Skip to main content

Going nowhere

Demos and Policy Exchange are the thinktanks responsible for the two most consequential party changes in British party politics in the last thirty-five years. By shaping New Labour and David Cameron's Tory modernisation, they've mattered to the course of everyday, cut-and-thrust politics in a way that most research institutions could only dream about. So you'd think that someone who'd held senior positions at both would know a thing or two about how things work.

On the other hand, David Goodhart didn't join Demos until 2012, when Ed Miliband had already turned the page on New Labour. And he headed to Policy Exchange in early 2016, just in time to watch David Cameron crash the compassionate conservative car and Theresa May torch the wreckage. Perhaps that makes it slightly less mysterious that Goodhart is, when it comes to the current state of British politics, wrong about almost everything.

Goodhart's on my mind because this week he wrote a piece in the Catholic Herald (?) about the Conservatives' election disaster. It's titled, with refreshing honesty, "Don't blame me for May's election woes", and its purpose is to hit back at the idea (expressed by Stephen Bush) that Goodhart's ideas about identity were responsible for the Conservatives' catastrophic neglect of social liberals and ethnic minorities during the election campaign.

The big idea, which he's written a book about, is that British society is divided into 'Somewheres', who feel a strong sense of community tradition and identity, and 'Anywheres', who hang out in cities being modern. Goodhart's view is that the major political parties - following the personal inclinations of their senior figures - have all lined up in Camp Anywhere for a long time, neglecting the concerns of working-class voters who are "more rooted", value "familiarity and group attachments", and "find much about the modern world discomforting". (As is so often the case, of course, this is all basically just code for disliking immigration.)

Some version of this theory could be said to underlie the May election strategy, emphasising nationalism and Brexit at the expense of the anti-debt economic message David Cameron ran on. And it looks a lot like that strategy was a total disaster. But David Goodhart - I suppose understandably - doesn't want to think so.

Everyone has ideas and wants to stick up for them, and fair enough. What's remarkable is the degree of ignorance about the political climate that Goodhart's defence displays. The symbolic centre of the disagreement is Theresa May's conference speech, in which she declared that "if you believe you're a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere". Stephen reckons this speech set off alarm bells for affluent minority voters. Goodhart maintains that it was an attack on the tiny Davos elite, who truly feel they don't have any home and could belong anywhere in the world, and doesn't see how that could have been offputting to any sizeable number of voters. If you just read the text of the speech you can produce that interpretation. It requires you to ignore, though, that literally the day before the Home Secretary had proposed forcing businesses to publish lists of their foreign employees; that people were being abused on the street for having conversations in foreign languages; that the Brexit campaign which launched May's Tory reboot was often openly racist.

Even the slightest awareness of the political context would make it obvious that the Conservative Party was turning not against people who "aren't from anywhere", but against people who aren't from here. There is - clearly - no political traction in a Goodhart-y message that it's important to be from somewhere and value your own community and traditions. The point always was, and always was going to be, about British - really, English - community and traditions. Nobody quite foresaw how badly this message would backfire - a lot of people, including me, thought it would work depressingly well - but Goodhart might be unique in refusing even to realise that's what the message was.

The reason he doesn't see it is that he's bought wholesale into his own exciting theories of community identity, and so apparently can't realise that actual politics doesn't map onto them. A coda, though (out of respect to my recently-concluded philosophical life), I should emphasise: as much as they seem to have obscured his view of everyday electoral politics, Goodhart's theories are not sophisticated, original, or worth thinking about.

His supposed insight is that society is not just a collection of individuals, and that people get value and meaning in their lives from their traditions and culture. This is arguably something that political theory neglected in the 1970s and 80s, but it's been thoroughly explored ground since then. And most of the people who explored it managed to do so without being inspired to write an exactly-as-bad-as-it-sounds FT op-ed, 'White self-interest is not the same thing as racism', or a long-winded and self-indulgent explanation of 'Why I left my liberal London tribe'. (The answer, for the time-poor among you, is that he thought it's uncomfortable to be on a train where nobody else is speaking English, and his liberal tribe did not.) They avoided this trap by recognising that the value of culture can't be pursued in ways that marginalise outsiders or the vulnerable. In fact they never came close to falling into it: most people thinking about this topic have been focused on the threatened cultures of indigenous peoples and minorities, because the idea that the ability of white English people to access and enjoy their cultural traditions is under threat... is ludicrous.

David Goodhart, in short, is peddling the same nonsense as every other boring 'genuine concerns' pundit, and dressing it up in some half-baked political theory. He hasn't ascended high enough into his ivory tower to actually get any clarity on the ethical issues here - but he's got just high enough to entirely lose touch with what the divisions in modern British politics are and what the new Conservative Party is actually about.