Mistaken Lords

I am currently reading a new book on political prisoners in early Australia, Tony Moore, Death or Liberty: Rebels and Radicals transported to Australia, 1788-1868 (2010).

It’s a big book, full of rollicking stories about those convicts who were transported to Australia for political crimes.  They were only a small proportion of the total number of convicts, a couple of thousand at most out of 160,000 over 80 years, but their stories are interesting, the writing is engaging, and there is a new generation of readers for whom these stories will be new.

Hogarth, The Judges

William Hogarth, The Judges (1758), from Wikimedia Commons

But one thing has bothered me, which is perhaps why my promised book review is late.  Moore begins the book with the story of a group of Edinburgh radicals who became known as the ‘Scottish martyrs’.  The French Revolution had begun in 1789, and by the early 1790s, everyone was edgy.  Louis XVI was executed in January 1793.  In this heightened atmosphere, the group were tried for sedition.  The judge who sentenced them to transportation was a man whom Moore calls ‘Lord Henry Dundas’.  In fact, the name of the judge was Henry Dundas, Lord Melville.

As it happens, I’ve worked a bit in late 18th century Scottish history, so I’m one of the very few historians of Australia who would either know or care that there was no Lord Henry Dundas.  It’s an utterly trivial mistake, especially as Death or Liberty is about Australia, not Scotland.  In fact I’m a bit worried about why I am worried.  Getting preoccupied by it feels a bit like entering Gulliver’s Travels, where a Lilliputian war broke out between the big-endians and the little-endians over which way to crack open their boiled eggs.

Perhaps it’s because Lord Monckton, ‘climate change sceptic’, is in the country at the moment, that I’m preoccupied by titles.  Lord Monckton has been his usual controversial self, and the media has lapped it up, with serious articles about whether he is a ‘real’ Lord (yes), whether he sits in the House of Lords (no), if not, why not (see below), and how he should be addressed (not Lord Christopher Monckton, see below).

Given that we Australians rejected the idea of a hereditary nobility more than a century and a half ago [see my post on Bunyips], why on earth are these arcane issues being canvassed in the serious press at present?  And why should someone who can trace his ancestry back through umpteen generations have any greater cachet to talk about climate change, pro or con, than the rest of us?

It’s contradictory then for me to worry about Moore’s misnaming of the first Lord Melville.  Except that in this case, I think it does matter.

As Jane Austen implicitly knew, Lord or Lady Firstname indicates the son or daughter of a Duke, the highest rung of the British aristocracy.  So Lady Catherine de Burgh and her sister, the late Lady Anne Darcy, were the daughters of a Duke, with the pretensions to match.

Lord Henry Dundas implies someone with a whole canteen of silver cutlery in his mouth, whereas Henry Dundas, first Lord Melville, was a rat-cunning Scottish lawyer who clawed his way up the greasy pole of Scottish politics in the late 18th century.  He came from the minor aristocracy, but as the fourth son, he relied on his wits and political instincts to get ahead.  By the 1790s he controlled the political patronage network in Scotland for the Tory Party, and was rewarded with a hereditary title and a seat in the House of Lords – a bit like a safe place on the Senate ticket in return for services to the Party.

The British aristocracy has always needed to renew itself as old families died out and new-made Lords replaced them, sometimes for political services, sometimes by outright bribery.  In the 19th century, so many brewers bought themselves a peerage they were known collectively as the Beerage.  The puzzle is why they even bothered.  Jane Austen knew that money was more important than a title.  Nevertheless, as Gilbert and Sullivan said:

The House of Peers,
Throughout the years,
Did nothing in particular
And did it very well.

Today the House of Lords is trying to make itself relevant, by thinning out the number of hereditary lords, and by recruiting life peers from the intelligentsia – so the novelist P.D.James and the BBC presenter Melvyn Bragg become Baroness James of Holland Park and Baron Bragg of Wigton – but their children won’t inherit these titles.

The hereditary principle came under attack long ago.  In 1776, at the time of the American War of Independence, Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense, including a chapter Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession:

hereditary succession…claimed as a matter of right, is an insult and imposition on posterity. For all men being originally equals, no one by birth could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others for ever, and tho’ himself might deserve some decent degree of honours of his contemporaries, yet his descendants might be far too unworthy to inherit them. One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in Kings, is that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule, by giving mankind an ASS FOR A LION.

When the conservative intellectual Edmund Burke later deplored the overthrow of the monarchy in the French Revolution, Paine skewered his position in a famous quote: ‘He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird.’

We all love the plumage – just think about how many people watched the royal wedding on television – but the monarchy, and its attendant hereditary nobility, seem very nearly dead ducks, at least in Australia.

So why does anyone pay attention to Lord Monckton?  Why should his title lend him greater authority than other voices in this debate?  The problem is that most of us don’t have the scientific knowledge to discuss climate change in scientific terms.  Either we place our trust in the scientists who aren’t very media savvy, or we look for mistakes, and extrapolate from them to condemn the whole intellectual enterprise.  This seems to be the position of many climate sceptics, and as a rhetorical device, it’s pretty effective.  But it’s a lazy form of argument.

No Understanding - from Powerhouse, Brisbane

Tony Moore got Lord Melville’s name wrong, and for me this diminishes his authority as an expert.  But we all get things wrong occasionally.  In one of my books, I typed the ‘Indo-Pacific’ railway (across the Nullarbor) when I meant the ‘Union Pacific’ railroad (across America).  The mistake got through, and to my chagrin all the reviewers mentioned it, although it was only a slip of the fingers on the keyboard.

It looks as if I’ll have to read the whole of Liberty or Death and make the effort to understand the whole argument – not write my review based on the first 17 pages.

And rat-cunning is not an inherited characteristic; you can find it wherever you choose to look.

2 responses to “Mistaken Lords

  1. Hi, Marion,
    I agree – it’s not pedantry, it’s exactness, precision, to get the facts right.
    I’m glad I’ve found your blog – I’m looking forward to more.
    I really must get hold of Moore’s book as I’m descended from one of the Irish rebels of 1798 (Nicholas Delaney of Co Wicklow) who was very lucky to be transported to NSW and not hung

  2. Pingback: Thomas Dowse: Unaccompanied Minor | Historians are Past Caring

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