The New Elite is in complete denial
The not-so-liberal establishment refuses to acknowledge its own power.
I was surprised and delighted to find my new book, Values, Voice and Virtue, in The Sunday Times bestseller list this week. But I was even more surprised to read some of the reaction to the book from our media and political class.
Values, Voice and Virtue offers a sweeping account of why British politics has come unstuck over the past half-century. It throws light on the big divides which I argue are now shaping British politics and society. There are divides over the values society holds. Divides over whose voices are heard in our public institutions. And divides over whose voices and values are considered to be virtuous, or morally worthy.
I also take aim at a small and increasingly influential group I call the New Elite. This group consists of graduates from elite Oxbridge or Russell Group universities. They live in the UK’s big cities and its university towns. They usually belong to the professional and managerial class. They share the same set of socially liberal, sometimes radically progressive, values. They have increasingly been drifting leftwards over the past 20 years, both politically and culturally. And today they wield considerable influence over public institutions and the national conversation.
This is not to deny the presence of what we might call the ‘old elite’ – a right-leaning, wealthy, privileged and heavily interconnected group which still wields enormous economic power in Britain. It’s merely to point out that, today, whether we look at politics, the media, the creative industries, cultural institutions or schools and universities, we can see that the axis of power is now rapidly tilting away from that old elite and toward a new successor class.
I don’t think this is a controversial point to make. My argument builds upon the work of Christopher Lasch, Daniel Bell, David Brooks, Richard Florida, Michael Lind, Sir Roger Scruton and David Goodhart, among others – all of whom I reference in Values, Voice and Virtue. In their different ways, they have all also noted the rise of a New Elite and what makes it distinct from the old elite.
So you would have to be pretty ignorant of the wider, well-known literature on the New Elite to think that what I’m arguing in Values, Voice and Virtue is particularly unique or outrageous. And yet, based on their reaction over the past week, many members of the New Elite clearly do think this about my argument. Their reaction has been very revealing.
Indeed, I spent part of last week watching one left-leaning, Oxbridge graduate after another – newspaper columnists, editors, television presenters, professors, art critics, think-tank directors and so on – lining up to proclaim themselves definitely not part of any elite. I’m not going to name names, but how, for example, can you work at a newspaper like The Times, at senior levels in the BBC, in publishing, or at an Oxbridge or Russell Group university and still claim there’s no such thing as a New Elite? No such thing, that is, of a left-leaning elite graduate class, which is not only more liberal or radically progressive than the rest of the country, but which also wields considerable influence over it?
Well, I’ll tell you how. Because you belong to the New Elite.
Members of the New Elite really do hold enormous influence over the national conversation – by defining concepts, determining speech codes, shaping social norms, prioritising voices and determining which values are considered legitimate. All of which helps to explain why, even as Britain has moved rightwards economically, it has moved leftwards culturally. At the same time, members of the New Elite also continually disavow their own influence. Indeed, they are very fond of portraying themselves as oppressed underdogs who actually have no power at all.
The uniform reaction to Values, Voice and Virtue among members of the New Elite has demonstrated precisely my point – that these people represent a distinctive class with distinctive tastes, values and priorities, and that they pursue specific strategies to consolidate their power and to acquire further status in society.
If anything, the New Elite’s reaction to my book has underlined just how much these people are drifting away from the rest of the country, politically and culturally. As I write in Values, Voice and Virtue, they seldom interact with people who hold different values and beliefs to their own. They inhabit a social world, both offline and online, which is full of people who look and sound like them. They tend to read things that confirm their existing beliefs, while rejecting evidence that points to the contrary. And they’ve responded to recent challenges to their economic, cultural and political power, from Brexit to Boris Johnson, by refusing to compromise with the millions of voters who think differently to them. They’ve doubled down on their existing beliefs while simultaneously denouncing these voters as an assortment of racist gammons, thick bigots and ignorant buffoons.
The reaction to Values, Voice and Virtue among prominent members of the New Elite has also demonstrated another key feature of their class – that is, their political intolerance. They are among the most likely to block, unfriend and insult anyone who exposes them to an alternative view. Their intolerance toward those who dissent from the ‘sacred values’ of radical progressivism is on full display on social media most days.
Rather than reflect on why so many of our institutions do not adequately reflect the full range of values and voices in British society, or attempt to grasp why so many voters are still so utterly disillusioned with political parties of the mainstream left and right, many in the New Elite prefer to put their fingers in their ears instead, or to silence and stigmatise anyone who disagrees with them. They want to pretend that the last decade in politics did not happen.
What has also struck me is just how adept members of the New Elite are at signalling their elite status to other members of their class. They do this partly to try to gain more status and esteem for themselves. But they also do it to firmly dissociate themselves from supposedly ‘low-status’, morally inferior groups – such as conservatives, Brexiteers, workers, non-graduates and anybody else who dares to challenge or criticise the prevailing orthodoxy.
Members of the old elite derive their social status from wealth, income, holidays and leisure time. Members of the New Elite increasingly derive their status from their luxury beliefs and their allegiance to radical ‘woke’ progressivism (a worldview that some of them try to claim does not even exist). They rally behind the leading advocates of this new religion and deride those who are critical of it. They claim to be committed to liberalism and pluralism, while simultaneously avoiding or shutting down debate with anybody who might hold different beliefs to their own.
If the reaction to Values, Voice and Virtue in some quarters has convinced me of anything, it’s that I’m absolutely right about the New Elite and its intolerance. Rather than engage constructively or offer any genuinely interesting criticism, its members have responded defensively and with contempt. And in doing so, they have provided yet another powerful display of their distinction as a new ruling class that is distant from the rest of society.
Matthew Goodwin is author of Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics, which is published by Penguin. Order it here. A version of this article originally appeared on Matthew’s Substack, on 9 April 2023.
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