Richard Pipes famously described the bureaucracy of late Tsarism as a group of people who felt their country to be “under permanent siege by her own inhabitants”. The enemies of society were many, and they were legion. This feeling did not lead to any new energy or inventiveness, but to a grim battening down of the hatches. Rules multiplied, reams and reams of useless paper were produced. Epaulettes, orders, ranks, inspectorates, perks of office, all of these sprouted like weeds, and the main criteria for advancement became one’s ability to game this tangled-up system. Procedure was prized above all else. This class of people was narrow, rule-bound and despairing.
Matthew Goodwin’s new book, Values, Voice and Virtue is the story of a ruling class and its enemies. It is about Britain’s university graduates, who make up around 34% of the population, and their endless feud with the non-graduate majority who live outside of London. The thesis is a familiar one. Britain’s cognitive elite has lost touch with those they rule, and now dislikes them. The latter realise this and react – the consequence is two provincial revolts, first Brexit, then the election of 2019.
This school of thought is now close to a decade old. Its history is not a distinguished one. It turns political questions into psychological stories. Those who voted for Brexit were not voting to leave the European Union, but to give a ‘kick in the teeth’ to an establishment that had forgotten about them. The answer is never a redress of any objective grievance, but to ‘listen’ to them in the abstract, as if they were children. The great symbol of this worldview is the 2019 film Brexit: The Uncivil War. The climax of the film arrives when Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s comms guru, decides to hold a focus group shortly before the referendum. The participants are quickly at each other’s throats; the representatives of the ‘cognitive elite’ keep needling the Leavers until one explodes. She sobs and wails through a description of her personal problems. “I’m sick of it! I’m sick of feeling like nothing!” We have, according to the film, arrived at the true origin of the Leave vote. It is not a political movement, but a psychological breakdown; sympathetic, maybe – but essentially bovine. Needless to say, this view has since become pervasive. As an idea it is hateful and absurd, and it is always shocking to find that people feel entitled to talk about fellow adults in this way.
Values, Voice and Virtue cannot quite break with this basic thesis, but it makes an admirable attempt to do so. Goodwin has dropped many of his bad ideas, but has acquired a few more along the way. The main achievement of this book is its insistence on treating the ‘Left-behind’ as adults. For Goodwin, the Leave vote and the election of 2019 were not plaintive animal bleatings, but were done “for entirely coherent and rational reasons”. Different people in different places observed phenomena like mass migration, decided that they did not like them, and voted accordingly. It has often been said since the referendum that Remain was the side of the Head and Leave the side of Heart (sometimes ‘Hand’ joins the party, for reasons that elude me). This is dribbling stuff, cribbed from Wikipedia summaries of Walter Scott novels. It is also simply wrong. The Leave campaign never made an emotional appeal; it was a clipped and precise list of threats and possible gains. Do you want to risk an open border with Turkey? Do you want Britain’s membership fee to be spent on something else? If anyone was guilty of romanticism, it was Remain. Remain did not ignore the emotional case for Europe; it was the campaign’s main motif. References to WWII were constant, as were the allusions to the ‘war graves of the Commonwealth’ and what they might tell us. EU membership was taken as a proxy for other things in a way that Brexit never was, things as elemental as compassion, or decency, or membership of a wider European civilisation.
Goodwin takes the grievances of the Leavers and Boristas seriously. Unlike many of his colleagues, he doesn’t reduce them to abstractions, or to psychological tropes. Populism was not caused by ‘Liberalism’; all the old liberal freedoms have been abolished. Populism was not caused by metropolitan sneering: people can take being made fun of – the issue is that the mockers are making these people’s lives worse. Populism was not caused by ‘Polarisation’; politics is about division, and these divisions already existed. In the past few decades the British have been subjected to economic decline, to mass migration, to child grooming gangs, to crime that is an order of magnitude greater than it was in 1950. Populism is political opposition to a rapid decline in living standards.
Goodwin recognises this, but he is never quite able to break free of the tropes that dominate his field. His book is thus a rare case of new wine in old bottles. Where Values, Voice and Virtue fails is in its description of Britain’s ruling class. According to Goodwin, and others, this class is an urbane elite chosen by meritocratic selection. The patent of new nobility is a degree from a university. This elite stratum is society’s crème de la crème, the problem, then, is simply their hatred and contempt for those less gifted than they are. Wrong – Britain has spent half a century closing down every institution of meritocratic testing. The attack on the grammar schools was premised on the idea that children should not be rewarded for superior intelligence, and has condemned millions to a life of wasted potential. Employers will not allow a school leaver to sit an aptitude test, or an IQ test, and will only accept a certificate from an increasingly baroque system of credentials. The society that produced Michael Faraday, who could claw his way into the scientific world by studying up in his spare time, has been abolished. Goodwin thinks that university graduates constitute our ruling class, but no society’s ruling class can ever be 34% of the population, or 50% of its youngsters. Even the famously sprawling and ramshackle nobility of Poland were only ever 10% of the nation. What we are faced with is an enormous pool of graduates whose degrees do not earn them a place in the elite; having failed to reach escape velocity through education they instead sink back into the broader hoi polloi. Almost everyone in Britain knows someone with a degree – however meagre, and nobody is doffing their caps to a 2:1 in Politics from the University of Manchester. Goodwin seems to sense this as well, and so plays very fast and loose with his definitions: in one breath the ruling class is graduates broadly defined, in the next it is those with a degree from Oxbridge and other top schools.
Goodwin keeps insisting on the intelligence and savvy of this class, but, reading these pages, the overwhelming parallel in my mind is with the Tsarist bureaucrats. Here we find the same paranoia, the same despair, the same feeling of permanent siege. Britain’s governing class believes that society is in a process of violent dissolution, and that an iron hand can alone save it – hence the screams, the tantrums, the calls for press censorship, the lawsuits, the appeals to mental health, the bludgeoned foxes. Everything about these people is keyed up to a twitching hysteria. It is grimly hilarious to read Goodwin describe new technologies like social media as “Left-wing dominated”: Britain’s rulers see Twitter as the crumbling bastion of society itself, and their pleas for action against its marauding ‘trolls’ are heard even in the great chanceries of Europe.
This is no basis for a confident cosmopolitanism. Britain’s governing class does not define itself by its urbanity or its capacity for amoral self-expression, as Goodwin has it. Rather, the chief virtue to strive for in this class is a conscientious obedience to rules. Established Britain take for its heroes officials like John Bercow and Sue Gray; people whose job is to point out when others are disobeying the rulebook – which grows ever longer. We learn just last week that the ‘Ministerial Code’, something that no one has ever voted for, is now prized above the rights of democratically-elected politicians. The whole tenor of official taste is one of cosy sentimentality. Cosy period dramas. Cosy ‘national treasures’. Cosy reruns. Cosy remakes. Cosy rituals, and familiar old national institutions: like Blackrod, the House of Windsor, Paddington Bear, and Auntie Beeb. Whatever this is, there is little of the Marquis de Sade to it.
Britain’s elite, then, is not being chosen for any particular intelligence, or creativity. What is being selected for is conscientiousness, and faith. The representative member of Britain’s governing class believes in ‘Law’ as a spiritual concept separable from humans and their politics. They put great stock in the certificates granted by official institutions, and are suspicious of auto-didacts and self-made arrivistes. This is not a class distinction, or an educational distinction, or a regional distinction – but a political one. It should be remembered that those who filled the ranks of Ultra Remainism were old people from outside of London; their representative man is the provincial crank Steve Bray. Though many hold degrees their education is often meagre; they are no better informed than those they despise. They knew little of the workings of the European Union, despite their boasts of worldliness. The day-to-day enforcer of the current social order is a degree-holding minor public sector employee who reads Philippa Gregory, hates Boris Johnson and rails against Twitter trolls – Goodwin invites us to imagine this person is a fashionable member of an ascendant global aristocracy.
However deaf, boring and fanatical this class is, Goodwin still insists that theirs is the cause of modernity. They are the future. Much of this is asserted rather than shown, often through the ceaseless repetition of buzz-phrases, that great sin of the social scientist. “Younger Zoomers, born after 1996”, “The most prestigious Oxbridge or Russell Group universities”, “Double down on London” – these fall from above like aerial bombs, breaking up what would otherwise be perfectly serviceable prose writing. Values, Voice and Virtue argues that opponents of the graduate minority have a ‘Traditionalist’ ethos, which means conservative values and a slower pace of life. This is counterposed with ruling class opinion, which wants dynamism, change, and excitement. This is dubious at best. We are reminded that much of Britain’s elite believes that jetliners are a frivolous luxury, that the economy should stop growing, and that we should seek to regress to a more agrarian pattern of life.
Goodwin cannot bring himself to see ‘Traditionalism’ as a real alternative to the ruling dogmas. He never dignifies right-wing populism as a political movement, and instead sees it as a subaltern that needs to be treated with more respect. Britain’s governing class is advised to broker a peace with the rebels, which will “slow, not stop” the pace of what is euphemistically called “social and cultural change”. Values, Voice and Virtue never entertains the possibility of ‘Traditionalists’ seizing power and replacing the current pieties with their own. This is because Goodwin, above all else, does not treat the era he is writing about as a real period in human history. He does not imagine that the conflicts which have dominated past ages could ever be replicated in our own. He denounces many of the current values, but rules out their destruction. This is completely ahistorical. In this era, as in all others, there are real choices to be made, choices that will not always end in some kind of benign fudge. Will Britain leave the European Union, or not? Will Russia have a Tsar, or won’t it? If we take it seriously as an actor in history, then the insurgency which Goodwin describes has no reason to pursue anything less than a total reconstitution of society around its values.
J. Sorel is a pseudonym.
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