Watching Downton Abbey with an Historian: Lord Grantham’s Secret Liberal Heart -The Toast

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keynesPrevious 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].


Lord Grantham, I think, is a closet Liberal. Underneath the huffing and puffing, the dress uniforms, the autocrat-of-the-dinner-table antics, and the decision to deal with Simon Bricker by taking a swing at him, there beats the heart of a moderate progressive interested in development economics. I write this as someone with a guilty fondness for Lord Grantham, it’s true; but stay with me, there’s a real case to be made here. I offer two case studies from the last two weeks.

Case one: Lord Grantham is a Keynesian, at least when it comes to the Versailles Treaty. Last week, he and Lady Edith discussed a trial involving the Brownshirts, the German paramilitary organization associated with the new Nazi Party, from which, we presume, more will be learned about the fate of Michael Gregson, Edith’s erstwhile lover. With the grave prescience available only to characters in historical fiction, he added: “But I’m afraid we’re going to see a lot more of this sort of thing. We pushed Germany too hard with our demands after the war.”

This is, of course, exactly the case made by economist John Maynard Keynes in his famous 1919 book, The Economic Consequences of the Peace. The treaty imposed by the victors in World War I, he argued, chose vengeance over reconstruction and thus committed themselves to ongoing instability rather than peace. He bemoaned rampant inflation in Germany, Italy, and the successor states to Austria-Hungary and the resulting human suffering, including widespread famine. And he warned of hunger’s consequences, as those driven to “a mad despair” might “overturn the remnants of organization, and submerge civilization itself in their attempts to satisfy desperately the overwhelming needs of the individual.”

Eglantyne Jebb

Keynes’s book was a best-seller at the time, and many people were moved by the plight of German, Austrian, Russian, and other Central and Eastern European citizens. The social reformer Eglantyne Jebb founded Save the Children, now a large international charity, to address this crisis: in 1919, she was arrested and fined for distributing leaflets in Trafalgar Square depicting starving children with the headline: “Our Blockade has caused this—millions of children are starving to death.” But this, surely, is territory more familiar to Miss Bunting, or Isobel, than to Lord Grantham. Anti-German feeling, which had led Britons with German ancestry to change their names during the war, still ran high after 1918. Those who campaigned against the conduct of British forces in Ireland, for example, could find no better insult than to compare them with the Germans. They were no better than Huns, guilty of “Anglo-Bochism” (boche being a disparaging term for a German soldier).

Keynes attracted attention, but a rhetoric of punitive reparations remained strong even as politicians gradually negotiated reduced terms for the German government over the course of the 1920s. For a man whose idea of a night out with the pals is a dinner in dress uniform with his old regiment in Sheffield, a belief that the punitive terms imposed on Germany are implicated in the early rise of fascism—in fact, a belief, in 1924, that early fascism is a troubling portent rather than an exciting innovation—is striking indeed.

Case two: in allowing the development of housing on Downton’s property, Lord Grantham’s concern is consistently with providing high-quality, contextual development, not with either making a lot of cash or with barring development at all costs.

The obsession with real estate, property, development, and investment this season obviously resonates with modern concerns, but it’s also historically accurate. Postwar Britain faced a shortfall of approximately 600,000 houses, reflecting the war’s exacerbation of earlier trends. In the short postwar boom, prime minister David Lloyd George had developed a series of plans for reconstruction, including new social services, large-scale building of public housing by local authorities, and state support for infrastructure. These plans were meant to fulfill the promise to reward returning soldiers with a Britain that was a “home fit for heroes”; the housing program, in fact, was even called “Homes for Heroes.” The boom ended soon, and these programs were slashed, but the need for modern housing was pressing and the building industry remained a stable cornerstone of the interwar economy. More than four million new homes were built in England and Wales between the wars.

This doesn’t mean, though, that Mrs. Patmore should have followed Carson’s advice to invest in a local building firm. (It was a truly weird moment when Mrs. Patmore, who had been uncertain what to do with £300, or about £13,000 to £15,000 in today’s money, was apparently quite knowledgeable about the workings of the stock market and publicly traded firms.) Speculative building, or building to meet projected demand for owner-occupiers rather than building to order, was on the rise; while this reflected changing patterns of home ownership, it also could lead to rapid, cheap development of the kind Lord Grantham fears. Many small contracting firms were made and dissolved quickly, tarnishing the public image of the industry.

Why should all of this come to Downton? As Christopher Powell writes, “The demand was for suburbs. From dense urban centers promoters began to move to the green fields beyond the towns.” This was fueled by new transportation networks and the rise of new light industries situated in smaller cities replacing the old heavy industrial centers. It was also driven by new ideas about town planning that emphasized the need for green space (the ‘garden city’ ideal) and a desire to eradicate, finally, the slums of Victorian and Edwardian cities.

Much of the interwar building boom was private: the Conservative Party preferred, in general, to subsidize speculative building rather than continue Lloyd George’s policy of funding local public housing. This was not uniformly true. In Nottingham, for example, a Conservative-led council oversaw the building of considerable municipal housing. Chairman William Crane, although himself a Tory, found that his paternalist commitment to the provision of housing for the poor gave him common ground with socialist and Labour politicians in the city.

It’s unlikely that Lord Grantham will go as far as Councillor Crane and advocate for council housing rather than private development at Downton. But his concern for the aesthetic and moral qualities of the development, combined with his commitment to moving forward with the scheme, ally him more with Liberal and Labour town planners than one would have expected. This is no re-run of the disastrous investment in Canadian railway shares; neither is it a reversion to hidebound stereotype.

In a brilliant essay in the London Review of Books last winter, James Meek explored how the Conservative Party in Britain has responded to the current housing crisis by “separating off the economically least powerful and squeezing them into the smallest, meanest, most insecure possible living space.” In this, as well as in their approach to foreign aid and economic reconstruction, I’d say they have a surprising amount to learn from Lord Grantham. Despite its nostalgia, Downton Abbey is once again this season promoting an underlying economic vision that is surprisingly progressive.


Philip Broxholme, “Back to the Future? The Tory Party, Paternalism, and Housing Policy in Nottingham 1919-1932,” Midland History 38: 1 (Spring 2013), pp. 99-118

Justin Forsyth, “Eglantyne Jebb: A True Children’s Champion,” Save the Children blog, Aug. 25, 2013

Christopher Powell, The British Building Industry Since 1800: An Economic History, 2nd edn. (London: E. & F.N. Spon, 1996)

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