The revolt against the New Elite
Matthew Goodwin's new book gives voice to the frustrations of the masses.
Quite soon after the 2016 EU referendum, left-wing comedian Mark Steel performed in the town where I live on the east coast of Kent. Why, he asked the audience, did the people of Kent, a county so close to the continent, vote to leave the EU. ‘You can even see the French coast from here’, he said. He then asked, affecting his trademark mock incredulity, ‘Who here actually voted Brexit?’. Natural shyness prevented me from raising a hand and crying out: ‘Me!’
As is often the case when you regret not speaking your mind in the heat of the moment, I started thinking of how I should have responded to Steel. Why indeed had the people of Kent voted Leave? And why had so many people also in forgotten or forlorn towns done likewise?
‘It was an anti-London vote’, I concluded in my imaginary dialogue with Steel. There was nothing ‘anti-European’ about the decision to leave the EU – an undemocratic institution that fraudulently presents itself as synonymous with ‘Europe’. Brexit was a revolt of the powerless against the powerful.
I grew up in London, but by 2016 I had already lived in Kent for several years. In that time, I had noticed a cleavage emerge between the outlooks of those living in the rapidly changing capital and those in the rest of the country. There was a growing divergence between metropolitan liberals and other Britons, who felt increasingly ignored by this new establishment. That this liberal elite had always had an affinity with a similarly aloof, tin-eared technocratic caste in Brussels made complete sense. If Brexit was about ‘taking back control’ from the EU, it was also about sticking it to the EU’s allies and enablers in the British establishment.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that Matthew Goodwin, the sociologist who has done most to chart the emergence of this divide, is based at the University of Kent, where he is a professor of politics. His latest book, Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics, zeroes in on the conflict between the New Elite and vast swathes of the general public
As Goodwin defines it, the New Elite largely comprises graduates with liberal inclinations, who live in London and also in places like Manchester, Bristol, Cambridge and Edinburgh. They are likely to hold ‘progressive’ views on race, gender and immigration. They dominate cultural and other public institutions, such as the BBC, the civil service, universities, museums and galleries. They effectively shape and supervise much of public discourse.
Then we have the majority of the population – Goodwin estimates at least 80 per cent – who dwell in towns and in the countryside. This section of society tends to dissent from the elite worldview. It consists of mostly older non-graduates, who are more circumspect when it comes to issues such as immigration or multiculturalism. And they tend to be especially sceptical about ‘woke’ perspectives on gender and race. They feel that the elite regards them with indifference – or, worse, that it holds them in contempt, caricaturing them as racists and simpletons who were too stupid to know what they were even voting for in 2016.
Values, Voice and Virtue is certainly a work of sociological insight. But it’s also a much-needed corrective. It gives voice to those whose values are scarcely heard or represented by the media. As Goodwin writes of these members of the devalued majority, ‘they no longer feel their voice is represented in the institutions; and they no longer feel that, relative to others, their group is recognised as having the same amount of social status, prestige, dignity and moral worth’.
Values, Voice and Virtue is an impassioned work and a convincing one at that. Goodwin is surely right to insist that the New Elite is not an obvious ruling clique. Those who shape and regulate our mores do not do so mainly through legislation, but through cultural influence, via our institutions and the media. It matters not that we have had nearly 13 years of Conservative rule, because the ostensible Conservatives in power are just as likely to hold metropolitan, liberal-leftish views as their Labour counterparts.
Goodwin’s argument echoes that of David Goodhart in The Road to Somewhere (2017). Goodhart argued that Western society is now composed of ‘Anywheres’ and ‘Somewheres’. ‘Anywheres’ are the educated, interconnected elites who feel more solidarity with their own trans-national caste than with their fellow citizens. The ‘Somewheres’ are those who feel an attachment to place, family and nation. Going further back, Goodwin also echoes arguments made about the US by Christopher Lasch in The Revolt of the Elites (1997).
Goodwin situates the development of this new divide in its historical and economic context. He traces its roots in the deindustrialisation of British towns and cities that began in the 1970s, which came alongside the growth of globalisation. He also notes how the Labour Party has slowly embraced progressive, middle-class concerns at the expense of the working class. ‘Hyper-globalisation has transformed the country’s economic geography’, Goodwin observes. ‘London and the surrounding commuter belt in south-east England were put on steroids, while people who lived beyond the bright lights of the cities, Oxbridge and the university towns… were cut adrift, relegated to second-class citizens.’
The Brexit vote of 2016 was thus no flash in the pan. But it did wake people up. The New Elite was clearly furious that the great unwashed had piped up. Indeed, it’s still furious at the impertinence now. But the revolt against it continues. The very fact that Values, Voice and Virtue has been on The Sunday Times Bestsellers List is testament to the persistence of that revolting spirit.
Since the publication of Values, Voice and Virtue, academics and liberal journalists have predictably accused Goodwin of being ‘far right’, simply for giving voice to the frustrations of the majority. This only proves his point – the new elite really is that out-of-touch.
Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics, by Matthew Goodwin, is published by Penguin. Order it here.
Patrick West is a spiked columnist. His latest book, Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche For Our Times, is published by Societas.
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