Why do we change our mind about things? Many historical figures have adjusted their thinking on particular issues in response to events: Charles de Gaulle changed his mind about Algeria, just as Robert Peel did about tariffs and FW de Klerk did on apartheid.
Then there are changes of mind that are more like changes of worldview. They can happen quickly or slowly. Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s fearsome adviser, was changed and politicised by a single event: 9/11. Former friends testify that it even seemed to make him a somewhat different person.
I have changed my mind, more slowly, about modern liberalism. As a leftwing student, I was in rebellion against a bourgeois background. Later, I became the founding editor of the centre-left magazine Prospect. It was there that I first tentatively dissented from the liberal consensus on immigration and multiculturalism. In 2004 I wrote an essay about the tension between diversity and solidarity, based on what I thought was the uncontroversial assumption that people are readier to share with people with whom they have something in common. Instead I met the intolerance of the modern left for the first time. Subsequently, I’ve grown used to being accused of racism, even by my own children.
There was no single moment when I realised I had left the liberal tribe. But one recent incident crystallised matters. I was chatting to a group of friends in a bar, including a few people I didn’t know, and I said I could understand the discomfort that Nigel Farage had recently expressed about not hearing a single English-speaker on a train in London. One of those I didn’t know loudly slammed their glass down and ostentatiously walked out.
The value divides in British society that led to Brexit, and may now break up the United Kingdom, stem from the emergence in the past generation of two big value clusters: the educated, mobile people who see the world from “Anywhere” and who value autonomy and fluidity, versus the more rooted, generally less well-educated people who see the world from “Somewhere” and prioritise group attachments and security.
There are many subdivisions within both groups, of course, as well as a large “inbetweener” group. I invented the labels for a book I have just written but not the value clusters themselves, which are there for all to see in British surveys, where Anywheres account for about a quarter of the population and Somewheres for about half.
I referred to changing my mind as though it were a rational process, in which one audits one’s beliefs every few years and decides to shift ground on Israel/Palestine or the single market. But that’s not how it works. If, like most educated people, you place a high value on moral and intellectual coherence, your views tend to fit together into something like an explicable worldview. And that usually goes along with informal membership of a network of like-minded people. Without having to think very hard you know you all broadly favour and oppose the same things.
It is comforting being part of a loose extended family of belief and assumption. This helps to create protective walls around your worldview — so-called confirmation bias. In Britain this is sociologically reinforced by a mainly residential university system (unlike most colleges in the US and continental Europe), which means that regardless of starting point most graduates of Russell Group universities are likely to have few, if any, non-graduate close friends. University also confirms a kind of social status in which liberal attitudes — support for economic and cultural openness and equality of most kinds — are part of the ethos differentiating Anywhere students from the mass of Somewheres.
Upon graduation from university, too, Anywheres tend to be more mobile than Somewheres, their careers often sucking them into London for a period. Yet more than 60 per cent of British people still live within 20 miles of where we lived when aged 14. This matters because the very structure of our daily lives reinforces our beliefs and even interests. If, to use economic jargon, you have high human capital, you will thrive in open, competitive systems and only be held back by prejudice or protectionism. You are also likely, in the language of American sociologist Talcott Parsons, to have an “achieved” identity, meaning one based on your own educational and career success, rather than an “ascribed” identity based on gender, ethnicity, particular places. This helps you to move more confidently through the world, unlike those with more fixed identities, who can be upset by rapid change.
To take a Brexit-related example, if you are an Anywhere, EU freedom of movement is in your interests because you can take your talents elsewhere in Europe for a few years without bureaucratic hindrance and you are unlikely to face much direct competition from people moving the other way â€” indeed, having some French or Polish acquaintances may even make your life more interesting. Somewheres, by contrast, are far less likely to have the qualifications or aptitude to work abroad and do often face direct competition from EU citizens coming here — more than one-third of production jobs in food manufacturing (about 120,000 people) have been filled by people from eastern Europe in the past few years, up from almost nothing before 2004.
It is true there have always been affluent and educated people with more open and expansive views than those living more pinched lives. What is different now is the scale. Until recently, Anywhere liberalism was the preserve of a small percentage of the population. Now, thanks to the expansion of higher education, it may extend to 20 to 25 per cent of the population and is growing. And, over the past generation, it has dominated the political class and the national culture. Anywhere politicians who think they are governing in the national interest are, at least some of the time, governing in the Anywhere interest — in everything from the expansion of higher education to the unprecedented openness of modern societies.
Both the Anywhere and Somewhere world views are legitimate, and decent, in their different ways and in many areas of politics and economics the division is barely relevant. But on the so-called “security and identity” issues that have loomed so much larger in recent years, they have created a dismayingly large gulf in British society and an instability in our politics which has ended our membership of the EU and may now be ending the union with Scotland, too.
So how did I, as someone who by background is as Anywhere as it is possible to be — start to listen in as an outsider to my friends’ political conversations? How did I start to see the divide from the Somewhere side? What has changed me?
The conventional explanation is that I grew up, became a family man, became more rooted myself and saw more clearly that charity begins at home (even if doesn’t end there). But no one wants to be a cliche and we prefer the idea that it was the outside world that changed — as Ronald Reagan put it, “I didn’t leave the Democratic party, the Democratic party left me.”
The more flattering explanation is that I have always been restless, never felt comfortable in the tribe. After breaking with the assumptions of my own upper-class background (my late father was a Tory MP) I became an old Etonian Marxist in my late teens and early twenties. Yes, how ridiculous, especially as my disaffection was probably triggered less by empathy for the wretched of the earth than by the setback of failing to reclaim my place in the 1st XI football team after an illness and failing to get into the 1st XI cricket team at all (something I discovered later was also true of old Etonian 1930s Marxist and then member of the Attlee government, John Strachey!).
I never felt comfortable as a privileged leftist, the inauthenticity was too stark, but returning to the traditions of my upbringing was out of the question, so I became a familiar social type, the guilt-ridden left-liberal journalist.
If you went to the most famous school in the land you are often regarded as a social freak, a tourist in your own country. But, as the patron saint of the Etonian awkward squad George Orwell knew, there is something to be said for being an insider-outsider. It helped to make me aware of the strangeness of some of the instincts of my north London liberal tribe in the 1980s and 1990s: the far greater concern for suffering in distant lands than just around the corner, the blank incomprehension of religious or national feeling and the disdain for the ordinary people we were meant to champion.
When I said I could understand how Farage felt, one person slammed their glass down and walked out As Orwell also discovered, people don’t like it when you leave the tribe, and I have certainly lost a few friends as a result. At a recent public meeting, the writer David Aaronovitch told me that because I went to Eton I wasn’t able to side with Somewhere interests. This felt like crude class stereotyping but then it occurred to me that, perhaps for the first time in my life, I am behaving as Marxist intellectuals are meant to, transcending bourgeois class interests to speak to the concerns of the masses â€” no longer “bread and land” but “recognition and rootedness”.
This has all provided some underpinning for my gradual break with the liberal tribe that had been my home for 25 years. But it also required intellectual guides — such as Michael Lind, Maurice Glasman, Eric Kaufmann and Jonathan Haidt — who helped me to nail down my inchoate dissatisfaction with modern liberalism. There were several lightbulb moments as I came to see past the narrative of progress that has helped to form the shallow liberalism that dominates our politics.
This narrative sees race and gender equality as a prelude to the transcending of all exclusive communities, including the nation state. But the moral equality of all human beings â€” the beautiful, once utopian idea that became embedded in many western constitutions in the middle of the 20th century â€” does not mean we have the same obligations to all human beings.
This vital caveat to universalism keeps liberalism bound to the earth, to the reality of flesh-and-blood humans with group attachments and the need to be valued and to belong. Of course modern politics — the rule of law and more recently the idea of human equality — are partly designed to tame and constrain our tribal and animal emotions. But if politics disappears too far into the individualist abstractions of law and economics it starts to see society as just a random collection of individuals.
From this caveat can flow a more mature and emotionally intelligent liberalism that sees that there really is such a thing as society and one that functions well is based on habits of co-operation and trust and bonds of language, history and culture. Newcomers can be absorbed into such societies, and can retain some of their own traditions, but unless a critical mass of them embrace the broad common norms of the society, the idea of the nation as a group of people with significant shared interests — the idea of a people — will fracture.
Thus moderate nationalism is a positively benign force reinforcing common interests (and welfare states) against the disintegrating effects of affluence, individualism and diversity. Yet discomfort about national feeling is especially strong among English Anywheres, a legacy of English dominance. This often makes them tin-eared to other nationalisms in these islands. Ask English people at a middle-class London dinner party whether they are proud of their country and you will get bluster and embarrassment — in Edinburgh, Cardiff or Dublin you will get uncomplicated affirmation.
An emotionally mature liberalism must also accept that white majorities, not just minorities, in western societies have ethnic attachments too and an interest in a degree of demographic stability — and it is not shameful or racist for people to feel uncomfortable if their neighbourhood changes too rapidly, whether from gentrification or ethnic change.
Other things flow from the caveat, too — things that do not challenge the core beliefs of modern liberalism but temper and qualify their more dogmatic application. The belief, for example, that men and women are equal but not identical and that some sort of gender division of labour in the home and the broader society remains popular. That order and legitimate authority in families, schools and the wider society are a necessary condition of human flourishing, not a means of crushing it. That religion, loyalty and the wisdom of tradition deserve greater respect than is common among “blank sheet” liberals who tend to focus narrowly on issues of justice and harm.
As Haidt points out — contrary to the old claim that the right is the stupid party — conservatives can appreciate a wider range of political emotions than liberals: “It’s as though conservatives can hear five octaves of music, but liberals respond to just two, within which they have become particularly discerning.”
You do not have to be a conservative or a Conservative to see this and I would regard myself as a centrist, open to ideas from left and right. Indeed I am now post-liberal and proud, and feel that for the first time in my life I have had the confidence and experience to work things out for myself.
Am I trying to save liberalism or bury it? I am certainly trying to save it from the over-reach that has produced the Brexit/Trump backlash and want to convince as many as possible from my old tribe that we need a new settlement that is more generous to the intuitions of Somewheres. Come, join me, you have nothing to lose but your comfortably consensual dinner parties.
This article first appeared in the FT