Sunday, January 27, 2013

How Downton Abbey Destroyed England

Downton Abbey
I admit it.  We’re hooked.  We never miss an episode of Downton Abbey, a sweeping soap opera filled with complex characters that takes place in early 20th Century England.  It’s the latest offering from Masterpiece Theatre who gave us Upstairs, Downstairs a generation ago. 

When we aren’t wondering what will happen next…

Will eldest daughter, Mary, marry the heir to the estate? (She did)  Will youngest daughter, Sybil, run away with the chauffer? (She did too)  Will Lord Grantham’s valet go to jail for murdering his wife? (No surprise, he did!)

….. we are marveling at the presentation of  British manners and the class system. 

Now in its third season, we find ourselves in the 1920’s.  It was a time of social change and lots of dialog is devoted to the pending breakdown of the British class system.  Maggie Smith, playing the grand dame of the family, offers comic relief as well as context.  When she first hears the word “weekend” she asks, “What is a week-end?”.   Presumably, all days are the same if you have never done a day of honest work in your life.

But, all this clinging to tradition strikes me as more than a bit odd given the decade in which this melodrama takes place.  This was the Roaring 20's  in the U.S.  And, these blokes are going on and on about how they have an obligation to “provide jobs” for the lower class workers who live in their house and reside on their estate.  This, apparently, is part of the rationale for hanging on to the estate no matter what the obstacles may be.

During the 20’s, the implementation of mass production techniques drove down wholesale prices and increased industrial production in the US.  Meanwhile, the British economy stagnated.  While the dukes and duchesses were providing jobs to valets and ladies’ maids whose profession was to help their masters get dressed a couple of times a day, their counterparts in the US were putting people to work in factories, producing washing machines, radios and cars. 
Actor Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham

An analog often used in teaching economics is that of the “last buggy whip manufacturer”.  He tends to his trade and makes good money even while people are buying cars en masse. When there is no longer a demand for his product, he goes broke.  It’s a simple way to explain the effect of innovation.  Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter called it the Law of Creative Destruction. 

Think of what email and FedEx have done to the Post Office and you’ll understand it easily.  Or, trace the evolution in the music industry from vinyl records to cassette tapes to compact discs to MP3 players.  Embrace innovation or go out of business.

In an early episode of Downton this season, the Earl loses most of his fortune in a bad investment.  His new son-in-law, the heir to the estate, invests a large inherited sum not in an industrial enterprise or even in bonds but rather in the estate, Downton Abbey.  All are relieved that the grand tradition of the British upper class may  be preserved.

And it will be.  Until they make the last buggy whip, that is.


  1. Hi John, great blog....but in defence of the English we have produced a number of entrepreneurs through the ages and the vast majority of the British workforce is employed by small & medium-sized enterprises these days. And we managed to invent the first computer (in Manchester) and the World Wide Web. Great that our cousins across the Atlantic have been equally inventive...that's why we still have that special relationship! Please sign me up for your blog going forward. Sara x
    By Sara McKee FRSA

  2. Thanks, Sara. I was hoping for a response from across the pond. I watched a news item on TV about the real estate that is used to film Downton Abbey. It had fallen into disrepair during the recession as fewer corporate events had been booked. The TV show paid to rennovate it. Very entrepreneurial I'd say. The current owner is to the manor born so I guess the English aristocracy continues to thrive.

  3. Always thought provoking. Your article reminded me of why my personality will probably fight off my official retirement forever. I just don’t want to make a last buggy whip or anything else, and as the end of any era in which I am involved comes to a close, I hope to have a sight on replacement product /service needs just far enough off in the distance that it takes creativity to find them. Anyway, it sure is fun sometimes to bask in accumulated profits, but if we become too complacent to the progress which is happening around us, we will wake up one day and find the real world has moved forward and left us the-way-we-were. I fear eventually, I might find it lonely living “back in the day” and I never want it to become the present. I guess this all reinforces why I enjoy the realm of living as an optimist, while always trying to spend enough time in being a realistic to keep the bills paid.