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OPINION - Britain's class system is hell for everyone — just ask an aristocrat like Charles Spencer how toxic it is

 (Dave Benett)
(Dave Benett)

The film Saltburn described an aristocratic family in an exquisite home being destroyed by a middle-class demon. How pitiful he was, we thought, to hate such gilded creatures. But they should have looked closer to home.

Lord Spencer has published a memoir — A Very Private School — which tells how he was abused at his prep school. It is a brave thing to do and it is clearly an act of survival. I wonder if he told his parents. I wonder if he told his sister, Princess Diana, who shared the childhood in which their mother Frances left her abusive husband and, due to the testimony of their snobbish grandmother, was denied custody of her children. Spencer says the abuse by a young matron destroyed his early relationships in life — and it destroyed his childhood. Groomed by a female paedophile, he wanted full sex at 12.

Unlike most things in Britain abuse has no class — it is upwardly and downwardly mobile. But it was only the aristocracy that, until this generation at least, sent its male children away, usually at eight, to be brutalised by people who hated them.

That’s your Saltburn demon. He wasn’t in the house but the school, and he wasn’t a friend but a carer. Thousands of men were emotionally destroyed by an experience which, in the wider culture, is still imbued with the glamour of wealth. Blame Brideshead Revisited, though no one came out of that story happy. We just misremember it.

It was only the aristocracy that sent its male children away — thousands were emotionally destroyed

There are many things wrong with the aristocracy. Male primogeniture, in which the boy inherits everything even if he has older sisters, is one of them. It’s winner takes all, and it has enabled the great estates of the British Isles to remain intact and it gives their owners disproportionate political and social power in what is supposed to be, but clearly isn’t, a thriving social democracy. Almost all titles pass through male primogeniture, and some have seats in the House of Lords, though — and this laughter in hell — the royal family abandoned male primogeniture in 2013 because it was not progressive enough for public opinion.

If Princess Charlotte had come before Prince George, she would be Queen Regnant — absolute primogeniture.

I have been following the campaign Daughters’ Rights, which fights against male primogeniture or “son preference”, and I have learned some curious things from a class that is temperamentally silent because to notice them is to understand the amazing solidity of their power. The British aristocracy is one of the most enduring elites in the world, but it exacts a price from its children. Earl Spencer is only one example.

I spoke to women from aristocratic families. They wanted anonymity because they would be accused of “whinging”. Some had generous trust funds and legacies, some were entirely disinherited, due to being female.

What I found most interesting in their testimony was how toxic the family dynamic could be within families that practised male primogeniture. They excelled at role play. Women learnt from an early age — because they were told so — that they were not as valuable or as loved as their brothers. Sometimes they had very fractured relationships with their parents — with their father who dismissed them, and with their mother who did not speak up for them, because no one had spoken up for her.

Relationships with male siblings were fraught because they knew they were not equal. Sometimes the brother reacted with a guilty sensitivity and would donate a house he would otherwise designate as a holiday let on the estate to the sister. This was a woman in need of a job but often not educated to the same standard as the brother who would inherit everything.

Sometimes he would react with cruelty, projecting his greed onto the sister. Sometimes the men went mad — the late Marquess of Bristol with heroin, the late Marquess of Bath with sex. It’s spun as English eccentricity, but that’s denial. It’s sickness, and you wonder what happened to them at school.

It was awful to listen to these women talk not about longing for titles — though son preference should not be practised in the House of Lords, or anywhere, and men own an obscene amount of land compared with women everywhere — but about the parcelling out of love, and the roles that children play. Act out a fantasy and real life is lost. Toxicity is toxicity, in a slum or in a palace.

Tanya Gold is an Evening Standard columnist