The EU referendum vote was the biggest democratic rebellion in modern British history. It was also the biggest defeat for the broadly liberal, outward-looking “cognitive elites” (cleverer, better-educated folk) who have dominated politics since the 1960s. Understanding Brexit, explaining it – and trying to chart ways forward after it – have become some of the highest duties for serious commentators. Big word, “duty”. But if the wrong lessons are learned, or no lessons at all, this may be just the beginning of an epoch that will be rawer, much more turbulent, and more dangerous.
Meanwhile, everyone even vaguely involved in politics knows how potent and important naming can be – look at the subtle intimidation of Remainers, melted down into “Remoaners”, or the acrid battles fought over the adjectival advance guard for Brexit: hard, soft, clean, dirty . . .
This book by David Goodhart, the founder and former editor of Prospect, is, before everything else, an act of naming. The new tribal division is pretty clear. On the one side stands the liberal Europhile establishment, comfortable about immigration and globalisation, and on the other are those Britons, often far from the metropolis, who are anything but comfortable, who feel left out and left behind. One frequently used shorthand is between “open” and “closed” groups of voters but that also seems mildly propagandistic: “Shall I just put you down as a Closed-Minded, then?”
Goodhart renames the new tribes the “Anywheres” (roughly 20 to 25 per cent of the population) and the “Somewheres” (about half), with the rest in between. And it broadly works. Those who see the world from anywhere are, he points out, the ones who dominate our culture and society, doing well at school and moving to a residential university, and then into a professional career, often in London or abroad. “Such people have portable ‘achieved’ identities,” he says, “based on educational and career success which makes them . . . comfortable and confident with new places and people.”
The rebels are those more rooted in geographical identity – the Scottish farmer, working-class Geordie, Cornish housewife – who find the rapid changes of the modern world unsettling. They are likely to be older and less well educated. “They have lost economically with the decline of well-paid jobs for people without qualifications and culturally, too, with the disappearance of a distinct working-class culture and the marginalisation of their views in the public conversation,” Goodhart writes. He argues that this distinction, emerging from a melange of social and cultural views together with life experiences, matters more than old distinctions of right and left, or social class.
Socialists would instinctively disagree, but Labour canvassers in Stoke-on-Trent Central will be well aware that there is an underlying truth here. Core, working-class Labour voters do often have views, such as suspicion of mass immigration and hearty enthusiasm for the armed forces, which aren’t reflected by the party’s liberal intelligentsia. Indeed, Labour’s current agony, torn between its Brexit-voting constituencies and its passionately pro-EU wing, is well described in Goodhart’s book. And Theresa May’s optimism about capturing Labour voters, first advertised in this journal, derives from its arguments.
The connection between cultural conservatism and hostility to the EU seems to be solid: for instance, support for the death penalty is the most reliable predictor of anti-Brussels voting, more than income, geography or anything else. All of which leads to the queasy possibility that the liberal elites are going to have to acknowledge, or even kowtow, to the views of the more numerous authoritarian, poorer Somewheres.
Yet that is unlikely. The liberal elites are so certain of themselves and they have become so used to thinking they are on history’s sunny side, that the very idea of such an accommodation sends them into a vituperative frenzy. Witness the jeering at pro-Brexit voters for being stupid about the economy and the almost gleeful enthusiasm for loss of their jobs as a result. Goodhart quotes a Bulgarian political scientist: the outcome is a sort of struggle in which populists are becoming openly anti-liberal, and elites are becoming secretly anti-democratic.
So this book will make some people very angry. Nowhere is it more provocative than in Goodhart’s assessment of the huge postwar expansion in British higher education. He rightly points out that our somewhat unusual tradition of “boarding universities” separates young people from their parents and communities in ever greater numbers. Universities become the prime seeding ground for liberal/Anywhere identities: indeed, according to a recent survey, only 11 per cent of academics voted Tory in the last general election, and 90 per cent voted to remain in the EU.
How to resolve this? Exclude more working-class kids from university? The problem with The Road to Somewhere, which I predict will become a private manual for Theresa May’s conservatism, is that it underplays individual historical events to portray a seemingly inevitable shift. And, having done so, it does not quite provide a convincing solution for the problem. Had we not had poor financial regulation just before the globalisation of the money markets, leading to the financial collapse of 2008, public hostility to the top class of financiers would be nothing like as strong as it is now. Nor do I think that Somewheres (or anybody else) would have been as contemptuous of parliament, had it not approved the Blair government’s armed intervention in Iraq in 2003, and had this not been followed by the relatively minor local scandal of MPs’ expenses.
And then, of course, if David Cameron hadn’t decided to hold the referendum in the first place, the voters wouldn’t have had their chance and Goodhart et al wouldn’t be writing books of this sort now. Without the wonderful opportunity of the referendum, the Anywhere/Somewhere divide would have remained buried, if perhaps pullulating, inside the bodies of our political parties. In short, the Brexit rebellion arose less from the vast forces of modern globalisation than from the awkward decisions, wrong turnings and mistakes of specific British politicians from the early 1980s onwards.
Nor is it quite the case that the elites have snootily ignored the cultural conservatism of those left behind. As Goodhart acknowledges, the British enthusiasm for large, crammed prisons, the tone of the debate on immigration, growing hostility to international aid, and an increasingly tough line on welfare are all wins for the supposed Somewhere mindset. One of my BBC colleagues argues that Tory Britain is now hopelessly divided between the conservatism of the Daily Mail and that of the Economist. It’s a neat formulation and, if it is so, then Paul Dacre seems to be winning (and he has his Prime Minister) while the Economist is losing (and doesn’t have the premier it wants).
Where next? Many of Goodhart’s proposals are already close to the heart of the May administration. A big drive to create more apprenticeships, more generous support for technical training, better links for northern cities and more patriotic procurement are all pretty much mainstream ideas today in Whitehall. Other ideas, such as restricting public-sector housing to people who have been living in Britain for at least five years, or trying again to introduce proportional representation in an effort to put a wider range of voices in the Commons, are unlikely to enthuse many Tories yet.
But there is one idea mentioned in the book which is certainly on the way. After we leave the European Union, and particularly if Scotland breaks away, Britain is much likelier to bring in a system of compulsory identity cards. That would make it easier to check who was working where, and would be used to restrict access to public services to British citizens, too. It could even make Labour’s new idea of a varied, regionally based immigration policy workable. ID cards were mooted by the New Labour government in 2002 and roundly rejected, but if there really is a gulf between the globalised elites and those determined to assert the value of locality and community in fast-changing times, this could become the signature policy.
So, watch this space. And as you do, start to follow the progress of the Somewheres and the Anywheres in British political debate. There are still some holes in Goodhart’s thesis, but The Road to Somewhere has the feel of a book whose timing, at least, is pitch-perfect.
David Goodhart takes part in a “Brexit: What Next?” panel at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on 23 April. For details visit: cambridgeliteraryfestival.com
The Road to Somewhere by David Goodhart is published Hurst (240pp, £20)
This article appears in the 15 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain