Welcome to Britain, where even the anti-elitist movements are led by elites

Nobody thinks they're the "elite" – after all, if they were, wouldn't they feel a bit more powerful?

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Who are the elites? It’s an urgent question, given their purported dominance of our politics. They are often described as “metropolitan”, but that doesn’t help, as 81.5 per cent of the people in Britain live in cities. (And surely no one thinks of Sunderland or Coventry as nests of elitism.) So perhaps it’s just the capital? After all, a quick Google search throws up the Conservative Woman website complaining that an “effete London-based elite” is ruining the steel industry, presumably because the dust is a terror to get out of one’s lace cuffs.

So let’s narrow it down further. Again, it’s hard to imagine Peckham or Lewisham as elitist hotbeds (as a resident of the latter, I can tell you it has a Bright House, which is like Kryptonite to posh people). So we must be talking about north London. Jeremiads against the “Islington elites” are rife in newspaper comment sections, but even Islington doesn’t really work as a synonym for “elite” when it’s home to roughly 217,620 people, only 48 per cent of whom describe themselves as white British, and is the 14th most deprived local authority in England.

The more you consider the question, the more one strange theme emerges: the only thing we can say for sure about the elites is that they are always someone else.

To the Brexiteers, the elites are European bureaucrats and MEPs – bonus points for the use of “unelected”, even though MEPs do face a public vote. During the EU referendum debates, Boris Johnson (Eton, Oxford, two-term London mayor, magazine editor, MP) decried “an unelected elite frankly indifferent to the suffering that their policies are causing”. Voters should presumably prefer someone like Iain Duncan Smith, married to a daughter of the 5th Baron Cottesloe – in other words, an elected member of the elite, indifferent to the suffering his policies were causing.

In a special Sky Q&A, BoJo’s frenemy Michael Gove got stuck in, too. Voters were disgusted by the “invincible arrogance of Europe’s elites”, he said, later attacking “unelected, unaccountable elites” in case anyone had flicked over to EastEnders for a minute earlier. Even his interviewer, Faisal Islam, was suspect: his sceptical questions proved he was “on the side of the elites”.

This would be funnier if the left didn’t do it, too. On 15 August, Diane Abbott tweeted: “Westminster elites can’t accept level of support for @jeremycorbyn politics. Instead insist new members are cultists.” And which Westminster elites would these be? Clearly, completely different people from Abbott (an MP since 1987) and Corbyn (an MP since 1983). No, these must be proper insiders. The kind who don’t use computers, only vellum, possibly. People who’ve been in the shadow cabinet, perhaps. Oh no, wait.

Read any commentary about politics these days and you begin to wonder if everyone involved is taking part in a bet, like when England’s 1998 World Cup team tried to slip song titles into post-match interviews. Here’s Brendan O’Neill, king contrarian, decrying the elites who want to overturn the referendum decision – “the likes of Bob Geldof, Owen Jones and Jarvis Cocker”. Over there is the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan, popping over to America to discover that people support Donald Trump because the “elites disdain them”. Never mind that in many states, Trump voters have above-average incomes, or that low-income black and Hispanic voters are largely resistant to his bouffant charms.

The media do it, too. I had to laugh when I read Nancy Mendoza explaining that she’d founded the pro-Corbyn Canary site because “the mainstream media is dominated by a very small number of individuals”. We were at Oxford University at the same time.

Of course, none of this implies that elites don’t exist. It’s just a measure of how bad social mobility is in Britain that even our anti-elitist movements are led by elites. Think of Jeremy Clarkson, leading his Bloke Battalions from a big house in Oxfordshire, or the privately educated former City trader Nigel Farage, leading his People’s Army from the pub. Politics in 2016 consists of endless waves of individuals with similar backgrounds, education and impressive social connections accusing each other of not being in touch with ordinary people.

They do it because they know it works. The modern world is fragmented, complicated, interconnected. For all the guff about sovereignty, we live in a globalised world where the markets can act as a panicked herd and the levers to control any economy are limited. Because of that, it would be incredibly comforting to think that there really was some puppetmaster somewhere controlling it all. You can see that longing in how – despite the ease with which we can now check our facts – conspiracy theories still flourish, from the Bilderberg Group and the Blairites to the Rothschilds and Angela Eagle’s broken office window. At the centre of it all is a howl: surely someone is in charge? (In our agnostic country, we don’t even have the luxury of thinking that at least God has a plan for us all.)

Yet there is a reason why no one thinks of themself as a member of the elite. It’s because when you get to the top of journalism, or politics, you realise how little power you really have; how little power any one person has. Even a government minister is constrained by public opinion, bureaucratic slowness, legal restrictions and the possibility of being kicked out of office. There’s a popular theory that US presidents invade another country somewhere in their second term because they’ve become so frustrated trying to accomplish their domestic agenda.

And so we are doomed to be stuck in a repetitive cycle, where both left and right subscribe to the idea of an elite, but neither thinks they’re it. After all, shouldn’t being part of a shadowy ruling cabal feel a bit more . . . powerful?

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, who is now a staff writer on the Atlantic. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.

This article appears in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge