Well, I’m not having this, for a start. In the past few weeks, it has been hard to avoid Prof Matthew Goodwin and his new book Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics. According to Goodwin, the traditionalist beliefs, patriotism and honourable values of the British majority have been marginalised by a sinister “new elite” of privately educated Russell Group graduates who have colonised the nation’s principal institutions; who share a liberal, cosmopolitan world view; and who have an unshakeable sense of their own moral righteousness.
To give you a taste: “Britain in the 2020s is in the grip of a new ruling class, the new middle-class graduate elite”; “a closely connected, insular and self-serving ruling class” bound by “a divisive new ideology of radical ‘woke’ progressivism”; and (cue Darth Vader music) “the new elite has become the new overclass”.
And who are these polenta-eating Sith overlords, draining all that is good and fine and traditional from British life? Well, Emily Maitlis, apparently. Then there’s Jon Sopel, Carol Vorderman, Gary Lineker, and James O’Brien. Emma Watson and Hugh Grant are also in on it, though it’s not quite clear how Paddington 2 has vandalised the social fabric.
No such list is complete without TNE’s very own Alastair Campbell, of course. And even I get a look-in, for daring to suggest that the Brexit revolt might, just conceivably, have had something to do with xenophobia.
Now, I am the first to admit that I have had a very privileged and fortunate life, educated at a private school and Oxford. It is also self-evidently true that Britain remains a depressingly elitist country, in which social mobility is patchy at best and socio-economic inequalities are becoming, if anything, more entrenched. But whose fault is this?
It has become a political reflex, when things go wrong, to blame the educated, the professional classes, the media, public servants, and the intelligentsia – borrowing the notion of the “treacherous intellectual” from the title of Julien Benda’s 1927 book La Trahison des Clercs. In the US, the trope can be traced in Christopher Lasch’s influential The Revolt of the Elites and Thomas Sowell’s The Vision of the Anointed (both 1995).
According to Sowell, those in public and educational life who count themselves anointed “do not simply happen to have a disdain for the public. Such disdain is an integral part of their vision, for the central feature of that vision is pre-emption of the decisions of others”.
When William Hague’s leadership of the Conservative Party was on life support, he declared himself the implacable foe of the “liberal elite” and promised to prevent Britain being turned into a “foreign land”. In her first and last conference speech as prime minister last year, Liz Truss made an embarrassing attack on “the talking heads, the Brexit deniers… [who] taxi from north London townhouses to the BBC studio to dismiss anyone challenging the status quo.”
But let’s separate rhetoric from reality. If we’re looking for an elite to hold accountable for Britain’s woes, we should look no further than the privileged gang that brought you Brexit and is now doing its best to turn border control policy into a lurid and dangerous culture war flashpoint.
Goodwin is good enough to acknowledge that Boris Johnson went to Eton and Oxford, but excuses this by characterising him as “a renegade member of the elite” (my italics). This is slippery, to say the least.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the Brexit project is that it was almost entirely the work of opportunistic, privately educated boys from Oxford.
Look at the cast of characters: Michael Gove (Robert Gordon’s College; Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford); Dominic Cummings (Durham School; Exeter College, Oxford); Daniel Hannan (Marlborough College, Oriel College, Oxford); David Frost (Nottingham High School; St John’s College, Oxford); and, of course, Rishi Sunak (Winchester College; Lincoln College, Oxford).
There were a few outliers: David Davis was a grammar schoolboy brought up on a council estate by a single mother and did not go to university. Priti Patel went to a comprehensive and the University of Keele. But, as Simon Kuper shows in his brilliant book, Chums, “the Tory Brexiteers subgroup” was the true vanguard of “an anti-elitist revolt led by an elite: a coup by one set of Oxford public schoolboys against another”.
And where has this great wheeze got us? To a low point in national history, that’s where. The very working-class Britons and pensioners whom Goodwin claims to speak for have been hardest hit by the cost-of-living crisis and for that – as research by the London School of Economics has shown – we have post-Brexit red tape, above all, to thank.
As migrant labour from the EU dries up, there are desperate shortages in the NHS and social care. “Levelling up” remains a slogan in search of a policy.
And, to deflect from this pitiful record, we have the shameful political theatre of the war on “small boats”. We have a home secretary, Suella Braverman (Heathfield School, Pinner; Queens’ College, Cambridge) who says it is her “dream” to see planes full of refugees taking off for Rwanda. And we have a prime minister who brags that “If you come to the UK illegally, you can’t benefit from our modern slavery protections”.
Goodwin thinks that those who find all this repulsive are driven by a faddish “wokery”, a “luxury belief”. But what is happening to immigration policy is also an affront to a much older and deeply rooted sense of decency and compassion that is integral to the British soul.
It is easy, of course, to stoke up resentment of immigrants and to risk lighting the tinder of bigotry. But – in the truest sense – it is also deeply unpatriotic. Expect much more of this before the election: Sunak promised last year to stand up to “woke nonsense”, and loves to attack Keir Starmer for being part of the supposed “north London” liberal oligarchy.
Are Hugh Grant and Emma Watson really running Britain into the ground? Maybe it helps the populist right and their cheerleaders to believe such nonsense. But the truth is that they themselves are the “new elite” that is leading the country to perdition.