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Labour’s problems all start at university

University is where attachment to place is first severed

December 16, 2019 - 12:21pm

The Left only succeeds when it can establish an alliance between the working class and the university educated. Broadly speaking, Brexit drove a wedge between them and so Labour failed. That is one popular analysis of the Johnson victory.

But the challenge is much deeper than Brexit and will not go away now that Brexit is all but guaranteed. Brexit was symptomatic of a more widespread commitment to place, and here the university itself presents something of a conundrum.

Thanks to my Andrew Sullivan Confessions I have been rather taken with Michael Oakeshott of late, but this quotation from him gives a clue as to why the university and the local community exist in tension with each other:

“Each of us is born in a corner of the earth. But school and university are where a learner is emancipated from the limitations of his local circumstances. They are sheltered places where excellence may be heard because the din of local partialities is no more than a distant rumble.”
- Michael Oakeshott

If this is a fair description of what a university does, then there is a deep — almost philosophical — problem for Labour. Because what Oakeshott describes is an educational system in which the local — aka local community — is the enemy from which one has to be “emancipated”. Being educated is all about turning one’s back on the local, so that its “din” is no more than a “distant rumble”.

This, according to liberal apologists like Kwame Anthony Appiah, is precisely what a university exists to achieve: to cancel out the view from somewhere and replace it with the view from everywhere which is, of course, also the view from nowhere. And if this is what it does, then there is always going to be a tension between the university educated and the working class — or, to put it philosophically, a tension between the universal and the particular.

As Peter Hurst showed this morning, education is the most significant factor in the realignment of British politics. Labour did well with graduates and the Conservatives did well with non-graduates. Eviscerated in its traditional heartlands, the Labour Party has retreated to its final redoubt: the University city, the eponymous home of the universal.

If Labour is to recover the winning formula of uniting the working class with the university educated, it will have to overcome this basic tension. It needs to ally a commitment to the specifics of place and people — things like patriotism — with a wider universal world-view. Anywheres and somewheres need some way of expressing their basic solidarity. As  Wallace Stevens wrote, “But play you must a tune beyond us, yet ourselves.”


Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.


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