Watching Downton Abbey with an Historian: The Rise of the Working Class -The Toast

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Previous installments can be found here. There will be spoilers. “An historian” is a perfectly acceptable Commonwealth convention, haters to the left [side of the road].


“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” —Matthew 20:16

Is there a new revolutionary at Downton Abbey? Sarah Bunting, the local leftist schoolteacher, featured prominently in the first episode of the new season. “Here she comes, the Boudica of the North Riding,” Lord Grantham grumbled, comparing Miss Bunting with the Celtic queen who led an uprising against the Roman occupiers of Britain in the first century. But the Romans, of course, won in the end, a point surely not lost on a man who would have been schooled in the classics. Last season in this column I lamented the relative taming of Tom Branson, Irish-socialist-revolutionary turned land agent, and Rose, who has retreated from sexual liberation back into dinner-party intrigues. Can we hope for anything better from Sarah Bunting?

Portrait of Ramsay MacDonald by Solomon Joseph Solomon, 1911

The upending of the social hierarchy was the central theme of the episode (if you could find it beneath the rather tortuous plot twists and the arcane references to details of previous seasons). The Labour Party, which coalesced around the turn of the century out of fairly marginal left-wing and union organizations, formed its first government in January 1924. Ramsay MacDonald, the new prime minister, was the illegitimate son of a farm servant and a ploughman from a small fishing port on the north-east coast of Scotland: the “son of a crofter,” as Lady Mary sniffs. Labour governed as a minority party, though: the Conservatives won the largest share of seats, and Labour only took power because the Liberals declined to form a coalition with the Conservative Party. In a sense, this was the opposite of what happened in the 2010 election that put David Cameron in power. (The banter between Miss Bunting and a dinner party guest about Labour enjoying the support of the “majority of the country” is therefore strangely inaccurate.)

Although MacDonald’s first government only lasted a short nine months, it was the first lapping wave of a tidal change in British politics. The Labour Party grew rapidly and, by World War II, it had almost entirely eclipsed the Liberals on the left wing of British politics. In 1935, historian George Dangerfield wrote a beautiful book on this transformation called The Strange Death of Liberal England. In it, he imagines Liberalism as a moribund structure, the political equivalent of an old man stuck in his habits. Three rebellions, he argues, challenged that structure: the fight for women’s votes, the fight for worker’s rights, and the battle over Ireland. These forces, given strength and coherence by World War I, transformed English society beyond recognition. Julian Fellowes might consider offering Dangerfield a posthumous writer’s credit on Downton Abbey. Ireland, women, war, and workers: these have been the show’s great political forces, too, tranforming and at times threatening to overwhelm the accretion of habit and tradition embodied by the Crawley family, their home, and their servants. In this episode, the rise of workers is at the fore, but as ever, the show leaves us with a clearer sense of revolution’s limits than its possibilities.

ripon_war_memorial Ripon War Memorial

All politics is local, as Massachusetts politician Tip O’Neill famously said. Ripon, Downton’s electoral constituency, elected a Conservative aristocrat in 1923, but Sunday night’s episode offers a miniature version of the rise of Labour when the local war memorial committee chooses Carson, rather than Lord Grantham, as its chairman. Lest we miss the class implications, the committee’s spokeswoman, having made the case that Carson knew the dead soldiers better and is a figure of importance in the village, asks for the milk to be put in her tea first, a sure sign of her humble background.

It’s no accident that Carson’s opportunity comes through a war memorial committee. The Labour Party’s great task, in the 1920s and 1930s, was proving itself to be able to govern on a national level; the Conservatives worked tirelessly to portray the party as sectional and divisive. It was the interwar version of contemporary accusations about class warfare and the tendency of politicians to wrap themselves in flags. The shared sacrifice of World War I was above reproach, a national symbol of communal suffering; observances through memorials and Armistice Day services grew in power in the decades after the war. Carson embodies the sober patriotism of this commemoration. Significantly, his first action in office is to keep the peace between the classes and the masses: he insists that Lord Grantham be offered an ornamental position as patron to the committee.

Sarah Bunting, of course, has no time for any of this. She suggests, at the Crawley’s dinner table, that the village should not spend its money on a permanent memorial to a senseless, horrific, and ultimately futile war. In a flash of his old ways, Branson backs her up: the only good thing to come out of the war, he says, was the Russian Revolution of 1917, which ushered in the Soviet Union. Although Russian socialism was still an inspiration to many British leftists at this time, the Labour Party was keen to distance itself from communism. Indeed, accusations that it was subservient to international communism (via the so-called “Zinoviev letter”) may have helped cost the party the election in October 1924.

Even Branson backs off from his fiery speech. He’s embarassed by Miss Bunting’s insistence on meeting the servants, and he apologizes to Lord Grantham. His gesture underscores how unkind Downton Abbey is to its nascent revolutionaries. To return to Dangerfield’s categories: Downton’s feminists have been sidelined by death, romance, and childbirth; its Irish revolutionary has been fairly thoroughly domesticated; will its Labour socialist fare any better? The co-opting of radical leaders and movements by the forces of stability, conservatism, and entrenched power is an old story. In a sense, it’s exactly what Downton Abbey’s left-wing critics dislike most about the show: it takes themes of class conflict and inequality, and it assimilates them into narratives about tradition and enduring but benign hierarchy.

newlabourBut is this Downton’s fault, or ours? Tony Blair, after all, invented “New Labour” by ending the party’s affiliation with unions and embracing the neoliberal consensus. I have a postcard above my desk, bought at an Anarchist Book Fair in Manchester, that mocks New Labour through a remaking of an old margarine ad: “New Labour: I can’t believe it’s not better,” the postcard proclaims, with a tagline: “Now with 20% real Labour.” What are the costs, for a radical movement, of coming to power? Perhaps Downton’s new revolutionary is not Sarah Bunting at all, but Carson.


George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997) (First pub. 1935)

David Marquand, “MacDonald, (James) Ramsay (1866-1937),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edn., Sept. 2014

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