The return of feudalism
Has feudalism returned to the United Kingdom? At first this seems an absurd question. We no longer have fealty to some lord or other and neither do we have a duty to drop everything and go off and fight. We are no longer required to labour for so many days a year for no pay and we are free to leave our work or home and go to another town or work for another employer. Those aspects of feudalism are therefore no more and we no longer see serfs or villeins. I want to argue however, that a form of feudalism – which I shall call ‘neo-feudalism’ – is creeping back into society and its effects are just as harmful as they ever were.
We need to start with what exactly is feudalism and we do encounter a problem straightaway. There are a number of different definitions and even some who question whether it ever really existed. But for our purposes its key features in the UK were that someone owed a fealty to a lord of some kind in return for protection. In the early centuries of the millennium the risk of attack was a real one so the protection afforded by such a system was a tangible benefit.
It was however more than that and meant that there was no freedom of movement for the individual. They were tied to the lord who controlled his life in many ways including dispensing justice. It was a requirement to work on the lord’s land for part of the year and to give up a proportion of the crop. Clearly, as we’ve said, this no longer exists and so feudalism as it existed in the middle ages no longer exists.
Elements of feudalism
My approach is to look at the elements of feudalism. If we start with power, ultimately it lay with the king who devolved it to the barons who were in turn required to be loyal and provide soldiers in case of war. Land was given in return for this loyalty known as a fief. Those at the bottom of the system had few rights. The legal system, such as it was, was run by the same lords and barons. Serfs had to give a proportion of their crop to the lord and to work so many days in his fields or provide other service.
The key features were the exercise of power ultimately to the disadvantage of the serf. He was not allowed to travel and enjoyed few rights. Wealth was concentrated in few hands. Information and the spread of knowledge was extremely limited and when attempts were made to translate the Bible into the language of the people, this was vigorously resisted and William Tyndale was hunted down and strangled to death.
As a system it died out in the fifteenth century although elements survived in various countries well into the twentieth, particularly in Russia. Remnants of it were abolished at the time of the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century. Interestingly, the term itself was not used at the time it was in place and scholars argue over many aspects of how it operated in practice. The French revolution had a profound effect on the British ruling class and led to increased repression and fear, amounting to paranoia, of insurrection and sedition (Zamoysky, Phantom Terror, William Collins, 2014).
So although we do not have serfs or villeins and we no longer worry about a call from the Queen to do military service, or to spend days bringing in the harvest for the lord of the manor, I want to argue that a kind of shadow feudalism still exists and may even be getting worse.
If we look at power, it is still concentrated in few hands. Considerable amounts of power is held and wielded by what is loosely termed the ‘establishment’. Although there are many arguments about quite what the establishment is, Owen Jones in his book The Establishment and how they get away with it (Allen Lane, 2014) defines it as:
Today’s Establishment is made up – as it has always been – of powerful groups that need to protect their position in a democracy in which almost the entire adult population has the right to vote. The Establishment represents and an attempt on behalf of these groups to ‘manage’ democracy, to make sure that it does not threaten their own interests. In this respect, it might be seen as a firewall that insulates them from the wider population.
He argues that although this establishment is often at odds with itself, what unites them is a common sense that those at the top deserve their power and their ever growing fortunes.
Thus a second aspect of feudalism was the concentration of wealth in few hands. This concentration is increasing all the time and is likely to continue to do so. The forces of globalisation and the reduction in employment rights are just two of the forces driving this increasing divide. The Equality Trust estimates that the richest 10% own 45% of all wealth in the UK and the situation is getting worse.
Another key aspect is the role and access to information. Francis Bacon said that information is power. The news media is largely controlled by wealthy individuals some of whom do not live in the country. They exert enormous influence over what we read, over politicians and 10 Downing Street. For example, shortly after being appointed prime minister, Theresa May – during a hurried trip to the United Nations – scurried across New York for a meeting with Rupert Murdoch. What was discussed we do not know. Note that Murdoch did not go to the UN to see the prime minister: it was the other way around. Another key power broker is the Daily Mail. These and other media are hugely influential and shape political discourse in the country. It might thought that the new media – Facebook, Twitter et al – are more important now, but often they just follow the agenda set by the print media.
This might not matter if the balance of the stories was neutral over time or if there was a broad equality of ‘left’ versus ‘right’ in terms of content. This is far from being the case. After the economic crash a decade ago, the Conservative coalition were able to sell with ease the idea that the cause was Labour overspending. They were aided in this by an enfeebled Labour party. There has also been a never-ending series of stories over many years about ‘scroungers and skivers’. The economy is being bled dry by a large army of people unjustly living off the state at the expense of honest hard-working taxpayers – it is claimed. There has not, by contrast, been much of an outcry concerning corporate welfare – indeed there are many who are unaware of what it means or the extent of it. York University estimates it is worth around £180bn a year dwarfing by far what scroungers and skivers are allegedly claiming at the bottom of society.
This illustrates in my view the point that those at the top of society control the news agenda and come to believe the privileges of wealth as if by right. Someone falsely claiming say, £100 per week on benefits while running an illicit window cleaning round are fair game for a vigorous trashing. Channel 5 seems to have a series of programmes featuring endless variations on the theme of benefit cheats – a google search runs to several pages. A similar search on bankers (on Channel 5) reveals nothing.
What it means
This desire for power, and an equal desire to hold on to it, combined with the assumption of privilege and wealth as being theirs by right can be seen in the current tortuous debate over the European Court of Justice and the desire by the Conservatives to abolish the Human Rights Act. Both these represent a fundamental shift in power away from the elite down to the ordinary person. For centuries, rights, as they affect individuals, have been slowly dragged from those in power going right back to Magna Carta. The right to vote for example was slowly and grudgingly increased with women only allowed the vote after the Great War following a hard fought battle by the suffragettes. Male suffrage increased slowly through the nineteenth century from a low of 2%. Social and factory legislation in the nineteenth century was introduced after bitter and lengthy opposition in parliament.
I would argue that at base, the elite in this country do not like the idea of ordinary individuals having rights. The feudal notion that we are subjects not citizens is a key factor. The rights based view of the law is an anathema to many in positions of power including some in the judiciary. They were active over many years in suppressing protest especially that which might impact on the powers that be. For them, the notion that ordinary citizens had a basic set of rights is something which offends their profound notion of privilege. Conor Gearty argues that many in the judiciary had an exaggerated and benign view of the common law and its value in upholding basic liberties (On Fantasy Island, OUP, 2016).
Politicians recently played an important role in trying to limit the ability of ordinary people acquiring justice by placing financial obstacles in their way. This included the introduction of court fees and almost ending legal aid. Tribunal cases have become too expensive for people who felt they had been wrongly treated by an employer.
I have argued that feudalism is still alive and well but has adopted a different form. The elite no longer wear crowns but nevertheless enjoy great wealth and privileges which they are keen to keep. The establishment, however defined, ensures its own survival by a range of actions including control of the news agenda, self-perpetuation by means of public schools, and by an ever increasing accumulation of wealth some of which escapes tax. The European Union and in particular its legal actions, became to be seen as a threat to their way of life. By granting basic rights to ordinary people, it ran against their own beliefs of innate superiority.