In search of a new solidarity
David Goodhart on his revolt against the liberal consensus.
‘A rift has been growing between two cultural blocs, two tribes’, writes David Goodhart in one of this year’s most insightful and thought-provoking offerings, The Road to Somewhere (reviewed here). On the one side are those Goodhart calls the Somewheres, those on low-to-middling incomes, often with little experience of higher education, but with a strong sense of place, of locality, be it a small town, a patch of suburbia, a faded industrial region or a former maritime area. Their worldview, writes Goodhart, is therefore clearly related to being and conserving somewhere: ‘They do not generally welcome change and older Somewheres are nostalgic for a lost Britain; they place a high value on security and familiarity and have strong group attachments, local and national; Somewheres (especially younger ones) accept the equality revolution but still value traditional family forms and are suspicious of “anything goes” attitudes; they are not hard authoritarians (outside a small core) but regret the passing of a more structured and tradition-bound world.’
On the other side are the Anywheres, those whose often residential-university education has propelled them away from somewhere, and into an often professional world of upwards-and-outwards mobility, and usually higher incomes, too. Clustering in and around metropolitan centres and university towns, ‘they predominate among decision-makers and opinion formers’, writes Goodhart, adding that ‘there is a left-of-centre wing, in caring professions like health and education, and the media and creative industries, and a right-of-centre wing in finance, business and traditional professions like law and accountancy’. Their worldview promotes their upwards social and economic trajectory, in which anything and anywhere, is possible: ‘They broadly welcome change and are not nostalgic for a lost Britain; they fully embrace egalitarian and meritocratic attitudes on race, sexuality and gender (and sometimes class) and think that we need to push on further; they do not in the main embrace a borderless world but they are individualists and internationalists who are not strongly attached to larger group identities, including national ones; they value autonomy and self-realisation before stability, community and tradition.’
Such is the division that, as The Road to Somewhere’s subtitle suggests, is now ‘shaping British politics’. It is a division, Goodhart argues, that has long been inchoate in British society, held in check by the muting of the Somewheres’ increasingly frustrated voice in public debate. But the Brexit vote changed things. The Anywheres – who ‘have dominated the political agenda whichever party has been in power for the past 25 years and have too often failed to distinguish their own sectional interests from the general interest’ – have now been brought face to face with those they were previously content to treat as mere impediments to social and economic change – ‘that bigoted woman’, as former New Labour prime minister Gordon Brown infamously called one such impediment.
It’s a powerful, disconcerting, sometimes problematic argument, one that simultaneously acknowledges the gains of modernity, of social and economic change – ‘the great liberalisation’ as Goodhart calls it – while also recognising the losses and privations of social and economic change in the lives of a good majority of British society. What makes it all the more surprising is that it is Goodhart, a man of impeccable Anywhere stock, making the argument. ‘I certainly come from a very Anywhere type of background’, he tells me. ‘I went to boarding school at eight – which is a very distinctive subset of the Anywheres. So I do, as it happens, come from a very metropolitan-elite background. Went to private school. Went to a Russell Group university. Then a career in journalism, first at the Financial Times, and then at Prospect magazine, which I co-founded and edited.’
While talking, Goodhart is looking out of the window at Policy Exchange, the right-leaning think-tank where he now works as head of demography, integration and immigration. The gold leaf atop Big Ben can be seen glinting in the winter sun. It’s a visual reminder of just how proximate Goodhart, this son of Tory MP Sir Philip Goodhart, is to the world of the political and cultural elites he now admonishes with such polite aplomb. Indeed, during our interview, David Liddington, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, on his way from a meeting, stops for a moment to exchange political small talk. This, it seems, remains Goodhart’s world.
What turned this one-time card-carrying member of the political and media class into, as he puts it, ‘an internal critic of contemporary liberalism’, was ‘Too Diverse?’, an essay he wrote in 2004 for Prospect, which was then republished in the Guardian. ‘It was a very tentative piece born of one of these roundtable conversations we used to hold at Prospect, in which then shadow work and pensions secretary David Willetts, in a discussion about the future of the welfare state, talked of the trade-off between diversity and solidarity. You can have very homogeneous, egalitarian, quite small countries like Sweden or Denmark, with a high degree of solidarity and a readiness to share resources across the population. Or you have your much bigger diverse societies, like the US, where you’re going to find it much harder to find high levels of sharing. The underlying assumption being that people are much readier to share with those they trust, who are much like themselves. It doesn’t require people to be of the same race or even the same class – it requires some quite strong common culture, which in many ways liberal, diverse societies find hard to establish.’
It caused quite a ‘hullabaloo’, as Goodhart tells it. He was accused of being a ‘nice racist’, with even the then head of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips, deciding he had to come out against it. It was a turning point for Goodhart, who, up until then, had largely been swimming in the left-liberal political mainstream, chiding Blair for Iraq, but broadly supporting Labour in general. For the first time, he was on the other, losing side of a divide in British society, a divide, moreover, of which he had hitherto been ignorant. ‘That essay carried me into position’, he explains. ‘Up until then I’d not thought too hard about multiculturalism and immigration. I’d generally gone along with the liberal consensus that it was all fine, and if you didn’t think it was fine there was probably something odd about you.’
‘This led me to a broader realisation in which contemporary liberalism was no longer just good common sense; it was a worldview in its own right, with its own failings and exclusions, and the fact that it was associated with a particular type of person – the better-educated and mobile, who don’t feel strong group attachments to their nation or to their locality, or even to the people they were brought up with. It was from this point that I became much more critical of the Anywhere worldview. I found myself looking at my most recent worldview critically, self-consciously.’
From this point in 2004, Goodhart’s role as an insider critic of the ruling political and cultural worldview gained substance – and definition. After six more years of ‘holding liberal shibboleths up to the light’ at Prospect, he took up a shortlived directorship at left-leaning think-tank Demos, before leaving in 2012 to work on his first major book, The British Dream, published in 2013. At the beginning of 2016, he started on The Road to Somewhere, the writing of which was ‘bookended by Brexit and the election of Trump’. And it was there for the first time that Goodhart gave this increasingly prominent class-correlated culture war its Anywhere-versus-Somewhere formulation. He is keen to explain that it is not as straightforward a characterisation as it looks. ‘The labels sound very glib and binary, but you’ll find there are shades of grey – there are all sorts of kinds of Anywheres and Somewheres, and there’s plenty of inbetweeners. What I tried to do was to move on from looking at politics in socioeconomic terms, with class as the basic unit, alongside the size of the state, degrees of equality and so on, to a more socio-cultural frame, where values come into play.’
Which in some ways is what makes The Road to Somewhere so compelling; it takes the culture war waging in our midst on its own cultural, value-rich terms. But why, I ask, have values come into play in the way that they have? How did this value conflict, as Max Weber would have characterised it, emerge?
‘I think it’s partly just a question of scale’, says Goodhart. ‘In most societies hitherto, the Somewhere assumptions, where most people lead a rooted life, and most people have not been highly educated, tend to rule. And that was true for Britain, too, until recently. Think of the postwar politicians, of Churchill and Attlee – their assumptions about many of the things that are now the stuff of politics – race, gender and so on – and the assumptions of working-class people, would have been roughly the same. They would have had different views about economics, as indeed Attlee and Churchill had different views about economics, but on the broader question of “how one ought to live”, they were in tacit agreement. They shared a set of values, of views, which of course we would now think of as profoundly socially conservative – on the gender division of labour for instance. But nevertheless there would have been a congruence of views between the elites and the public on a vast array of issues, issues which are now part of politics and are now far more contested.’ He then adds: ‘Or are indeed barely contested because contemporary liberalism appears to have won the cultural battle.’
There is a lot to this. Values and cultural issues become ‘the stuff of politics’ at the point at which they are no longer the stuff of everyday life – that is, the lived givens of the vast majority of the population, as they were for Churchill and Attlee in the 1940s and 1950s. Those who would overthrow traditions and customs, who would challenge the rootedness of ways of life, were on the fringes of British social and economic life. ‘Like the Bloomsbury group’, explains Goodhart. ‘Up until relatively recently’, he continues, ‘the Anywhere population knew their place on cultural issues. The Sixties and Seventies changed it a bit. And it wasn’t all top down, I should add. The breaking of taboos and undercutting of assumptions about how to live was sometimes bottom up as well as top down. You started to have the expansion of higher education at this point. Now, of course, you’ve got a big part of the population, say 20 to 30 per cent, who, at least since the early 1990s, have come to dominate politics. And have done so in a very selfish way. They have pursued and promoted their own priorities and values – being in favour of the EU; being in favour of more globalisation economically; being in favour of a kind of frictionless individualism; being antagonistic to ethnicity and other group attachments; and believing in openness, a free flow of people; possessing an only token attachment to community.’
Nowhere is this culture war, waged by Anywheres against Somewheres, fought with as much ferocity than on the issue of immigration. In the process, immigration has ceased to be merely a policy, or border-control, issue. It has become something much more. ‘Yes, it’s an issue in its own right of course’, says Goodhart, ‘but it’s also an emblem issue’ – that is, it says something about you, and how you view the world. What’s interesting is that Goodhart argues immigration plays this role because of the bondless, mobile, future orientation of the typical Anywhere, forged in the uniquely British context of predominantly residential universities, where change and movement is valorised as progress. They embrace migration, and its transformative impact on native communities, because it expresses their own relationship to the world, of pushing forward, switching between places, and transforming themselves and the world in the process. They don’t want the solidity of the past, of tradition; they want the melting-into-air of a liquefying future. ‘For those who do well in education’, says Goodhart, ‘”the exam-passing classes”, as Vernon Bogdanor called them, their sense of themselves comes from their own achievements, and that is a strong Anywhere characteristic. It can lead to a certain naivety, a belief in one’s own self-invention. And those people who go on to have relatively successful professional careers very often never go back to where they came from, meaning there’s a great break from the networks they had as a child to the networks they have as an adult’.
This reference to Anywheres’ ‘adult networks’ answers one of the criticisms of Goodhart’s analysis – that Anywheres do actually live somewhere. But these ‘networks’, which adult Anywheres establish, are usually drawn up between fellow Anywhere nodes. So they do indeed live somewhere, in a specific locale – Goodhart’s metonyms range from Brighton to Putney – but these places are predominantly Anywhere locations, with their high-achieving schools, artisanal cafés and gastrofied pubs. ‘This was very much on show after the Brexit vote’, says Goodhart, ‘when so many Remain voters were saying that they didn’t know anyone who voted Brexit’.
And what of Somewheres’ relationship to immigration? As Goodhart explains it, citing Talcott Parsons, if Anywheres have a sense of achieving their own identities, then Somewheres have theirs ascribed to them – and that alters their relationship to immigration: ‘The Scottish fisherman, or the working-class Geordie, whose sense of his or herself is very much attached to their place and their role, or perhaps just their Britishness – if you have an identity that is ascribed in that way, you’re likely to be more discomfited by change. And that plays into their attitude to immigration. If you have those types of attachment, if you’re relatively poorly paid, and have a low-status job, then immigration is likely not to benefit you economically. It’s likely to disadvantage you. It will put pressure on services, on housing, on healthcare etc.’
‘And there is cultural aspect to it, too. It is entirely legitimate to feel culturally discomfited’, he continues. ‘If your neighbourhood changes very quickly – and this is particularly true of old people who place a higher value on stability (as do a lot of us as it happens; for example, those with young children) – then it’s perfectly legitimate to feel uncomfortable, to dislike being unable to communicate with people, to find it difficult to exchange small talk and so on. These are perfectly reasonable things to feel uncomfortable about. It doesn’t mean you’re a raging xenophobe.’
It’s a difficult line to tread, to draw attention to the problems immigration can cause while maintaining a support for immigrants themselves, which is probably why so few dare to tread it. But then Goodhart wants to avoid ‘the error of the left’, as he calls it, which is to elide hostility to immigration with hostility to immigrants – an elision that, as Goodhart points out, is true only for a very small part of the population. ‘The left makes the mistake of saying this group or that person is anti-immigrant, when in fact they should say that they are anti-large-scale immigration, because they don’t believe it has benefited them in any way, economically or culturally.’
Yet, there is a paradox to Goodhart’s contention that Somewheres have a strong sense of rootedness and group identity, as opposed to Anywheres who prize self-invention above all. And it’s that identity politics is precisely the preserve not of Somewheres but Anywheres. Goodhart is aware of this, of course. In The Road to Somewhere, he writes the following about what now motivates the young, middle-class mass of today’s Labour Party support base: ’50 years ago there was no such thing as identity politics; now, it is what mainly motivates the young, London left – increasingly the centre of gravity of the [Labour] party. The Twitter accounts of Labour activists are more about rape culture or bullying than economic inequality. With middle-class radicals in search of non-economic justifications for their radicalism – in gender politics or refugee support or environmentalism – the Somewhere voters have become an embarrassing historical legacy: the annoying, unsophisticated relatives one wishes one did not have to invite to family occasions.’
I ask Goodhart how he differentiates the Somewhere concern with identity from the Anywhere obsession with identity. ‘Somewhere attachment tends to be to place’, he tells me. ‘It’s therefore almost inherently unsectarian. Anyone in this place, you count in this in-group – and that could be anyone. And for Anywhere liberal student types – a culturally elite group which is influential in terms of how we think, certainly for those on the left – they have become more attached to identity politics. And that might be because of their de-attachment to other forms of attachment to place or group. Identity politics tends to be highly individualistic. They find a group identity among a family group they haven’t had in other parts of their lives. It also gives people access to victimhood. Even if you come from a middle- or upper-class background, and you went to a Russell Group university, and you’re a woman, it means you can claim that you’re a victim of a patriarchal society, and therefore you’re part of the 50 per cent who are oppressed.’
Clearly warming to his theme, Goodhart expands on the influence of this left-ish cadre, where the world is seen in the Manichean terms of powerful male, white oppressors and oppressed minority groups: ‘If you look at the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the narrative very quickly became that of the negligent rich versus the ethnic-minority poor, or the more recent “Pestminster” story, in which huge swathes of the male political class are painted as predators. It was extraordinary how little push back there was against stories which not that long ago would have been seen as extreme ways of looking at things. Instead they’re accepted as mainstream by the mainstream media.’
‘It seems that anywhere that the case can be made that the establishment has been abusing power or has been negligent, the field is pretty open’, he goes on. ‘We’re seeing the dominance of centrifugal forces, pulling things apart, alongside the influence of a certain left discourse on race on gender. And I think a lot of people, particularly outside London, look on slightly bemused. That’s not because they’re sexist or racist – they believe in equality in many areas. But they have different priorities. They think that the London-based Anywhere class has pretty weird priorities.’
And here, I think, we approach the core of Goodhart’s recent work: the search for a new form of social solidarity. He is concerned with the rift between the Somewheres and Anywheres not in order to take sides with one against the other, but to bridge it, or, as The Road to Somewhere puts it, to ‘reconcile the two halves of humanity’s political soul’. To this extent, Goodhart really is neither on the left nor the right – and you can understand why The Road to Somewhere was originally planned as a book on ‘post-liberalism’. He is concerned with establishing the basis for what he variously calls a new social contract, or settlement, one grounded on a political recognition of the ‘decent populism’ he regards as the attitude of the vast majority. ‘[It] refers to those who broadly go along with changing attitudes on race and sexuality’, he says. ‘They aren’t in the avant garde of liberalisation, but they have accepted most of those changes – perhaps in some cases with reservations, but they’ve broadly accepted them. They are not liberals in the Anywhere sense. They have views about the world rooted in place, and very strong national attachments; they place a strong value on security; they focus on national rights over universal, human rights; they worry about the lack of opportunities for those not going to universities.’
Goodhart’s social contract is more than a formal arrangement between the state and those who have invested it with power (namely, citizens), and it’s certainly more than a list of citizens’ rights and responsibilities. Goodhart is pursuing a new sense of commonality, a sense of what binds us to a national Somewhere, a common ground in the literal and figurative sense. It is in part a conservative, indeed Burkean, project, one that urges us, as Edmund did, ‘to love the little platoon we belong to in society… the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections… [and] the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind’. But Goodhart is liberal, indeed Painite, in another way. He recognises the importance of democracy, of a society being able to make decisions about its own future. ‘We need a liberalism of the future that can appeal to the critical mass of Somewheres’, he writes. It as if Goodhart wants to balance the tensions of modernity itself, between those mourning the loss of the established order, and those yearning for the birth of the new.
Yet in Goodhart there is sometimes a patrician-like air to his calls for a ‘new centre, common norms, things that will pull us together’, especially when he seems to want the establishment to provide it. And because of this, is there not a problem, too? How can a political class composed entirely from the Anywhere liberal section of society, incorporate the values and views of the majority of Somewheres, a majority on whom they have waged cultural war for decades?
Any move certainly won’t come from the Labour Party, at the heart of whose resurgence lies little more than an Anywhere restoration, complete with a determination to overturn the Brexit vote. As Goodhart himself writes, ‘the Corbyn movement could be described as populist in economics but extreme Anywhere in most other respects. What it has not done is change the social composition of the party – about three quarters of Labour Party members are middle class, about 60 per cent are graduates, and almost 40 per cent live in London and the south-east’. And although he sees the Tories as closer to the Somewhere majority, ‘because they often are Somewheres, albeit more affluent than most’, there’s little evidence that they can break out of their political-class office of mirrors. He seems to admit as much: ‘Yes, I think [the political class] is almost entirely Anywhere – political activists, MPs, ministers, shadow ministers – all mostly university graduates, all liberal-minded Anywheres.’
At points his argument can sound like wishful thinking. ‘The political class has been divided down the middle between the militant Anywheres and the admonished Anywheres’, he tells me. ‘And I think Theresa May is the most obvious admonished Anywhere. The admonished admit that they’ve got some things wrong, that there’s a chasm between the smart liberal people running society, and the rest, and it’s time we listened – and that’s what democracy requires. And then there are those, the militant Anywheres, saying we’ve given these idiots too much power, why did we call a referendum – the AC Grayling worldview. Those arguing thus seem almost to want to go back to property qualification for the vote, or that you must have at least a 2:1 before you get to cast a ballot. In other words, you’ve got to be of us before you vote.’
‘I do think the admonished Anywheres have sort of been winning the argument since Brexit’, he says. ‘Although the General Election has obviously complicated things somewhat – a backlash against the backlash.’ This hardly sounds confident. He even confesses that ‘it’s hard to see how we get beyond this polarisation. Brexit didn’t cause it – it was a manifestation of something that had been growing for the past 30, 40 years.’ Still looking out of the window towards the seat of power, he adds: ‘Perhaps it’s as banal as doing things that matter to people, doing something about social care, housing, the post-school education landscape, which is hopelessly over-invested in universities, rather than vocational training and apprenticeships.’
But one thing Goodhart refuses to be is downbeat. ‘Brexit offers an opportunity to reboot our politics’, he says, while admitting he voted to Remain. ‘It allows us to do lots of things we couldn’t do before. We can have our own immigration policy; our own industrial and regional policy; our own regeneration policy – areas that have been constrained by the EU. It may be that we need to leave the EU in order to have a more European society, to get away from the Anglo-Saxon flexible labour-market, growth model we’ve had for too long. It could allow us to have a proper apprenticeship system, a more constrained labour market, a much higher minimum wage. Perhaps this kind of rebalancing would attract a lot of people on the centre right and the centre left.’
Perhaps it would. But perhaps there is a future beyond the establishment, indeed a new kind of modernity, in which the gains, from autonomy to material progress, can be beneficial for all. Perhaps then it will be possible to establish a centre that really can hold.
David Goodhart is head of the demography, immigration, and integration unit at Policy Exchange. His most recent book, The Road to Somewhere: The New Tribes Shaping British Politics, is published by Penguin. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
He was speaking to spiked review editor Tim Black.