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Book Review Voice, Values, and Virtue

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Professor Matthew Goodwin’s new book, Voice, Values and Virtue does the best job we know in describing the liberal cosmopolitan revolution of the last four decades including the rise of populist movements, identity politics, and polarization in contemporary societies. The main political cleavage now is between traditionalists and radical cosmopolitans who impose their radically progressive cultural values on a nation the majority of whom hold more conservative values.

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Goodwin’s book is the best we know in analysing the strong tides in current politics and we offer the following paragraphs as brief guide to his ideas. For those who want a longer introduction Goodwin’s speech at the National Conservative conference last week is a good place to start.

Goodwin says that a new elite has taken control of the political institutions, the think-tanks, the civil service, public bodies, the universities, creative industries, the cultural institutions and much of the media. Even if this is somewhat overstated (the largest London thinktank, Policy Exchange, is decidedly not on the side of the new elite), Goodwin’s view is one we all recognise.

The key difference between the traditionalists and the liberal elite is higher education. A large graduate elite has emerged with often extreme liberal views.  Goodwin places the main blame on the universities which have morphed into ideological monocultures. When liberal cosmopolitan and progressive values are completely dominant, he argues, those who do not share them feel they cannot speak. Political minorities, such as conservatives and gender-critical scholars, are either marginalised or openly discriminated against.

Goodwin describes a deeply destabilising political revolution imposed on the country and indeed other western democracies for 50 years driven by an emerging educated and largely urban elite. This elite has been the main beneficiaries of the changes they led driving deep wedges between themselves and the majority of the population whose views they ignore and distain.

In the UK the revolution began with Mrs Thatcher’s electoral victory in 1979 which began four deep sets of changes.

  • Reshaping the country around a much more divisive and disruptive model of hyper-globalisation
  • An unprecedented new era of mass immigration
  • Integrating the nation into supranational bodies including the European Union
  • Hollowing out national democracy by handing power to a new more insular, careerist and homogenous political class in Westminster.

The elite failed to recognise to adapt to new set of realities. The revolution which the dominant ruling class shaped around their own economic and cultural interests spawned a counter-revolution which found its expression around a rise in populism focussed on Nigel Farage, the Brexit referendum victory and the realignment of the Conservative party under Boris Johnson at the 2019 General Election.

It used to be argued that the main problem of British democracy was the large incoherent mass of irrational voters. Today it is the elite. Increasingly those who have assumed power in British politics and institutions have lost touch with the majority of voters in three respects:

  • They lost touch with the values which are held by many people. The new minority elite have increasingly imposed their liberal cosmopolitan and progressive world view on the rest of the country and in doing so cut many other people adrift both economically and culturally from the new dominant world-view. As the new elite of university-educated minority in the big cities and university towns doubled down on these values, millions of others realised that their values are no longer recognised or respected by the people who now rule over them.
  • The growing rift has been reinforced by the way the new elite have taken control of Britain’s political, media, creative cultural and university institutions, leaving a majority feeling excluded or silenced on the outside looking in and have flocked to populists
  • These tensions have been reinforced by the way the elite see some groups as less morally worthy or virtuous. Instead of bringing people together around unifying narratives the new elite are increasingly adopting a world-view that is hard-wired to push different groups apart. They are reshaping institutions around a divisive new ideology of radical woke progressivism that awards highly-educated liberals and racial, sexual and gender minorities a much greater sense of social status, honour and respect than other groups. This leaves many voters feeling that not only have their values been cast aside but that they and their wider group are now being shamed and stigmatised as a morally inferior under-class.

These changes have pushed many people into a counter-revolution changing the direction of British politics but the new coalition forged by Boris Johnson in 2019 has been allowed to fracture by a Tory party consisting of MPs mainly drawn from the same elite that did not really understand the political and cultural forces that underlay their historic victory.

Goodwin has subsequently argued that the Conservative party had to make a choice between the traditionalists with their counter-revolution and the liberal cosmopolitans and their decades-long revolution, but failed to so. In attempting to ride two horses they have failed to satisfy either. Working-class Brexit voters have deserted in droves, not mainly back to Labour but into a resentful abstention. The counter-revolution seen in France’s Gilets Jeunes or Italy’s Giorgia Meloni and similar groups across Europe and of course the USA, has not played itself out in Britain and awaits new leadership to take it forward. The defenestration of Boris Johnson led to a Tory attempt under Truss and Kwarteng to put back the clock to a pure Thatcherism that commands the support of a tiny minority even within Tory voters. Her replacement by a technocrat again avoids a choice and with immigration rising to levels unimaginable even before the referendum, a further reckoning will occur.

Strangely, Goodwin makes only passing reference to Michael Young’s classic 1956 book ‘The |rise of the Meritocracy’ a fictional parable which predicted how a growing educated elite would come to distance itself from the majority and cause a strong and indeed violent backlash. This is close to what has actually happened although the adoption of ‘woke’ cultural values was hard to predict (or even understand).

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