Gerald Grosvenor, sixth Duke of Westminster died on 9th August, aged only 64. I happened to be present at several events he attended in Manchester during the 1990s. He was a keen supporter of local business in the north west of England and I was fortunate to become one of the judges of the annual Duke of Westminster Awards. At the award ceremonies the Duke was usually present, he was introduced as His Grace, the Duke of Westminster. He was indeed a gracious man and usually gave an appropriate and amusing speech, with that easy assured confidence imbued into the British aristocracy.
That he was not inwardly so confident was indicated by his evident chain smoking, which was probably a contributory factor to his early death. It is said that he would rather not have inherited the huge responsibility of managing the family fortune and took this responsibility very seriously, which was probably another factor – there must be a burden in being psychologically set apart from your fellow citizens.
I once attended a reception at Eaton Hall near Chester, the ancestral country estate, and suitably opulent for such a rich family, with a reputed wealth of over 9 billion pounds – built up through the favour of kings and queens over many centuries. The duke was obviously very confident and polished in the small-talking routine of being introduced to all the guests, and a pleasant time was had by all.
Media reports suggest that little of that wealth will be paid in inheritance tax as it is held in trust. Also, the law of primogeniture means that it will mostly pass to the duke’s son, rather than to his daughters.
Now I am not necessarily in favour of dismantling these historic estates. However, large inheritance of this scale clearly gives a highly privileged life – and money makes money, which gives power over others and increases inequality. Society needs a way of levelling the playing field over time, which would be achieved in some degree by a reasonable level of death duties on the estate. As for it all going to the male heir – come on, get real, this is the 21st century!
Featured image cropped from one by Allan warren, via Wikimedia Commons