How has the British aristocracy survived so well?

The Duchess of Devonshire's death reminds us that the nobility, against the odds, is still going strong
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Not, alas, being a regular frequenter of the beau monde, I only once met the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, who died last week. It was at a lunch given by The Oldie magazine, where some editorial whim had converted the table at which I sat into a kind of aristocratic galère. An earl was expected, but failed to show; his countess lurked in the wings. And there, a place or two away, sat Debo, with whom I eventually managed a sort of conversation about the Chatsworth postal arrangements. She was, I later decided, with the possible exception of the Somerville don who walked me through the Norman Conquest and the headmaster's secretary at school, the scariest woman I have ever met.

One takes as one finds, of course, but a glance through the torrent of obituaries and tributes to "the last of the Mitfords", suggest that, I got hold of the wrong end of the stick. For the late Mrs Cavendish, most of the evidence insists, was a friendly sort, who rarely put on side; one of those toffs who are so grand that the fact of their grandeur never occurs to them, and are able, consequently, to go through life without assuming airs and graces simply because the fact of their social position is taken for granted. The real test of self-confidence, after all, lies in not having to check whether you have it.

This may or may not be a definition of the true aristocrat, but it is at least a preliminary gambit in answering a question that could hardly be ignored in last week's tide of Debo-mania. How is it that, in a supposedly democratic age, with their hereditary privileges ever more restricted, their role in government well-nigh defunct, the British aristocracy have survived so well, that the average nobleman – if there is such a thing – is seen neither as a joke nor a gilded anachronism extracting his rents from land only an accident of birth enabled him to possess, but a piece of living history with a heritage we should do well to study and a personal demeanour – at any rate in Debo's case – we could do well to emulate?

In strict historical terms, the survival of the British peerage in a condition that at least some of their ancestors would recognise is one of the great Houdini acts of the past 70 years. As early as 1941, in The Lion and the Unicorn, George Orwell was predicting that the post-war landscape would see the end of the "old lady in the Rolls-Royce car", while the country houses would be "turned into children's camps". Evelyn Waugh, albeit from the other side of the political map, thought the same and Brideshead Revisited (1945), which begins with the great house of the title being turned into an army camp, was explicitly framed as a threnody to a dying world.

And yet, against considerable odds, most of the dukes and marquises who quaked in their patent-leather boots as they heard the results of the 1945 general election, persisted into the age of the common man in a way that seemed remarkable to thoe pundits who waved them on their way. Waugh's introduction to the revised edition of Brideshead in 1961 makes this point with some force, noting that what he had written 16 years before was essentially a panegyric preached over an empty coffin: It was, he admits, "impossible to foresee the present cult of the English country house… And the English aristocracy has maintained its identity to a degree that then seemed impossible."

Naturally, there is more to aristocratic survival than the ability – with or without the help of the National Trust – to refurbish your ancestral home and throw it open to the tourists, as the Devonshires did with Chatsworth when faced with several million pounds' worth of death duties in the early 1950s. Clearly, other qualities – political, emotional, moral – must be at work. One of them, inevitably, is a native habit – even here in an apparently meritocratic age – of kowtow to people whose superiority rests on social precedence and the almost intangible mystique thought to accompany it. My Oxford college in the early 1980s boasted a real live viscount, and nothing exceeded the deference with which this gentleman was treated by his acquaintance. Would he be appearing on the river that afternoon? Would he condescend to coach some cack-handed novice oarsman from the towpath?

Like the Dowager Duchess, Viscount X never put on side, but then, unlike the nervous minor public school boys seeking to establish themselves in the pecking order, he never had to, for most of his prestige was wished on him by others. Then, to add to deference, there is that affinity with "ordinary people" to which Debo's obituarists constantly referred, her wholly unfeigned ability, if, say, stranded on a fairground ride, to find something to talk about with the riff-raff marooned alongside her. Genuine in itself, this also has deep historical roots in the alliance that existed between the aristocracy and the labouring classes which prevailed until at least the mid-19th century when the upwardly mobile middle classes began to obtain political power. The working classes, much of the evidence suggests, always felt more at home with "real toffs" than the upstart bourgeoisie, if only because the latter were close enough to them to despise.

But "real toffs" are expected to have a lofty side, too, when the situation demands it, and among the various compliments paid to Debo in her lifetime I wasn't at all surprised to find Patrick Leigh Fermor's remark that she would have made a very good queen. And why exactly? Well, according to the explanation supplied in James Lees-Milne's diaries, because she combined friendliness with "dignity". No one would have taken liberties "because nobody does" – an imputation of loftiness perhaps echoed in the Prime Minister's apology to the Queen for betraying her enthusiasm for the referendum result: doubtless Cameron was scared stiff. Lees-Milne, it should be said, reckoned Debo the most remarkable woman he had ever met, on the grounds that "in any crisis, she would come out top, keep her head, show her innate courage and self-assurance".

Underlying this paean is the implication that this coming out on top would have been for the common good rather than merely her own. Paternalism is a much-discredited word these days, but it ought to be remembered that the old, aristocratic ideal of society, however much it involved one side knowing its place and another exercising an arbitrary authority, relied on re-distributing a small part of your largesse to those less fortunately situated. In this context it is worth pointing out that the Devonshires opened up Chatsworth for the benefit of the families of striking miners during the 1984/5 strike and that Debo is reckoned to have brought a smile to the face of no less an ideologue than Anne Scargill.

Noblesse continues to oblige, and in a world full of new, tax-avoiding, prole-hating, obligation-avoiding money, old, duty-conscious, stately-home money can sometimes seem a very desirable friend to cultivate.