Titles shall ennoble, then,
All the common councilmen . . .
Peers shall teem in Christendom,
And a Duke’s exalted station
Be attainable by competitive examination.

“Oh, horror!” cry the addlepated young noblemen in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe.  Horror, indeed.  Their world will be turned upside down if the Queen of the Fairies carries out her threat to turn the House of Lords into a meritocracy.

Small wonder if they cannot “hide the fear that makes them tremble.”  After all, the whole point to a titled aristocracy is that dukes and earls have done nothing of themselves to deserve their exalted stations.  As Lord Melbourne said of the Order of the Garter, what he liked was, “There’s no damned merit about it.”  Of course there was always the odd hero or statesman—a Pitt or Nelson (who earned his title); they were exceptions.  But as Britain evolved into a constitutional monarchy, aristocrats came more and more to deserve Nancy Mitford’s complaint that in a republic an aristocrat is like a chicken...

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