There are many things we Americans do not admire about you British, said the constitutional theorist Philip Bobbitt when I spoke to him on the fringes of the 2017 Engelsberg conference. “There is the food, the plumbing and the lack of dental hygiene. But we have always had a sneaking admiration for the sensible way that you organise your politics.”
“Now,” he said, banging the table, “you seem to have gone even more crazy than us!”
He has a point. But I think I can explain one of the main sources of this new political instability, some of which applies to the United States and continental Europe and indeed all rich democracies.
A minority group of the highly educated and mobile – call them the “Anywheres” – who tend to value autonomy and openness, and comfortably surf social change, have recently come to dominate our economy and society.
Now, the majority of jobs in Britain either require a university degree or virtually no training at all.
A larger but much less influential group – the “Somewheres” – who are more rooted and less well-educated, who value security and familiarity, and are more connected to group identities than the Anywheres, feel uncomfortable about this. Somewheres, who have felt excluded from the public space, have responded by using their power as voters to choose Brexit (and Trump too).
The values story is, of course, more complex than that, with many varieties of Anywheres and Somewheres and a large group of “In-betweeners”. And, of course, both worldviews are perfectly decent and legitimate, at least in their mainstream versions.
But what is undeniable is that the modern world in Britain and other rich democracies has been designed by and for the Anywheres – the knowledge economy and the centrality of cognitive ability to modern achievement, the expansion of higher education and relative neglect of technical and vocational learning, the rapid social change represented by mass immigration and a more open economy, and the decline of the family and more stable communities. This has produced a backlash that we call populism. And finding a new settlement between Anywheres and Somewheres is now the central task of modern politics.
This value divide is hardly new, so why has it become so central to politics in the past generation or so? There are two reasons. The first is that traditional socio-economic politics – meaning class-based, Left-Right arguments about the size of the state and scale of redistribution – has recently been eclipsed in much of the rich world by socio-cultural politics, the “security and identity” issues that are themselves a response to the much greater economic and cultural openness and fluidity of our societies.
The second reason is the simple growth of Anywhere numbers, thanks in turn to the expansion of higher education. On my calculations, extrapolating from the British Social Attitudes Surveys, Anywheres now constitute about 25 per cent of British society; the Somewhere worldview still accounts for about half of the population. Back in 1960, British common sense was Somewhere common sense; today it is Anywhere common sense, at least in the public realm.
The unselfconscious way in which a cabinet minister doubts whether it is possible to lead a fulfilled life in a town of 120,000 people reveals something topsy-turvy about modern Britain.
This divide is somewhat more acute in Britain than in America or continental Europe because almost all British students, whatever their social background, leave home and go to residential universities at the age of 18 and then sometimes move on to live in our over-mighty capital city that sucks in a large proportion of the upper professional class. A life of professional achievement in Britain is invariably a mobile one, and too often a London one. Graduates of good universities are very unlikely to return to live in the town of their birth or have close friends who are non-graduates.
This cultural gulf helps to explain why the referendum result was such a surprise – about 3 million Somewheres who had stopped voting in general elections “because the parties are all the same to us” – turned up to vote for Brexit. The mutual incomprehension also explains why the result provoked such an outbreak of Anywhere contempt towards those who voted Brexit.
If this divide got us into a Brexit-shaped mess, surely the UK’s general election on June 8, 2017, has turned the clock back to a more traditional politics?
No. The UK election, like Emmanuel Macron’s victory in France, was in part an Anywhere fight-back, with young, pro-EU graduates and other hardline opponents of Brexit helping to give Jeremy Corbyn, the Leftist Labour leader, an unexpectedly strong showing which denied Prime Minister Theresa May the big majority she was hoping for to begin the Brexit negotiations.
It’s true that Corbyn also increased Labour’s share of the working-class vote from 34 per cent to 42 per cent, but reinforcing just how much the old, Left-Right class analysis has broken down, the Conservatives increased their share even more – from 32 to 44 per cent. And both parties had Left-of-centre manifestos, rather critical of business, underlining that recent years have seen a convergence between classes and value groups on economic issues and a divergence on those “security and identity” cultural issues.
The election also illustrated the political and cultural power of Anywhere-dominated higher education. Until recently, when people talked about university seats they meant Oxford and Cambridge. Now university students, staff and graduates who have stayed in the area, can swing the result in almost 15 per cent of the roughly 650 parliamentary seats – places like Bristol West, York, Manchester Wythenshawe, Canterbury and Brighton.
Political fatigue with the continuing squeeze on public spending did also play some role in the election. But today’s arguments are not mainly about class or even about inequality, the two explanations outsiders tend to reach for when trying to understand the UK. Rising incomes can help to dilute the value divide, so the recent stagnation of incomes in the UK and elsewhere may have exacerbated it. But levels of inequality have not changed much since the late 1980s, and while the Anywhere/Somewhere distinction overlaps with class, it is more about education, mobility and degree of comfort with the modern world.
If we cannot find a new settlement that makes more space for the decent populist Somewhere worldview, we will only strengthen the hand of the indecent populists.
Underlying so many of the changes that have made life more uncomfortable for many Somewheres in recent decades is one bigger change: the elevation of educational qualifications and cognitive ability into the gold standard of social esteem and, linked to that, the declining status of most forms of non-graduate employment.
Only a couple of generations ago, a large number of people performed skilled jobs that required little cognitive ability but required a lot of experience to do well and thus protected the status of those doing them. And those middling, often manufacturing, jobs also offered achievable incremental progression. Now, the majority of jobs in Britain either require a university degree or virtually no training at all.
And thanks to residential universities and the dominance of London, cognitive ability and social achievement are associated with leaving – separating oneself from one’s roots. Today, about three in five Britons still live within 20 miles of where they lived when aged 14 – but few of those people are graduates of elite universities. And there is a growing divergence within the graduate population itself between those at more and less prestigious institutions. Russell Group university students are more likely to have the full Anywhere experience, travelling long distances from home and being surrounded by many international students. Students at former polytechnics travel shorter distances and might even still live at home, and such universities are now less likely to have many overseas students.
Social mobility is the mantra of all political parties, yet the main tool to achieve it has been expanding higher education, disproportionately benefiting the middle class and southern England – London and the South East account for nearly 70 per cent of the UK’s top 20 per cent of socially mobile areas, while Yorkshire and Humberside, the North East and the West Midlands between them account for none. We have created in recent decades what feels like a hereditary meritocracy.
Everyone is in favour of getting the best-qualified people into the right jobs, and most people want bright people from whatever background to travel as far as their talents will take them. Yet there is only so much room at Oxbridge or in the top professions and, in any case, it presents a very narrow vision of what a good and successful life entails.
Should it not be possible to lead such a life in, for instance, the former steel town of Rotherham in south Yorkshire? Justine Greening, the secretary of state for education, is doubtful. In a March 2017 speech about social mobility, she said: “I just had a flashback to all the years I spent growing up in Rotherham where I was aiming for something better – many of the things we have been talking about: a better job, owning my own home, an interesting career, a life that I found really challenging... I knew there was something better out there.” I’m sure I would have wanted to leave Rotherham too when I was young. But the unselfconscious way in which a cabinet minister doubts whether it is possible to lead a fulfilled life in a town of 120,000 people reveals something topsy-turvy about modern Britain.
There can also be social virtue in staying put, indeed the contribution to the cohesion of neighbourhoods of people staying loyal to a place should be acknowledged more by local councils. One friend told me the sad story of a neighbour of his in east London who is in his late 60s and still lives in the house where he was born. He used to be known as the local “sheriff” because he knew everyone, and was a conduit for all the local gossip, in his ethnically mixed street. But now, with the pace of population churn becoming much faster, many residents don’t know him or know that it is “his” street.
As Joan Williams pointed out in her book, White Working Class: overcoming class cluelessness in America: “For many perfectly able working class people their dream is not to join the upper middle class with its different culture but to stay true to their own values in their own communities, just with more money.”
There are plenty of middle-class and working-class Somewheres who are nostalgic for a time when ordinary, middling, local lives seemed to enjoy more respect from the national culture and the dominant classes. Almost two-thirds of British adults now agree with this rather leading statement: “Britain has changed in recent years beyond recognition, it sometimes feels like a foreign country and this makes me feel uncomfortable.” Older people, the least well-educated and the least affluent are most likely to assent, but there is quite widespread support from other groups too.
So this is, surely, the new “third way” of our times: how to achieve an open, mobile society – and elite – while continuing to value meaningful (in other words, stable) communities? How to encourage success and upward mobility without casting a shadow of failure over those who do not (or cannot) move up and out?
So how should liberal Anywheres respond to this great divide? It is uncomfortable to accept that much of current politics is a reaction against the over-dominance of your own side. But I believe an emotionally intelligent liberalism should see the two recent protest votes – for Brexit and Trump – as a legitimate appeal for a new settlement between these two dominant worldviews.
Most Somewheres are “decent populists” who have accepted much of the great liberalisation in recent decades on race, gender and sexuality but still feel that the new openness of our societies – the mass immigration, the dilution of national social contracts, the rise and rise of the graduate class – does not work well for them.
We need a better form of openness that works for Somewheres as well as Anywheres. And if we cannot find a new settlement that makes more space for the decent populist Somewhere worldview, we will only strengthen the hand of the indecent populists. The new settlement is not about a lurch into illiberalism or about taking revenge on Anywheres, it is about finding ways of redistributing status and social honour as much as money.
Political leaders need to reflect better the “change is loss” sentiments of many of their voters. Those Somewhere voters also need to feel that their priorities are heard. That is happening spontaneously, and often in an ugly way, through social media.
The final chapter of my book, The Road to Somewhere, explores some of the possible policy options that might nudge politics towards a better balance between Anywhere and Somewhere interests. I look at this under the headings “Voice”, “The National” and “Society”.
On Voice, I argue that political rhetoric matters, and too much of it in recent decades has been dominated by an Anywhere celebration of change. Political leaders need to reflect better the “change is loss” sentiments of many of their voters. Those Somewhere voters also need to feel that their priorities are heard. That is happening spontaneously, and often in an ugly way, through social media. In mainstream politics, localism and maybe compulsory voting would help to focus politicians’ attention more on Somewhere interests.
The National is about the restoration of national social contracts in labour markets and elsewhere, a restoration of the “fellow citizen favouritism” that most Somewheres think is still a central purpose of the modern state. Policies include returning to moderate levels of immigration, ID cards to reassure people in more socially fluid times that their social rights are protected and a greater sense that public assets belong to citizens.
Finally, the Social category is about rebalancing educational priorities away from the relentless focus on higher education, and also about more layered and subtle thinking on social mobility which has been too focused on the “all or nothing” journey to a good university.
Where does the Anywhere/Somewhere settlement currently work best? Smaller European countries like Ireland or Denmark have preserved a national intimacy that prevents Anywheres pulling away too far. Scotland under the SNP, too, perhaps deserves credit for its attempt at a new Anywhere/Somewhere settlement north of the border within the framework of moderate Scottish nationalism.
But it is Germany that seems to have reached a better balance than most big developed countries. (Austria and Switzerland are similar, though much smaller.) There is no London, nor global universities to upset the balance, and a much greater focus on the middling and the local. There is also an institutionalised voice for employees in business and the three-year apprenticeship system continues to confer respect on even basic jobs in retail. The Länder system gives many people a strong regional identity and even a local dialect to go with it.
It is true that German Anywheres, in politics and the media, remain wary of normal national feeling and tend towards post-national political correctness, as we saw in the 2015 refugee crisis. But there is one part of Germany that has partially insulated itself from this trend – conservative, Catholic Bavaria is perhaps the place that gets it most right in all of Europe with its combination of social conservatism and economic dynamism. It has been said that Anywheres regard society as a shop, while Somewheres see it as a home. Bavaria is a home with some very good shops.
An emotionally intelligent Anywhere politics must be able to combine individual liberty and minority rights on the one hand, and a strong sense of belonging and group attachment on the other.
Finally, I have often been asked in the past few months whether my book is about saving or burying liberalism. I usually answer neither, but I do wish liberalism would practise what it preaches on pluralism by not imposing Anywhere priorities on Somewheres who have different ones. An emotionally intelligent Anywhere politics must be able to combine individual liberty and minority rights on the one hand, and a strong sense of belonging and group attachment on the other.
The American sociologist Daniel Bell used to say that he was a social democrat in economics, a liberal in politics, and on social and cultural matters somewhat conservative. This is the “hidden majority” that remains unspoken for in developed democracies. It is my hope that the recent value conflicts represented by Brexit and Trump, and the current political stalemate in Britain and elsewhere, are stations on the way to that majority finding a voice.