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Society, Words 12/05/2017

Anywhere but here

David Goodhart. Image Karen Gordon Photography

Has David Goodhart got to the root of Britain’s problems?

David Goodhart’s book The Road To Somewhere benefits from the very unusual gift of doubling up as a fun game. Are you an “Anywhere” person or a “Somewhere” person? I’ll tell you why this matters in a moment.

But first the thesis. Broadly speaking, Goodhart (who I should really call “David” since I know him personally and he was once my boss at think tank Demos) argues the UK is roughly divided into two tribes with quite different views of the world.

There are the Somewhere people, those “rooted” in a specific place or community, socially conservative, often less educated, more worried about change.

Then there are those who come from Anywhere: usually well educated, socially liberal, mobile, urban and comfortable with rapid transformation. Although fully half the UK are Somewheres and just a quarter are Anywheres (the rest are either In-Between or on the mad fringes) the latter have ruled the roost for the last 40 years. Their economically and socially liberal views have come to dominate society, and they have, not uncoincidentally, benefitted greatly as a result.

Of course, it’s overly-simple to split the population this way (Goodhart admits it is fuzzy at the edges), but these broad distinctions are a useful shorthand for a fault-line in British politics. Although he doesn’t say exactly, Goodhart thinks Brexit was a sort of revolt of the Somewhere tribe.  This he mostly welcomes, since he believes politics needs rebalancing away from the Anywhere view of the world.

The Road to Somewhere draws on an awful lot of rigorous data analysis, and is extremely well-written. The book also benefits from exquisite timing. It is the first serious book about how and why Brexit / Trump happened. Although he started the book before these events unfolded, he clearly saw it coming. The seamless text suggests it was very easy for him to add the last six months in such a way that feels natural rather than rushed. I won’t go in for the detail here, since its been very widely reviewed, and you can find plenty of thoughtful support and criticism. Andrew Marr reckons the Somewhere / Anywhere divide works, and that Labour canvassers in Stoke-on-Trent know it all too well. Jonathan Freedland accepts that Goodhart has a point, but feels he caricatures Anywheres, is unfair on migrants, and too soft on Somewheres. The Economist is nervous that Goodhart’s decent populism might easily give way to nastier variants, while Jon Bloomfield over at Open Democracy thinks it’s a ‘manifesto’ for exactly that.   

Everyone’s trying to be an authentic Somewhere. Billionaires are now men of the people

I’ll focus instead on the one danger I don’t think anyone’s spotted. The Road to Somewhere accidentally emphasises a new turn in politics, which is distinctly anti-establishment. It’s a thoughtful and considered version of this new direction, but in its extreme, Anywheres are the thinking man’s synonym for “the establishment” / “liberal elite” / “metropolitan elite”. And although Goodhart stresses that the Anywhere and Somewhere world views are both valid, I can't help thinking the Anywheres are the enemy of this piece.

Who wants to be an Anywhere? A rootless, privileged, noodle-armed, cold-catching, latte-drinking Anywhere? No-one. Not me. And I’ve asked all sorts of people who would qualify as Goodhart’s Anywheres, and they don’t either. When I first arrived in London, I was a Somewhere. From a below par comprehensive school, and a very ordinary non-university background, I wanted to be an Anywhere. Now, and I’m not sure when it happened, I’d far rather be a Somewhere again. I prefer to lay the Kenty voice back on again. I’ve found there’s a strange new pride in declaring, as I routinely do, that I was “the first to go to university” in my family. Privately educated colleagues hint of jealousy as I humbly boast of my rough-ish comprehensive school background.  

Everyone’s at it now, trying to be an authentic Somewhere. Billionaire businessmen are now men of the people. David Cameron’s top adviser and tech-start up Silicon Valley blue sky thinker Steve Hilton tries to crowbar himself into being an outsider. Lifelong politician Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t play by the establishment’s rules. Boris Johnson: outsider. Privately educated stock-broker Nigel Farage: ordinary beer swigging bloke, unlike those stuffy insiders. There’s even a political party in Slovakia called Ordinary People and Independent Personalities, and if they founded a UK branch they’d probably wipe the floor with all comers.  

Goodhart spots this possible drift, arguing the “Somewheres cannot exercise political power by shouting from the sidelines  – feeling condescended to is not enough reason to vote for an inexperienced demagogue as president.”

But it's bigger than angry voters, it's about the subtle moral authority that leaders draw on. In 1950 Bertrand Russell wrote an essay called The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed. He argued that people tend to imagine those who are oppressed or downtrodden by the powerful have some kind of superior moral quality. It started with Rousseau’s noble savage, if not before, and has been applied to women, to nationalities, to the proletariat etc. We are drifting in that general direction, and the new nobility is becoming the Somewhere man. That’s not without problems.

Calling someone an out of touch metropolitan elite is a sure-fire way of shutting down or ignoring decent criticism. In writing my soon-to-be-published-book Radicals I was informed more than once that, as a member of the establishment – I’m not, I swear it! – I didn’t have a clue what was really going on. End of discussion. But even those snooty academics, well-paid experts, the Anywhere classes do sometimes have something useful to say. The educated liberal elite know stuff. Useful stuff, about complicated subjects like the economy or trade deficits or climate change or advanced technology et cetera.  

Unless we’re careful, I fear we may one day reach the point where only salt-of-the-earth-working-class Sunderland factory workers could possibly be perceived as having anything valuable to say; anyone else is a privileged establishment stooge, a snobby metropolitan elite who has zero clue.

Goodhart is quite right: decent Somewhere people have been largely overlooked and their world view often sneered at by Anywheres (even though Anywheres pride themselves on their tolerance and moral rectitude). Goodhart is also right that a corrective is generally a good thing. But we should never forget that Somewheres are every bit as capable of equally crap, selfish, and stupid behaviour as the Anywhere tribe. In a necessary quest to rebalance our politics, it would be a great disservice to both groups if we replaced one untouchable and monopolistic moral worldview with another.

David Goodhart’s Road To Somewhere is published by Hurst. Look out for another perpective on Goodhart’s analysis on Little Atoms soon.

Jamie Bartlett is Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, which is a collaboration between Demos and the University of Sussex. The Centre combines computer and social sciences for policy research. Jamie’s work focuses on the ways in which social media and modern communications and technology are changing political and social movements, with a special emphasis on terrorism and radical politics. Jamie is author of The Dark Net, (William Heinemann, 2013), and Radicals (Penguin, 2017)