For much of Downton Abbey, viewers are treated with glorious eye candy of British aristocratic life in a mighty estate, robust at first but fading as the seasons progress. What we are not given is a rationale behind the whole cultural structure of the house and the social order surrounding it. This is particularly important for American audiences who know none of this from modern experience.

The Dowager Countess is being pushed to turn over control of their own private hospital to a municipal government. Of course all the ‘progressives’ in the family and estate support this move but she is intransigent. Control must remain with the family, she insists.
Finally, in the course of a conversation in the library, she lays out her thinking. In a short soliloquy, she summarises 800 years of British history in a paragraph, and elucidates the understanding of such great thinkers as Bertrand de Jouvenel and Lord Acton. It’s the kind of history that is routinely denied to students and has been for decades. It’s a good lesson in political science too.

“For years I’ve watched governments take control of our lives,” she says, “and their argument is always the same: fewer costs and greater efficiency. But the result is the same too: less control by the people and more controlled by the state, until the individual’s own wishes count for nothing. That is what I consider my duty to resist.”

“By wielding your unelected power?” asks Lady Rosamund Payneswick, the daughter of the Dowager Countess.

Ignoring the swipe, the Dowager answers: “See, the point of a so-called great family is to protect our freedoms. That is why the Barons made King John sign the Magna Carta.”

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