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25 March 2023

Going native

How Matthew Goodwin became part of the right-populist movement he once sought to explain.

By Oliver Eagleton

People who study cults sometimes end up joining them. Has this fate befallen Matthew Goodwin, one of Britain’s most visible scholars of the hard right? Since the release of his debut monograph on Ukip, Revolt on the Right (2014), Goodwin has scaled the heights of academic stardom: a professorship at Kent, a fellowship at Chatham House, advisory roles with the UK government, regular media appearances and lucrative after-dinner speeches. Shot to prominence by the boom in “populism studies”, he has joined the crop of political scientists who counsel mainstream policymakers on defusing challenges from the margins. Yet, while mapping the contours of Farageism over the past decade, he has steadily mutated into an advocate for its most crankish tendencies.

Writing in the New Statesman in 2013, Goodwin rejected the argument that voters were gravitating towards Ukip because their anxieties about migration had been ignored by the major parties. On the contrary, he observed, “Britain has tirelessly debated immigration and its effects”, adopting countless measures to tighten the border regime and deter new arrivals, none of which had succeeded in puncturing the appeal of hard-line xenophobic politics. Tossing red meat to the hounds had only made them hungrier – prompting Goodwin to conclude that “the more we stoke public anger and distrust on immigration, the more we threaten the stability of our political system”. The answer was to “chart another course”.

Ten years later, Goodwin has performed a volte-face. He now urges the government to intensify its anti-migrant campaign, lamenting its failure to break with the “model of mass migration” and dismissing its recent reforms as “too little too late”. The best electoral bet for the Conservative Party, he says, is to mimic the US Republicans: “raising the salience of the small boats crisis”, taking a “tough line on illegal migration and national security” and “consciously leaning into the cultural axis”. During this period, Goodwin’s political function – to protect moderate centrists from right-populists – has remained fixed. But he now believes this can only be achieved if the former fully remake themselves in the image of the latter. If you can’t beat them, join them.

Goodwin’s new book, Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics, reflects this shifting sensibility. Its argument is wearily familiar: that the UK’s elite stratum has become divorced from the conservative instincts of the majority; that the commanding heights of our culture – media, universities, political parties – have been captured by cosmopolitans who impose their outlook on the rest of the country; and that this woke mob has cultivated a censorious political climate to silence its opponents. The atmosphere has become so oppressive, writes Goodwin, that “a range of actions that are not racist” are now considered unacceptable – such as “imitating the accent of another group… [or] feeling uncomfortable about somebody speaking another language in Britain”. To win back the trust of the masses, politicians must stop condemning such behaviour and end the tyrannical prioritisation of immigrants and minorities.

When setting out these positions, Goodwin often sounds like a duller Piers Morgan. Yet, unlike Morgan, he tends to obscure his most unpalatable opinions behind a dense thicket of polling data – distancing himself from their pernicious implications by informing us that this is simply what the average Red Wall voter thinks. He traces the recent eruption of such sentiments back to the Thatcher era, which destroyed Britain’s traditional industries and economic boundaries, effectively internationalising the state. From there, he argues, it was only a small step to the “radical cultural liberalism” of New Labour: throwing open the borders and threatening the nation’s indigenous way of life. The Cameron government then doubled down on this globalist “revolution” against the better judgement of the electorate – who finally launched a “counter-revolution” by voting for Brexit and Boris Johnson.

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[See also: The strange death of the centre right]

Goodwin notes in passing that political-economic factors may have influenced this populist revolt: power had been hoarded in Westminster’s cartelised electoral outfits and Europe’s unaccountable bureaucracy; free-market dogma had aggravated inequality and deprivation. But he frames these dynamics as epiphenomena of the more fundamental clash between traditionalism, which seeks to defend British identity, and progressivism, which seeks to dissolve it. In his eulogies to Britain’s post-industrial heartlands, class is always subordinated to the more amorphous concept of national culture. And in his broadsides against its urban centres, the enemy is inevitably exoticised: the “new plutocracy in London”, we are told, is composed of “international, jet-setting elites, Russian oligarchs, and non-domiciled ‘High-Net Worths’ who might have had a home in London but felt just as at home in New York, Paris or Heathrow Terminal 5, on their way to another global city”.

This brand of reactionary identity politics views immigration – rather than income or asset ownership – as the UK’s primary fault-line. Values, Voice and Virtue circles back to this issue with single-minded compulsion, stressing its centrality to the so-called counter-revolution. Consequently, the book’s account of the backlash to neoliberalism omits any political movement that does not foreground border politics. There is not a single paragraph of sustained engagement with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership – even though, in 2017, it secured the party’s strongest election result in recent memory and retained significant support in the Red Wall while running on an internationalist, anti-racist manifesto. Goodwin neglects this upheaval because, in his schema, Corbyn’s support for immigration aligns him with the “ruling class” that has governed since 1979, whereas the dysfunctionally posh Boris Johnson is seen as a “renegade” who defected from that culture.

Anti-elitism, thus conceived, is synonymous with ethno-nationalism. This tallies with the strange forms of muscular communitarianism that have emerged in recent years: Keir Starmer waving the flag and singing the national anthem; the proliferation of culture-war platforms like Unherd; the tireless repetition of David Goodhart’s distinction between “somewheres” and “anywheres”. Goodwin forms part of this broader movement of liberals who – at some point during the Brexit saga – realised they had strayed too far from “the people” and are now attempting to appease their guilt through nativist symbology and sound-bites.

The irony is that by adopting this view of the British public as inherently hostile to other nationalities, Goodwin reproduces the discourse of the moralising Remainers whom he claims to loathe. For both these strands of opinion, material grievances – falling wages, gutted public services, decimated trade unions – have little to do with the ascent of Farage and Johnson. Rather, prejudice is thought to be embedded deep in the psyches of ordinary voters outside major cities. The chauvinist impulses of this proletarian layer are incurable. The only difference is that Goodwin defends them while liberal cosmopolitans condemn them.

Of course, even a cursory look at the historical record belies Goodwin’s simplistic tale of progressivist revolution and traditionalist reaction. The elites whom he accuses of prioritising the foreign over the domestic, diversity over nationality, are the very people who incubated the Farageist syndrome. Thatcher, having vowed to prevent the UK from being “swamped by people with a different culture”, used the British Nationality Act of 1981 to enshrine an exclusionary definition of Britishness based on blood-ties rather than birthplace. Blair followed suit: barring migrants from access to benefits, forcibly dispersing them across the country, expanding detention facilities, pouring resources into border security and setting arbitrary targets to remove asylum seekers. Cameron further restricted visas and welfare entitlements while rolling out the “hostile environment” strategy and streamlining deportations. All of them engaged in routine rhetorical attacks on migrants – as well as other minority groups – that were often as incendiary as the philippics of Farage and Johnson.

Far from abandoning national identity, politicians have spent the past 40 years constantly invoking it (as Goodwin himself recognised in 2013). The purpose is twofold. First, nationalism was crucial to consolidating the neoliberal project. It generated an idea of Britain – Cool Britannia – that could be sold on the global marketplace and created a homology between “British culture” and “enterprise culture”. Those who refused to conform to one were cast as opponents of the other. Anyone who failed to compete in this open, dynamic sphere was accused of betraying Britain itself. Both New Labour and the Tories used these tropes to demonise migrants, depicting them as too backward to integrate into an enlightened market society: prone to criminality, helplessly reliant on benefits.

Second, as Thatcher and her successors waged economic war on the majority of Britons – smashing the labour movement and enforcing punitive austerity – it became increasingly expedient to scapegoat non-natives for social problems: dividing the subaltern classes and displacing blame onto their weakest fraction. After Brexit, liberal Remainers attempted to erase this dark history and proclaim their internationalist bona fides. But in denouncing right-populism they were merely recoiling from a refracted image of themselves. Now that Britain’s departure from the EU is sealed, though, our politics has reverted to type. Both parties, run by ostensive centrist technocrats, are whipping up hysteria about Channel crossings and promising a robust response in the hope that this will re-engage their respective bases. In this climate, Goodwin may try to position himself as a maverick – crusading against the woke orthodoxy at Westminster and beyond – but in fact he is in lockstep with elite opinion on both sides of the aisle. Values, Voice and Virtue may not offer an accurate or original assessment of our political moment. But it captures the extent to which establishment centrism can comfortably accommodate the ideology of the hard right.

[See also: Lucy Easthope: “We are all disaster survivors now”]

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This article appears in the 29 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special