This week, I witnessed a Twitter row between commentators about whether the UK is governed by an out-of-touch liberal elite. The subsequent discussion was heavily dominated by middle-aged men with solidly middle-class English names like Matt, Dominic, Philip, Andrew and David. As usual with discussions about Britain’s elites, nobody involved was willing to admit they might be part of one.
The pretext was the publication of Matthew Goodwin’s Values, Voice, and Virtue, which argues that Britain is now ruled by a class of university-educated, urban-dwelling, liberal cosmopolitans, heedlessly imposing their luxury beliefs about race, gender, and Gary Lineker upon everybody else. While working-class people are supposed to be fondling their Union Jacks lovingly, worrying about mass immigration and looking baffled when you call them “cis”, Britain’s institutions have allegedly been captured by a bunch of Oxbridge-educated she/her types who equate any disagreement with fascism, and who are gripped with existential dread whenever they glance at their post-Brexit blue passports on their way to the Italian lakes.
I’ve had many brushes with exactly this type of horror show, and I agree that they are overrepresented in certain sectors, such as academia and NGOs. Still, I am not sure I agree that the ranks of the elite are brimming with them generally. And neither does Goodwin, at least sometimes. In his book, he alternates between the safety of a relatively banal motte (our institutions are dominated by the professional-managerial class), and the exhilaration of a much more controversial bailey (our institutions throng with radical progressives, calling for compulsory pronoun rounds and telling anyone who dislikes mass immigration that they’re a Nazi).
In a more sober moment, Goodwin acknowledges that “these radical progressives are a smaller group within the new elite”. Much of the time, though, he equates the radical part with the elite whole. In The Sun, for instance, he writes that: “Routinely, the New Elite demand things which signal their status to other elites, such as open borders, a relaxed approach to dealing with the small boats, or the sexualisation of children, which they will not have to suffer the effects of themselves.” In his book, meanwhile, he writes that “By portraying their political opponents as an assortment of fascists, racists and close-minded reactionaries, the new elite seek to shut down the conversation and exclude them altogether”.
Whatever the new elite is, I’m probably a member of it. I went to Oxford and then made a career out of talking about whether the external world really exists independently of the mind or not, so I don’t think there is any way out for me on this. The majority of my university contemporaries are now at the peak of successful and lucrative senior careers. To my knowledge, only one person from my college year group is unemployed — and that’s Dominic Cummings. The idea that any of these people sit around performatively extolling the joys of open borders or the sexualisation of children to each other is simply not true.
Today, most of them work long hours in finance, business, the civil service, or the law. They earn large amounts of money, live in nice houses cleaned by other people, and send their children to private schools. They aren’t on Twitter; they don’t have the time or inclination. They are often cultural philistines and rarely talk about politics. They are as baffled as most of the rest of the country about the ideological capture of major institutions, and just as disconcerted.
Back at university, in the early Nineties, most of these people were not protesting the poll tax or joining Greenpeace. They were drinking pints until they were sick, watching Neighbours all day in the JCR, and taking movement instructions from the jukebox (sit down for “Sit Down”, jump around for “Jump Around”). Lads from up North were pretending to be Liam Gallagher; boys from the South were evenly split between Damon Albarn and Sebastian Flyte. There were hardly any girls, and their (our) sexual activity was obsessed over pruriently. Activist types were roundly laughed at, ambitious types decried as hacks. Most people were moral relativists but couldn’t say why. The Bosnian war was raging and I don’t recall a single conversation about it. The only newspaper columnist I regularly read was Mystic Meg.
Thatcherism was on the way out and New Labour on the way in. As Goodwin notes, there was also a “depoliticisation” as Right and Left alternatives merged. If the neoliberalism of those years did anything for my peers, it loosened the bonds of group identity but put nothing else in their place. It made every kind of serious political effort something to be laughed at. This political and moral apathy, I think, is still the dominant tendency of the liberal elite in the UK, accompanied by an ironising and distancing humour gained from watching too much Fantasy Football League or Never Mind the Buzzcocks at a formative age.
It is not that neoliberalism made the new elite woke, then, but that most of them never really had an overt politics at all. The middle-aged, middle-class version of British masculinity inherited from that period dictates that there’s something faintly embarrassing about being seen to care strongly about any sociocultural issues, let alone anything as fraught as race, immigration or gender identity. This version of the elite is not anti-tradition — it just doesn’t positively value it. It is not, as Goodwin claims, particularly “supportive of abortion, homosexuality, casual sex, prostitution, divorce, gender equality and immigration”, but rather mostly indifferent. And it is not intolerant of political disagreements; it’s just that people don’t really have them at dinner parties.
Still, many of our institutions were captured by a small number of radicals nonetheless. And this happened partly because the elites running the institutions didn’t have a clue how to stand up to the incoming wave of moral cant, guilt-tripping, and bullying from younger and differently socialised generations. On what firm ground might they have stood in order to see this off? They don’t have a political vocabulary with which to counter the wild rhetoric, and nor do they have the convictions or earnestness to make it stick. What they do have is a suppressed sense of guilt for being so rich, a vague fear that they might make the wrong joke, and a fervent hope that the moralising will stop soon so they can talk about the football or cricket instead. Many of them also have children who lecture them about social justice. They can’t stand up to them either.
In other words, I think it’s simply wrong to imply that the majority of the liberal elite are now rampantly woke. The culture wars don’t need any more stoking. When it comes to traditional working-class values, assuming there still are any, most of the elite are in no man’s land, not enemy trenches. Their political inarticulacy has made the organisations they run ripe for power grabs but they are not directly waging any war.