LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - David Goodhart has done something remarkable: he has written a book about British society that does not revolve around the concept of class. “The Road to Somewhere” argues that the decision to leave the European Union has exposed the division between cosmopolitan elites and those left behind by rapid change. Though the tension is real, the distinction serves as a faulty compass for policy.
Britain this week started the formal Brexit process. But even before the 2016 vote that led to that moment, social scientists had proposed a new political spectrum that goes beyond old divisions of left and right. At one end are the educated city-dwellers who have broadly embraced the “dual liberalisms” of economic development and increased social freedom. At the other are those who have shared in fewer of the benefits of liberalisation and have been unsettled by its consequences. Goodhart labels the two groups Anywheres and Somewheres. The Brexit referendum represented a rejection of the former by the latter.
Any attempt to divide a nation of 65 million into two groups is bound to involve sweeping generalisations. Voting patterns in the Brexit referendum defy such simplification. For example, many Scottish Nationalists who reject the authority of British political elites nonetheless favoured staying in the EU. Many free-trade enthusiasts who dislike regulation by Brussels campaigned to leave.
The author admits most people don’t fit neatly into his two categories. Yet that does not prevent him from simplifying and exaggerating their perspectives. “A better globalisation is possible,” he writes, “and a world order based on many Somewhere nation states co-operating is far preferable to one big supranational Anywhere.” Who exactly is advocating global government in this case is left unexplained.
Goodhart believes the Somewheres have been ignored for too long. He brandishes statistics and opinion surveys to demonstrate that most Britons are less geographically mobile, not as accepting of diversity, and more troubled by widening inequality than the political and bureaucratic classes who make decisions on their behalf. These factors combined in a backlash against immigration that was one of the defining issues of the Brexit campaign.
This analysis has serious shortcomings. It does not explain why anti-immigrant sentiment is often strongest in those parts of the country with the fewest outsiders. It also tends to conflate economic anxieties ascribed to recent arrivals from eastern Europe with cultural tensions involving South Asian minorities, many of whom have lived in Britain for several generations. In this debate, however, feelings trump facts.
What Goodhart does, though, is grumpily lament a distant Britain. One that existed before free trade hollowed out manufacturing and created casual jobs, before tax cuts and global capitalism polarised the distribution of wealth, before the arrival of plumbers from Poland, and before Islam earned its “radical” prefix. Take the epic rant about the shortcomings of Britain’s capital city: “If London is the future for the whole country, as some people argue, it is not a future that most people want,” he insists.
A former editor of the liberal magazine Prospect, Goodhart writes honestly about his privileged background and the intellectual process that eventually prompted him to reject his metropolitan brethren. Yet his defence of the “white British” tribe at times feels forced. It recalls those socialist intellectuals who once eulogised the working classes from the comfort of their London salons.
Besides, it’s not as if all the groups he lumps together as Somewheres would recognise a unified purpose. Former factory workers in the Northeast of England have few obvious overlapping interests with farmers in the Southwest. This lack of affinity highlights the difficulty of designing policies to narrow the divide.
Goodhart airs ideas such as reserving public sector jobs for British citizens, reviving apprenticeships to improve prospects for non-graduates, and reforming the electoral system to give a greater voice to smaller and regional political parties. But he admits that there is no clear coalition to support such an agenda. He also downplays economic considerations, such as the role that immigration plays in rejuvenating Britain’s ageing workforce, or the extent to which activity in London and the Southeast subsidises the rest of the country.
Nine months after Brexit, British politics has yet to undergo a fundamental realignment. Perhaps the referendum signalled the start of a global backlash against economic and social liberalism. Or maybe it brought together a loose coalition of voters who are unlikely to agree on much else. “Of course change is ceaseless, it is one of the things that most of us do not like about human existence,” Goodhart writes. Oddly, this sentiment has helped to unleash the most wrenching change that Britain has experienced in many decades.