The wildly-popular BBC production, “Downton Abbey” has offices buzzing on Monday mornings. Like the “Upstairs, Downstairs” of old, “Downton” provides the viewer with two distinct lifestyles in one house: that of Lord and Lady of the manor and of the staff that runs the place.
Despite the lavish lifestyle of the fictitious Grantham family, Great Britain in the 1920s was economically stagnant. One percent of the nation held two-thirds of the nation’s wealth, but weren’t investing it. The ruling elite was financially idle – giving and attending parties, while thinking they were doing their part by employing scads of household servants. Running an actual business? Actually creating jobs? Beneath one’s station in life.
The world was shifting: Agrarian-based economies were being phased out as scientific advances gave way to modern production. The British failed to see this. While British youngsters were steeped in Victorian mythology, Germans schools were cranking out scientists and mathematicians. While the United States was enjoying the “Roaring Twenties,” England was suffering from massive unemployment and growing inefficiency in an increasingly mechanized world. Americans were mad for motor cars, but the British elite were slow to pop the clutch, preferring the slower pace of life money afforded them. After all, where did one need to go in such a hurry? They were simply thankful the war was over, and all could return to “normal.”
In the latest episode, the viewer is teased with the troubling fact that new son-in-law Matthew has discovered a tangled mess of finances that the current lord of the manor chooses to ignore. No need to figure it out, in Lord Grantham’s mind: The place is still standing, there’s money in the bank, and the servant staff is up to full-speed. All is right with the world.
Dame Maggie Smith plays the irresistibly cranky Dowager Countess. In the world she inhabits, she and others like her sit atop the heap of old money, with rigid etiquette and severely drawn social lines keeping everything just so. She knows the role the Abbey and its wealthy inhabitants play: “An aristocrat with no servants is as much use to the county as a glass hammer.” Her son, Lord Grantham, is also quite clear on his role in life: “My fortune is the work of others, who labored to build a great dynasty. Do I have the right to destroy their work, or impoverish that dynasty? I am a custodian, my dear, not an owner. I must strive to be worthy of the task I have been set.” A custodian maintains; his role is not necessarily to improve.
“Downton Abbey” is more than just a pretty picture of days of yore; it’s a morality play. The Dowager Countess and her son, Lord Grantham, know their duty: to take care of those beneath them. Today, the European Union acts much the same way. Samuel Gregg, in Becoming Europe, points out that Western Europe has long held to the social contract and economic culture that provides a “strong welfare state and implement[s] a range of redistributionist policies.” For the residents of “Downton,” it means the servants are provided a place to live and work for life, while recognizing their station in life is not likely to change. As Gregg says, this creates “ … a mutually supportive embrace which many are reluctant to abandon, even when the embrace is evidently undermining the foundations of long-term economic prosperity.”
Great Britain undertook massive insurance and pension schemes in the early 1900s. By 1911, they had unemployment insurance and compulsory medical insurance. Tocqueville called this sort of thing “soft despotism” — “the people’s voluntary surrender of their liberty in return for material ease.” The languishing lifestyle of the Granthams of “Downton Abbey” is now within the grasp of all Brits – surely, equality at its best.
The Great Depression and another war brought about the end of places like “Downton Abbey.” The upkeep of such enormous estates became too much for one family, especially one with no income. The lords and ladies had to get jobs (trading their family inheritance for a politician’s pension) and the kitchen staff and livery boys went into manufacturing.
That’s not the end of the story, though. The European welfare state lives on, and once again a lifestyle of relative ease is creeping towards an economic cliff. Great Britain (and the rest of the EU) simply cannot afford to keep paying money out in the form of pensions, unemployment, socialized health care and compulsory redistribution. Money goes out, but no money is coming in – the same crisis Lord Grantham refuses to face.
Again, it is the Dowager Countess who has the most sensible thing to say. Putting it bluntly to her recently-dumped granddaughter, she says, “Stop whining and find something to do.” Here’s hoping Europe in 2013 can hear that phrase echo from the halls of “Downton Abbey” a century ago.