The revenge of the Somewheres

The liberal elite’s rejection of national belonging sowed the seeds of its current crisis.

Richard Norrie

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Topics Brexit Politics UK

In his book The Road to Somewhere, my colleague David Goodhart identified two broad political tribes – those who see the world from Anywhere and those who see the world from Somewhere.

Boris Johnson’s election victory has once again brought this divide to the surface.

Anywheres tend to be younger and place more value on career and education – that is, they see themselves in terms of what they have achieved. They are also more comfortable with ethnic diversity and mass immigration, precisely because their identities are less rooted to place and group.

Somewheres, by contrast, are older and place greater value on the communities in which they live. This is not to say that Anywheres do not care about their community. Rather, Anywheres can see themselves prospering in any community.

Goodhart estimates that around 50 per cent of the population are Somewheres, 25 per cent are Anywheres, and the remainder occupy the grey area between the two camps. Both worldviews are perfectly legitimate, but the problem is that they can conflict.

From sitting in seminar after seminar, packed with policymakers, politicians, journalists and academics, Goodhart became painfully aware of how much the Anywhere view dominates public discussion, despite being a minority view.

I experienced this myself when I attended the British German Forum in 2016. It takes place each year in the bucolic idyll of Wilton Park, which is a branch of the Foreign Office and serves as a country retreat for influential people to meet and discuss policy in seclusion.

The forum was set up by Helmut Kohl and Margaret Thatcher in 1985 to foster better relationships between the future elites of Germany and the United Kingdom.

It was soon after the referendum on EU membership. Attendees were lobbyists, civil servants, think tankers and academics – all young or youngish. I was one of the few Leavers there.

There was a group of Remainers present who were reasonable and proved good company, but most were in a state of shock and were looking to use the time as some sort of collective therapy session.

The first session at the conference included Tory MEP Daniel Hannan, who was one of the architects of Brexit. I was impressed by him. Though I was wary of many of the politicians associated with the Leave campaign, he made some perfectly reasonable points.

Once Hannan had left, we broke off into groups to discuss what we had heard. Immediately, the verdict on him was that he was an opportunist and a charlatan. But this was only said once he was out of earshot.

Later, the conversation turned to British values, the very idea of which sparked sneering. Derisive references to cucumber sandwiches were made. Meanwhile, these elitists discussed how we might instil European values in the great unwashed, from our lovely vantage point in the Sussex countryside. They did not consider that it might be a little too late for that.

The discussion inevitably turned to how we might devise a second referendum to keep Britain in the EU.

The conference was dominated by Anywheres, tone deaf to the Somewhere voice that manifested itself in the Brexit vote. The diversity of opinion on offer was summed up by a discussion put on for us between Tory Europhile Ken Clarke and Labour Europhile Chris Bryant.

At the end of the conference, we were asked to give our opinion on the proceedings. I said the entire affair was like watching a football match between Manchester United and Manchester United. It got a laugh.

Manchester United feels like an apt metaphor for our elites – once, they set the pace; now they are jaded, failing and desperately trying to regain their pre-eminence.

The elites represented at events like these are not the elites who appear on television – the politicians or the commentators. These are the faceless, nameless people you’ve never heard of, but who exert far too much influence over policymaking. Their priorities are often out of line with the public, and they’re often not very nice people, either.

Our Anywhere elite has taken a massive hiding at the ballot box in recent years: in the EU referendum and at the General Election. Boris Johnson has successfully harnessed the Somewhere impulse within the electorate.

While the extent to which he himself is a Somewhere remains to be seen, Johnson takes the Somewhere vote for granted at his peril. The Labour Party did exactly this, abandoning its working-class Somewhere heartlands, and has paid a hefty price for doing so.

At the last election, Jeremy Corbyn thought he could just coast Brexit – despite being a lifelong Eurosceptic, he said he backed a second referendum but would maintain a neutral stance. All that mattered apparently was inflicting on us his socialist utopia; he made no commitment on the national question.

Under Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour Party has lost the working class to the Tories. Corbyn even managed to lose working-class voters in 2017 to former Tory PM Theresa May – a politician with all the charisma of an over-cooked parsnip, running on a manifesto that promised to bring back fox-hunting.

But this process began decades ago. The battles between Blairites and Corbynites over Labour’s future direction only remind us how equally bourgeois and out-of-touch those two rival factions are.

What our Anywhere elites have failed to understand is that nations are real, meaningful things. For Burke, a nation was a social contract between past, present and future. The state is a manifestation of its political will.

Nations are units of belonging defined by shared ancestry, language, history, religion, geography and borders. In that sense, they are exclusive, but they needn’t be reactionary or racist. It is entirely possible to reject chauvinism while believing in the nation.

Orwell analysed nationalism as a sickness that sought domination over others. But he did not mean that nations are wrong and need to be dissolved into supranational, regional entities. Indeed, he was rather fond of England and its way of life, describing it to his English readership as ‘your civilisation’.

It is common to hear populist movements described as ‘nationalist’, but this is not the primary motivation behind their rise. They are looking to conserve nations, not exert powerful nations over weaker ones.

If anything, the European Union’s insatiable desire for more power over its member states might be described as nationalist – for a nation that does not exist.

The architects of the EU are often called liberals, but its creation went against the best advice of one of the greatest European liberal philosophers: Immanuel Kant.

In his essay Perpetual Peace, Kant specifically rejected the idea of a supranational state because there was no national social contract to underpin it. He said the solution to the problem of war was to tame the nation from within, through republican reform of national governments.

Since Kant, we have learned that democratic national governments do not go to war with each other. Meanwhile, the EU is stagnant, unhappy, and has just lost one of its largest economies.

In this article, I have made reference to Kant, Burke and Orwell. Respectively, they are a liberal, a conservative, and a socialist. All three demonstrate an awareness of national belonging and its vital importance to politics.

The political class, meanwhile, has created a new world that goes against the preferences of ordinary folk. The poorer you are, the more you need national social contracts, both economically and psychologically.

As is often the case, popular political instincts have proved more astute than the big ideas propounded from on high. The dismissal of national belonging has spread throughout the elites, only to bring so much crashing down around them.

Let’s hope a more balanced consensus may emerge, as emerge it must.

Richard Norrie is a writer and researcher.

Picture by: Getty.

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