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'Downton Abbey' missing the radical leftists

Published February 6, 2014 12:10 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Three and a half seasons into the run of "Downton Abbey," the writers have yet to find a comfortable and accurate way to portray the radical left that was so important a part of British politics during the era. Not long ago, we were wondering whether the Irish firebrand Tom Branson was involved in the burning of a castle. That subplot died aborning. But Tom himself never seemed quite fully drawn in his radicalism. Before his reduction to his current form (in which he wanders the estate, plans to move to America and utters the occasional platitude), he would occasionally make some wild declamation at dinner and — well, and nothing. No consequences. Nobody cared.

Then there's Isobel Crawley, the show's liberal gadfly. But she has become the show's comic relief. One Sunday night, after playing Miss Marple to find a missing knife of some value, she marched into Violet Crawley's parlor to demand that the gardener wrongly accused of theft be rehired — only to learn that the dowager countess had already done exactly that, and even apologized. "If you wish to understand things," Violet lectured her, "you must come out from behind your prejudice and listen."

Once more the liberals go down to humiliating defeat. True, the show now is entering its guess-who's-coming-to-dinner phase, but the writers have already established, via Mr. Carson, Lord Grantham and even Lady Violet, that the traditionalists are going to be the good guys on the issue of race.

The best the show has been able to do recently with liberal politics is to present a couple of cloying references to the great prime minister David Lloyd George, largely credited with creating the basis for the British welfare state. Charles Blake, a supposedly hard-eyed radical and government employee, has even moved into the abbey for a bit, presumably to succeed the listless Tom as the dispenser of nasty cracks about the rich.

But Lloyd George was a spent force by 1922, about to be toppled from office, in large part due to the united opposition of the aristocratic land owners — such as, say, Lord Grantham. Many historians say British liberalism actually collapsed during the Great War. When Lloyd George began his land-reform campaign a few years later, he was no longer prime minister, and the campaign fell flat.

It would be nice to see the occasional character who is able to make a serious rather than comic case for reform. The British welfare state, whatever its occasional excesses, became a model for the world. Alas, a viewer would hardly know from "Downton Abbey" how much of the serious spadework was done during the very era in which this otherwise quite excellent series is set.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of "The Violence of Peace: America's Wars in the Age of Obama" and the novel "The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln." Follow him on Twitter at @StepCarter.