House)?
"That whole sort of thing is dead and finished," Lady Kate Douglas, the Marquess of Queensberry's daughter, says of the old ways, "and I think it's a brilliant thing. Being written about because you have a title is irrelevant, boring and frankly embarrassing. Our family house is off the Harrow Road and I'm totally state educated. The whole new aristocracy is not about being in a peerage book, it's entirely about money."
In the past, of course, those who made money would often be raised to the peerage, or, if no title was offered, they could buy one from an unscrupulous prime minister. But the creation of life peerages has ended the practice whereby the aristocracy could renew itself with new blood and new wealth. Neither can the hereditary peers pass on a position of political power any more.
In the 1950s, when debutantes were still presented to the Queen, a grandson of the Duke of Marlborough, Winston Churchill, was the Prime Minister, while the commanding Tory figure in the House of Lords was the Marquess of Salisbury. Today, the current Marquess sits in the Lords having been accelerated to the peerage while his father was still alive, as Lord Cecil of Essendon. His heir, however, will have no right to a seat. If the Cecils want to continue a family tradition in politics that goes back to Elizabeth I, they will have to fight for their places against commoners. At least the Cecils still have Hatfield House. Many members of the aristocracy live in rather more straitened circumstances. The late Duke of Manchester ended his days in a one-bedroom flat overlooking a garage after a career that included spells as a trouser salesman, professional crocodile wrestler, and convicted fraudster (he served 28 months in a Virginia penitentiary after a scam involving the Tampa Bay Lightning ice hockey club).
Other scions of old families earn their livings in estate agencies, running sandwich firms or setting up shops. Lord Brocket, another convicted fraudster, has lost Brocket Hall outside London, and is currently to be seen in the company of pneumatic models, washed-up pop singers and has-been disc jockeys in the distinctly "non-U" programme I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!
His female companions in the Australian outback are not the kind of girls who would have been selected to do "the Season". But since the death nearly three years ago of Peter Townend, Tatler's Social Consultant, whose absurd snobbery meant the maintenance of an annual set of events at which "the right" kind of young people could meet each other was the towering achievement of his life, the Season has sputtered on only fitfully. Brave efforts by Jenny Hallam-Peel, who heads the executive committee to keep it going, have not stopped dissent from those who feel it is no longer élitist enough.
Society, says Tatler's editor Geordie Greig, is now "much more fluid, much more meritocratic". Membership is earned through being "dynamic, sexy and in demand". While that still leaves room for the likes of Lady Victoria Hervey and Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, who are unafraid to take part in rather undignified publicity stunts to stay "in demand", it excludes the remaining upper classes whose 21st birthday celebrations and weddings used to fill "Jennifer's Diary".
But the decline of deference and the stripping away of the aristocracy's residual political powers have reduced the public's fascination for the old upper classes, still further the inclination to call a duke "your Grace", as the Duke of Westminster likes to be addressed. This dwindling class - and as no new hereditary titles are granted they will dwindle - will continue to try to maintain what stately homes they haven't had to hand over to the National Trust, while their offspring play of an evening on the "Fulham beach" before returning to parts of London they wouldn't have contemplated inhabiting a generation ago.
Their activities, however, need no longer trouble us. As Lloyd George also said: aristocracy is like cheese, "the older it is, the higher it becomes". Jennifer has chosen a timely retirement - before the enfeebled dukes are consigned, like old cheese, to the dustbin of history.Reuse content