Cronyism (noun, abst): the divvying up of the decent bits and the giving of them to one's mates. If you want the most enduring image of cronyism, think not of Iraq and Halliburton or Simon Cowell and Cheryl Cole's stellar career. Instead, go all the way back to the Domesday Book, which catalogues the land shared out by William the Conqueror to the feudal lords that helped him win.
They're still in charge, by all accounts. The biggest survey of landowners in 140 years reveals that a third of the country belongs to the aristocracy – from Ralph Percy, Duke of Northumberland, whose forebears make an appearance in Shakespeare's Henry IV and once copped off with Anne Boleyn, to Gerald Grosvenor, Duke of Westminster, whose surname pops up all over the capital and on provincial hotels that want to sound posh.
The survey, published in Country Life magazine, shows that 20 million of Britain's 60 million acres of rural land is owned by a mere 0.6 per cent of the population. Presumably, the 1,200 aristocrats among that number believed this would all remain a secret, seeing as it's only rah-rah hoorays who buy Country Life.
Is this any surprise? We like to think we're an equal society, a progressive democracy, a nation constantly on the cusp of social change. But that change has always eluded us. We're an island principality of subjects rather than citizens, ruled over by a woman supposedly ordained by God (He's not on the list of landowners, by the way), with a bunch of public schoolboys in charge and an obsession with class-based period dramas (and I include myself in that Downton Abbey bracket).
Nothing has changed since Elizabeth and Lord Burghley, Charles and Villiers, Victoria and Melbourne. Knowing our place is a classically British trope – like the Monty Python sketch as King Arthur trit-trots through a plague-infested hamlet: "Must be the king," mumbles a wheezing peasant. "He's the only one not covered in shit." We might have scrubbed all the mud off, lanced our buboes and moved into a Barratt Home, but we the proletariat are still the ones spattered with metaphorical human effluence. We may not be sleeping in the same room as three goats and a pig any more, but we're the ones mopping up the deficit. Life for the privileged continues as it ever did, no different from 900 years ago, although they have electric lighting in their draughty piles now and their arrow slits are double-glazed.
While Baroness Willoughby de Eresby (no, really) inherited her 78,200 acres from someone who had in turn inherited it from someone else, in an infinite Jacob's Ladder of entails and inequality, there are thousands who can't afford – may never be able to afford, in fact – to even begin climbing that same ladder, that antediluvian chain of being at the top of which squat the poshos, like the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk. Thousands more are about to be shunted out of the cities in an effort to sort out our social housing crisis.
Why not deal with the anti-social housing crisis first? During the Blitz and subsequent evacuation, jolly-hockey-sticks sorts opened up their grand demesnes to the dirty-faced children of the satanic mills. Chatsworth, Castle Howard, Blenheim – all became refuges for those who had to leave the urban centres. How about we try that again? Ralph Percy's gaff features as the on-screen Hogwarts; he must have a few rooms going spare. We'll bring our own towels, promise.
On a grassy knoll behind Chatsworth, the Derbyshire seat of the Duke of Devonshire (keep up), is a manicured "ER" in letters 20ft high, rendered in some sort of high-class vegetation. (You'll have to ask the head groundsman for the specifics.) The initials will change at some point, but little else will. And half an hour down the road is Sheffield, with one of Britain's longest council waiting lists, where 43 per cent of people are still holding out for their first council home. They'll be waiting until doomsday, at least.