Blog: Book Review: Goodwin fails to realise that we have already, with … – ConservativeHome

Values, Voice & Virtue: The New British Politics by Matthew Goodwin

This book begins with the strange suggestion that British politics used to be considered “stable, boring, moderate and consensual”. Only in retrospect, when the alarms of the moment have faded, can such a complacent judgement be reached.

At the time, we almost invariably find something to argue about which seems, and may even be, a matter of life and death. In 1972, the worst year of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, 479 people, including 130 British soldiers, were killed.

Suez, the Falklands War, the Iraq War, the Miners’ Strikes, the divisions which rent the Labour Party in 1981 and 1931, the crash of 2008, Black Wednesday in 1992, all seemed, at the time, to be serious.

But Matthew Goodwin contends that “the new British politics” of the last decade “is far more volatile, chaotic, divisive, and unpredictable”.

Although one cannot know what disasters are about to occur, the hysteria provoked by Boris Johnson does not seem any greater than the hysteria provoked, in their different ways, by Enoch Powell, Edward Heath, Harold Wilson or Margaret Thatcher.

Just as Rishi Sunak tries to calm things down, Goodwin wishes to persuade us that “British politics is coming apart”. He says a “New Elite” consisting of university graduates with “radically progressive values” has taken control of our institutions and looks down on “the morally inferior masses”, whom it dismisses as racists and xenophobes.

There is evidently a degree of truth in this account, but Goodman wrecks his case by overstating it, and by failing to recognise the self-correcting capacities we possess.

We do sometimes learn from our mistakes. One would not wish to overstate this, and should note that any really serious problem is likely to take generations to sort out.

The cure may, moreover, bring fresh problems of its own. The trade unions had by the 1970s rendered the country more or less ungovernable. Both Wilson and Heath attempted to tackle the problem and failed.

Jim Callaghan, the in many ways admirable successor to Wilson, was brought low by the unions in the Winter of Discontent, and in April 1979 defeated by the Conservatives under Thatcher, the country’s first woman Prime Minister.

She with prudent boldness tamed the unions, and the country was by the 1980s ready, albeit under protest, to accept the high price of doing so.

Goodwin reminds us that one consequence of this reform was the collapse of working-class representation in Parliament:

“When Neil Kinnock led Labour into battle against Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, there had been 64 Labour MPs who had previously held working-class jobs. When Tony Blair won his second landslide, in 2001, the number had fallen to 49. When Ed Miliband was defeated by David Cameron in 2015, it was down to 20. When Jeremy Corbyn took over, promising to restore the voice of the working class, there were 12. And when Keir Starmer replaced him, promising to repair the Labour Party’s relationship with the Red Wall, there were only seven.”

Michael Crick, who follows with minute attention the selection of candidates for the next general election, confirmed in a recent interview with ConHome that those now being chosen by Labour are “totally middle class”.

The trade unions founded the Parliamentary Labour Party, and for generations provided political education for working-class organisers and negotiators who went on to become MPs, and in Callaghan’s case Prime Minister.

The working class had a stake in the country, not just because by going on strike they could bring it to a grinding halt, but through such brilliant figures as Ernest Bevin, who had started life in rural poverty, left school at the age of 11, created the Transport and General Workers’ Union, became an indispensable member of Churchill’s War Cabinet, and as Foreign Secretary helped create NATO and West Germany.

The vacuum left by the collapse of the trade unions has been filled, as Goodwin says, by university graduates who marry other university graduates, seldom talk to anyone outside their own class, and with insufferable self-righteousness try to impose their trendy opinions on the rest of us.

Hence, in part, Brexit. We can all agree with that. But Goodwin is reluctant to recognise that the referendum of 2016, whether or not one approves of the decision reached, was of value in giving neglected voters a voice, and thus in reducing pressure for a revolution.

The Establishment is seldom written about in a perceptive way, for the word suggests a single, Establishment view, whereas our institutions, notably the House of Commons, are set up in order to encourage members of the Establishment to argue against each other.

The duty of the Opposition is to oppose, and within each party is found an awkward squad which scorns the path taken by the leadership and campaigns for a change of direction.

So even when the greater part of the Establishment has arrived at some orthodoxy – on Brexit, the conviction that leaving the EU would be a catastrophe – another part of the Establishment can be found voicing the opposite view, in this case that Brexit would be a liberation.

Goodwin only refers in passing to the Establishment, a term coined by Henry Fairlie in 1955, and instead describes, in his opening chapter, the “Rise of the New Elite”, which according to him

“has taken full control of the political institutions, the think tanks, the civil service, the public bodies, the universities, the creative industries, the cultural institutions and much of the media.”

This is absurdly exaggerated. Goodwin makes the same error as writers about the Establishment used to make, namely to suppose that members of the New Elite all think the same as each other.

No doubt many of them do, but Goodwin is Professor of Politics at the University of Kent, and does not think the same as every one of his colleagues.

By page 22, he is writing that

“a clearly visible section of the New Elite [my capitals] believe Western nations such as Britain are institutionally racist, see their British identity and history as a source of shame, feel much less pride than others in the nation, and feel much less attached to their national identity and the wider national group.”

He has already had to subdivide his New Elite by referring to “a clearly visible section” of it. On page 67 he admits:

“Clearly, there will always be outliers, people who do not sit neatly in either camp, such as the one-quarter of Britain’s graduates and one in three black and minority ethnic voters who voted for Brexit, the one in five 18-24-year-olds who voted for Boris Johnson and the four in ten who left school after their GCSEs but who still support Labour and the Left.”

But on page 107, he remains puzzled that Boris Johnson, “an Old Etonian who had studied Classics, ancient literature and philosophy at the University of Oxford”, became “the leader of Britain’s non-graduate majority”, and on page 160 he is surprised to find Johnson “tapping into many of their values which had long been neglected by the New Elite”.

Goodwin’s book is admirably short, so one cannot blame him for failing to glance at the career of Benjamin Disraeli, touched on in my own recent book about Johnson.

But if one does so, one sees that the New Elite is nothing like as new as Goodwin supposes it to be. It has existed in various insufferable forms for a long time, and it led Disraeli to develop a form of politics attractive to newly enfranchised members of the skilled working class:

“Tory Democracy, espoused with enthusiasm by Johnson in the 2019 general election campaign, is an alliance between a section of the ruling class and the working class, in order to enrage and outwit the middle-class prigs. The programme of this alliance is patriotism plus practical measures to improve the lives of the workers. Tory Democrats proclaim the greatness of Britain, and promise to preserve and increase it. They express with impudent freedom the conservative instincts of the working class: love of country, symbolised above all by the monarchy and the armed forces; contempt for high-minded liberals who claim to be the true guardians of the poor but in fact know nothing about them; respect for family, hard work, cussedness, cheerfulness and saying what the hell you like, especially if it shocks the liberals.”

Lee Anderson, recently interviewed on ConHome, is a Tory Democrat, never happier than when teasing the New Elite.

Goodwin claims, in the last lines of his book,

“many people in the country are searching around for a radical alternative that will allow them to launch a revolt against the growing power of the New Elite. The only question that remains is what form this radical alternative will take and when it will arrive.”

Unnoticed by this author, the alternative has already arrived, and is delightfully old-fashioned.

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