For a more civilized vision of conservatism, I turn to a well-known font of political philosophy. I refer, of course, to “Downton Abbey,” the British TV series that ran on PBS for six seasons and spawned a feature film in September. You may think it’s simply a high-class soap opera, and so it is. But it is also a powerful if implicit rebuke of the snarling conservatism that has become dominant not just in the United States but also now in the United Kingdom.
For those who have less important things to do, “Downton Abbey” is the story of the Crawley family, headed by Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), and his American wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern). They live in a vast “country house” known as, yes, Downton Abbey. Like the 1970s show “Upstairs, Downstairs,” the series toggles between the lives of the nobility upstairs and the servants downstairs. Much of the focus is on what English newspaper readers in the 1920s would have called “hatches, matches and dispatches” — i.e., births, marriages and deaths. There are story lines involving murder, rape, love affairs, out-of-wedlock births, personality conflicts galore and, in the best tradition of Jane Austen, the marriage prospects of the Crawleys’ three headstrong daughters — Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay).
But the real subject of the series is how the British upper crust coped with the tumultuous years between 1912 and 1926. This was a time of sweeping technological transformations with the spread of telephones, automobiles, airplanes, radio, electrical appliances and other modern wonders — and even more profound social upheavals as the rising working class and middle class challenged the aristocrats’ dominance of British society.
The series dramatizes the changes afoot with characters such as Tom Branson (Allen Leech), the Irish nationalist chauffeur whose marriage to Lady Sybil initially scandalizes the family; Joseph Molesley (Kevin Doyle), a footman with a passion for learning who leaves the household to become a schoolteacher; and Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), a middle-class widow who clashes with her relative, the imperious Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith). The growing power of women is another major theme. Two of the Crawley women refuse to accept their traditional place in society: Mary takes over the running of the estate with Tom, and Edith takes over the running of a magazine.
The Crawleys are wary of change but also resigned to it. Determined to adapt to the modern world while trying to preserve their way of life, they realize, in the words of the Sicilian aristocrat Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, that “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” The most reactionary member of the household is the head butler, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), but in the sixth season he retires and is replaced by Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier), a gay man at a time when homosexuality was still a crime. In the film, set after the sixth season, Mr. Carson returns temporarily to oversee a royal visit. At film’s end, he and the housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), walk away from the house, secure in their belief that the Crawleys will remain in residence for many years to come.
This no doubt reflects the outlook of the series creator, Julian Fellowes, a Tory member of the House of Lords. The world he has conjured up — of benevolent aristocrats and their devoted servants — is, needless to say, romanticized and ahistorical. But then “Downton Abbey” isn’t meant to be a documentary. It is primarily an entertainment, but it is also a conservative vision of a society that is very much at odds with today’s populist persuasion. The series suggests that strong institutions and hallowed traditions are important but need to change with the times, that the rich and powerful have a right to their wealth but also a duty to help the less fortunate, and that good manners are the glue that holds society together. None of these beliefs is evident in the Trumpified conservative movement.
The genteel conservatism of “Downton Abbey” is not a rigid, extremist ideology whose adherents are bent on power at all costs. It is a humane, instinctual conservatism that embodies the wisdom of philosopher Michael Oakeshott: “To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to Utopian bliss.” Present-day “conservatives” must rediscover this sensibility if they are to rescue their movement from its populist-nationalist abyss.