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David Goodhart on the Impact of Brexit

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Written by David Goodhart

In this interview with the French Newspaper Figaro, David Goodhart of ‘Somewhere and Anywheres’ fame assesses for a French audience the impact of Brexit and the meaning of populism in Britain. Figaro’s questions are typed in bold.

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The European elections could be marked by the breakthrough of so-called populist parties. Does the divide between somewhere and anywhere which, according to you, divided the UK at the time of Brexit, actually extend across all of Europe? 

Yes, of course, all high income European and North American countries have had some variation on the Anywhere/Somewhere divide. In most places it first emerged in the 1990s with the opening up of the global economy—reducing the pay and status of industrial jobs—coinciding with the big expansion of universities, producing for the first time a mass cognitive class.

Education-based value divides began to loom larger in politics, complicating the old left-right, middle-class/working class, socio-economic divisions. Two ideal types emerged: the highly educated (usually graduates), often mobile, people who see the world from anywhere, and the more rooted, less well educated people who see the world from somewhere.

Though a minority, Anywheres have come to dominate all our societies. They are comfortable with change, autonomy and openness. They are less attached to national identity and tradition and relaxed about immigration. Somewheres, by contrast, have identities shaped more by geographical place and social group and so are more likely to be discomforted by rapid change. They want modest levels of immigration, national citizen interests first, and the valuing of traditional ways of life.

Anywheres and Somewheres can also agree on lots of things and both of the worldviews, at least in their mainstream form, are perfectly decent and legitimate. The problem is that one of them has been over-dominant—pressing forward with sovereignty reducing EU-integration, welcoming high levels of immigration, prioritising academic higher education. The Anywhere worldview dominates the mainstream parties, the bureaucracies and the media, and Somewheres can easily feel ignored by the “expert” class, like second class citizens.

But Somewheres also have the vote and they still outnumber Anywheres in most of our societies. Not all Somewheres vote for populist parties but a lot of them do. Using their voting power, Somewheres can place limits on Anywhere hegemony, perhaps especially in referendums (as we saw recently in Ireland).

It is true that populist parties are about to do very well in the European elections, but actually continental Europe has rather effectively absorbed the Somewhere/populist voice.

The voting system makes a big difference. The first past the post system, in the UK and the US, which tends to favour the big parties, was meant to immunise us against populism. But in fact the two biggest victories for populism—Brexit and Trump—happened in first past the post systems. The resistance grew and grew but could not be channelled anywhere in mainstream politics, the system couldn’t bend so it snapped.

Most EU countries, with proportional representation and coalition governments, have had populist parties in national parliaments and even playing a role in national governments for more than 20 years. The populists have been absorbed and domesticated in most cases, even when they are the main party in the government as with Meloni. They have discovered, when faced with a share of national power, that the simple solutions that win you votes don’t produce the outcomes you want. The system has bent and adapted to the populists, and the populists have adapted to the system. That didn’t happen in the UK. I am convinced that if Nigel Farage’s Ukip party had had 50 seats in Parliament, as he would have done in a proportional representation EU country, Brexit would never have happened. People who have not flourished in the modern world would have had their grievances aired. Brexit was a product of the failure of the British system to accommodate the Somewhere voice.

In France, most observers believe that Brexit was a failure and that British voters now regret their vote. Is this really the case?
What is your assessment of Brexit? 

It is absurd to call Brexit a failure. It is only 4 years old. Come and ask me in another 25 years. And, by the way, I voted remain! What was a failure was the lack of preparation for it – we had Brexit without a plan, because it was so unexpected – and then the mess that was made by the whole British political class of both the internal and external negotiation over those three long years. The EU did not cover itself in glory either and cynically exploited the Good Friday Agreement in Ireland.

There is probably a small economic cost of Brexit but ask Marc Touati, the UK has been growing faster than France and Germany in the 9 years since 2015. And trade with the rest of the world (which unlike other EU countries has, for the UK, always been bigger than trade with Europe) has moved up and down in exactly the same way as trade with the EU in the past few years suggesting the new arrangements have not made much difference. According to the UN we became the fourth biggest exporter in the world in 2022, overtaking France. We’ve also continued to increase our share of so-called green field foreign direct investment since Brexit, we are second only to the US.

But more important we are now a full democracy again. We have just had a vigorous national debate about how to regulate the social media companies which produced many changes to the eventual Online Safety Act, by contrast you in the EU have the Digital Services Act that most EU citizens will not have heard of and Brussels lobbyists will have had the main influence on. There are many other areas in science and technology, finance, migration, tax, farming, where we can go our own way and create laws that suit us. We haven’t yet used our new freedoms much and when we do we may make mistakes but they will be the mistakes of our politicians and we can chuck them out if they make a mess of things as we are about to do with the Tories.

And you are right that Brexit is now pretty unpopular in the UK but that is mainly a reflection on the unpopularity of the Tory Government. Since the partygate scandal and the fall of Boris Johnson the Tories have completely lost control of the political narrative and have not got a hearing for the economic facts I quoted earlier. Brexit gets blamed for the sluggish growth of recent years and the general sense of stagnation, but its exactly the same in Europe. Brexit briefly allowed the Somewheres to seize the steering wheel but it was quickly taken back by the Anywhere/Remainers who have convinced people that Brexit is to blame for almost everything. My old newspaper the Financial Times has been especially bad in this respect.

Is it the failure of Brexit or that of the Conservative Party which refused to draw the political consequences of Brexit? In retrospect, was the ousting of Boris Johnson a mistake? 

Good question.  People forget that more than 60% of Tory MPs voted remain (and a larger majority of all the other parties). But the country voted for leave narrowly so it had to be implemented by a reluctant bureaucracy and political class. The breakthrough in 2019 with Boris Johnson’s 80 seat victory opened the possibility of a realignment in British politics, turning the Tory party into a more Somewhere party with more lower income, socially conservative supporters, the voters that it won in large numbers in 2019, and indeed in 2017, a sort of British version of the Republican party in the US becoming the party of the white working class. The promise of Johnson was to unite the country around getting Brexit done and, most important, ‘levelling up’ the almost half of the country with standards of living lower than the poorest US states or east Germany. And then came the pandemic and the opportunity was gone. Compounded, of course, by Johnson’s personality flaws, his belief that the rules did not apply to him. But he did have some political magic, even after all the shenanigans with the drinks parties in lockdown the Tory party were at least 10 points higher in the polls than they are today. His two successors as party leader and Prime Minister have simply been much less good at politics.

Does the divide between Anywhere and Somewhere continue to structure the debate in Britain or are we returning to a more traditional right-left clash? 

The Brexit realignment of British politics did not happen. But the Somewhere revolt—triggered you could say by two referendums the Scottish independence one in 2014 and Brexit in 2016—has left a big mark on our politics. It made the Tory party of 2019 briefly a truly national cross-class party symbolised by the levelling up policy. This policy was then casually abandoned after the pandemic, as was Johnson himself for more understandable reasons. Brexit and 2019 has also refocused the Labour party on winning back its socially conservative working class voters, which is why it has been reluctant to start talking about any kind of rapprochement with the EU. Brexit may not be very popular but the idea of returning to the EU is a non-starter, probably from the EU perspective too.

As in the rest of Europe politics in the UK is more volatile, with huge swings one way then another. The parties no longer have clear ideological positions or social bases, though unlike in France where you have swept away the old parties we have stuck with them. But we can swing from a Corbyn-led left-wing Labour party nearly winning the election in 2017 with 41% of the vote to slumping to 32% in 2019, and a dull, centrist Labour party now probably back to about 42% of the vote. And similarly the Tories going from an 80 seat majority in 2019 with 44% of the vote to probably losing more than half their seats in July with, at best, 25% of the vote.

And yet paradoxically you could also now say that there is very little to choose between the two main parties, usually a vote winner for populists. The Tories have presided over a big increase in the state and public spending, partly thanks to the pandemic and then the Ukraine war energy price rise. After 14 years in power we have seen several different versions of Toryism, none of which have been able to restore the higher economic growth of the 1990s. And all of which have ended up promoting a sort of Anywhere consensus: embracing a post-industrial globalism with London-based professional services the motor of the economy; presiding over a huge surge in post-Brexit immigration; continued expansion of the university sector and neglect of technical education; uncritical promotion of unrealistic net zero targets placing big new burdens on business and consumers.

None of these things are either popular nor effective in producing a richer, more cohesive society. Yet Keir Starmer’s Labour party promises to embrace them with even more enthusiasm. It is true the Tories appear exhausted after 14 years and, especially thanks to Liz Truss’s brief premiership, have acquired a reputation for economic incompetence. They threw away their new 2019 coalition—through carelessly allowing immigration to rise dramatically, failing to sell the benefits of Brexit, or challenge the rise and rise of progressivism in national institutions—and have found nothing to replace it. There is no enthusiasm for Starmer but he gives an appearance of competence and he will benefit from the fact that younger voters, unlike in France, are overwhelmingly on the left. And there are a few areas, like changing the planning laws to build more houses, where he might be an improvement on the Tories.

Alas we are still stuck with the old language of left and right, even though it gets in the way of productive thinking about politics. Tony Blair talked about open versus closed as the new divide, and that does speak to some aspects of the Anywhere v Somewhere value divide. Somewheres don’t want to live in a closed society but they think the forms of openness on offer have mainly benefitted Anywheres. Many people feel that change is loss, especially when it comes to rapid demographic change. But why is it right-wing to be opposed to large scale immigration from poor countries which weakens national solidarity, increases competition for public services and tends to benefit the better off? You could also call that left-wing because stopping such immigration benefits poorer citizens whatever their race or religion. These terms now obscure more than they illuminate in so many areas of politics.

Most European parties classified as “populist” are now hostile to a brutal exit from Europe and are trying to change Europe from within. Does this intermediate strategy seem more effective to you than the maximalist Brexit strategy? 

Yes, I think it does. While Brexit is not the disaster it is painted as, it has also not been an advertisement for leaving. In any case the UK was probably the only big EU country that could leave without massive disruption. It makes much more sense to restore the role of the nation state within the EU and to stop or even reverse further integration. That is one of the reasons I voted remain. I was no great enthusiast for the EU, partly because it fixes in place a sort of permanent Anywhere victory over Somewheres, but thought that integration was going to prove so unpopular that the institution would gradually shift to more British positions.

Through your works, you have advocated for decent populism. What is it about ?

There is a missing majority in most high income countries, that is not properly represented by mainstream politics. It leans a bit to the left economically—pro social market—but a bit to the right on culture and social issues, the importance of national sovereignty and national citizenship, low immigration, support for the family. For various reasons the mainstream parties in most of our countries have not occupied that sweet spot for public opinion. The left, since the 1970s, has been hostile to cultural conservatism and the right has been too wedded to the economically comfortable. Maybe a party like the German CDU/CSU comes closest to it, but has been pushed in a very liberal direction in recent decades.

Populism, in its decent and mainstream form, often speaks to this missing majority. What makes it decent is it that it has properly abandoned racism and authoritarianism. Populist parties of the right often emerged from racist street gangs, but they must be allowed to change in the same way that many left-wing politicians have been allowed to disavow their violent, Trotskyist or Maoist, pasts. And most populist parties have liberalised. They do not exclude national citizens on grounds of race or religion. That is the key. So Marine Le Pen is against Islamism but not against Islam, as Eric Zemmour apparently is.

And from where does decent populism draw its decent support? I think there are three areas where liberalism has, if you like, become too liberal and let down ordinary voters, especially of a Somewhere disposition.

First, the tendency to label people as racist who are not. Of course, there are racists and most of them probably vote for populist parties. But in the UK only about 3% of the population now think that to be truly British you have to be white, it might be a bit higher in France. Rapid demographic change is, however, discomforting to many people, and we have had a lot of it—in the UK the ethnic majority population has grown from about 10% to 25% just in the last 20 years. But they are discomforted not because  they are racists but because they are human beings who prefer the familiar to the unfamiliar. Ask the Black Caribbeans of Brixton in south London who object to their neighbourhood being bought up by affluent young whites.

Second, the tendency to blur the line between citizen and non-citizen. Most people still  believe strongly in the idea of national citizen favouritism. National citizens enjoy a social and political heritage that their ancestors fought for. Outsiders can attach themselves to this heritage too but they have to earn it by living in the country for a period and paying into the system. Decent populists are civic not ethnic nationalists. Anywheres often don’t feel this emotional attachment to country and so are happy to blur the line between citizen and non-citizen, as in free movement in the EU or giving full rights to immigrants and refugees from day one. It is not xenophobic to believe in the continuing importance of national solidarity and so protecting what is special about national citizenship. Most of us, including populist voters, believe in the moral equality of all human being but not in the universalist idea that we have the same obligation to all humans.

Third, liberalism has been too happy to give away the benefits of national democratic accountability. In the EU this is done in the name of the economic benefits of frictionless markets. But within countries it is often done too in the name of professional expertise. The American journalist Christopher Caldwell talks about the two constitutions. The first is electoral democracy and the basics of the rule of law etc. The second is the institutions that often run the country day to day—the civil service, the judiciary, the media—increasingly dominated by Anywhere people. The problem is that the second constitution can often over-rule the first constitution, so giving people the impression that their precious vote counts for very little.


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About the author

David Goodhart