David Goodhart is interviewed by Robert Colvile, Editor of CapX:
David Goodhart has often suffered for being ahead of his time. The founding editor of Prospect, the New Labour house journal, he became persona non grata for daring to suggest, in 2004, that unrestricted immigration might not be an unmitigated blessing.
Goodhart’s new book, however, is precisely of its time. The Road to Somewhere is at once an explanation for why so many people have become so disillusioned with politics and a prescription for what to do about it. It is also, in many ways, the closest thing we have come to a manifesto for Mayism – or at least an explanation for why the new Prime Minister has struck a chord with such large swathes of the electorate.
The book’s central thesis, as Goodhart explains when we meet at the think tank Policy Exchange, where he now runs its Demography, Immigration and Integration Unit, is that society is divided between “Somewheres” and “Anywheres”.
The “Anywheres” are successful, cosmopolitan types who define themselves by their accomplishments rather than their background. Making up between a fifth and a quarter of the population, according to demographic and sociological data, “they tend to be mobile, highly educated, tend to value the things that you would expect the people with that life experience to value: autonomy and openness and freedom”.
The Somewheres are a much larger group, but with much less of a media profile – including most of the 60 per cent of Britons who still live within 20 miles of where they were raised. “They tend to be much more rooted, much less well educated,” says Goodhart. “They tend to value security and familiarity and group attachments in a way that Anywheres often see as rather atavistic. They also value stable neighbourhoods and indeed a more stable demography for the whole country, which is why they tend to be very hostile to large-scale immigration, although not necessarily to individual immigrants.”
The problem, says Goodhart, is not that these divisions exist, but that the balance between them has – until very recently – been tilted in the Anywheres’ favour. “Anywhere priorities and intuitions dominate our political life. They dominate all three of the main parties,” says Goodhart. And, he adds, they have made a right royal mess of things.
“Historically, what we thought of as British common sense was Somewhere common sense. There were a small number of people with much more liberal and sort of cosmopolitan views, mainly at the higher levels of education and society.”
But as the number of Anywheres has grown in recent decades, he says, their values have come to predominate.
“I think that has destabilised our politics, because Somewheres tend not to see their priorities reflected. I can go through the list. We’ve had this massive expansion of higher education, because it’s a world that the Anywheres and their children tend to know and understand and flourish in. Meanwhile, we’ve had the continuing downgrading of technical and vocational education – though there is something of a handbrake turn now taking place on that.
“Then there’s the whole transformation of the economy – the disappearance of a lot of those middling, middle-status, middle-income jobs that I think used to provide a lot of more rooted somewhere people with a sort of sense of pride and purpose.”
Above all, however, what he rails against is a sense of political condescension. There is a shocking statistic in his book that more than half of Britons – 62 per cent, according to YouGov – agree that “Britain has changed in recent times beyond recognition, it sometimes feels like a foreign country, and this makes me feel uncomfortable.” Yet those who raise these issues are, like Gillian Duffy, dismissed as bigots.
His Somewheres are not racists, says Goodhart – they are “decent populists”. And their concerns are as much psychological as economic.
“Liberals often say, ‘Why are these foolish people in Barnsley complaining about immigration? There aren’t any immigrants there. Ho, ho, ho.’ I think that’s to completely misunderstand the psychology of large-scale immigration.
“I think it is often people from areas of the country that do feel left behind, that feel the national story’s sort of passed them by. That story used to have a very prominent place for mine workers in Barnsley. And then, partly through the mistakes of their own union leadership and partly just because of economic history, they’ve become much less significant.
“They look at the big urban centres, often with large proportions of British minorities there, and they feel a resentment. They see an Anywhere sponsorship of the minority story in a way that their story was once sponsored too. The liberal middle classes, the Polly Toynbees of 30 or 40 years ago, used to worry about the state of working-class Britain, and now they worry much less.”
This Somewhere/Anywhere framework certainly helps to explain the polling chasm between the Tories and Labour. Polls show that Theresa May has not so much taken voters from Labour as won back the Brexit-voting Somewheres who had decamped to Ukip under Cameron. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, meanwhile, is the near-exclusive preserve of the Islington Anywheres, rather than the working-class Somewheres who once provided not only its foot soldiers but many of its leaders.
But the Left isn’t the only guilty party. At one point in our conversation, Goodhart seizes a laptop to look up a recent speech by Justine Greening, the Education Secretary, which still has him fizzing with indignation.
“It was, I thought, extraordinarily unthinking. She comes from Rotherham and was talking about escaping from Rotherham in a way that if I was from Rotherham, I think I would feel it was pretty offensive.
“Here it is… ‘I just had a flashback to all the years I spent growing up in Rotherham where I was aiming for something better… A better job, owning my own home, an interesting career, a life that I found really challenging, and it was a really hard long slog, but I was willing to do it because I knew there was something better out there and I knew there was opportunity.’
“What an extraordinary thing to say about Rotherham – that none of those things are possible there. The fact that she can say that in a speech without thinking about how it might be received just seems to me to exemplify this particular separation.
“Our elite Anywheres, from whatever background they’re from, often have this belief that they have achieved all these things, and so everybody else ought to make these choices too. Geographical and social mobility is just presumed to be a good and anyone who doesn’t jump onboard the bus is some sort of troglodyte.”
It’s easy to see, even from this relatively brief conversation, why Goodhart has so many enemies – and admirers. And while I don’t agree with some of his solutions to the problems he identifies, not least switching the voting system to PR, there are few others who are willing to take on so many sacred cows.
Most Anywheres take it as axiomatic, for example, that London is an economic blessing to Britain. But for Goodhart (a native Londoner himself), “it’s also the least pleasant place in the country to live unless you are pretty affluent or unless you just come, as many people have, from places that are much worse. It’s the most expensive place, it’s the most polluted place, crime levels are higher here. Neighbourliness and stable communities are less likely to exist here.”
Then there are his views on family policy – the one area where Anywheres have kept to the traditional model, with their two-parent homes in nice catchment areas, while so many Somewheres have abandoned it.
The problem, he argues, is that tax policy is “hostile to domesticity”. “It’s good that we’ve made it easier for women to combine family and careers. But precisely because those gains are now so deeply established, we can afford to recognise the fact that very large numbers of women actually do prioritise family, particularly when they have young children, and do something to make it easier for them. And indeed to make it easier to stay together.
“Money isn’t the only reason why couples with children split up, but if the state helped a little bit more it could reduce the tensions and arguments over household finances. There has been this odd coalition of orthodox economics and a certain kind of feminism to downplay the private sphere – because to orthodox economies it doesn’t produce anything towards GDP and for the orthodox feminist it’s a site of patriarchal oppression. We give essentially no tax advantages for families, which is very rare throughout the developed world.”
He also favours a restoration of the polytechnics, and far more intervention in the job market to point their products in the right direction.
“Every time you open the paper, employers are complaining about lack of technical skills. It’s one of the reasons why they’ve taken such advantage of freedom of movement. But last year just 8,000 people started construction apprenticeships in the whole country.
“It’s connected to this weird magical thinking about connecting young people to the jobs in the country that need to be done. We have a complete ‘invisible hand’ belief that somehow it’ll work out, and clearly it isn’t working out. We need a much clearer idea of the skills that we need and nudge people towards achieving those skills.”
He is not the only one, he accepts, who has been talking about these issues. “Some of these things are already being thought about, like technical education, via the new T-levels and indeed George Osborne’s apprenticeship levy. I think one of the things that is not widely enough appreciated is the extent to which, particularly post-2004, EU freedom of movement has caused, or contributed to, a very sharp fall in British employers’ spending on training.” Why bother training up some fast-food-chomping 16-year-old from Barnsley when you can get a keen young graduate from Latvia?
Yet if Goodhart’s book is timely – and it is certainly worth reading, however much of a Somewhere or Anywhere you feel you are – it is perhaps because it feels like the Somewheres are finally making their voices heard.
The Brexit vote, says Goodhart, “changes the whole balance of power” between them. (Goodhart himself ended up voting Remain, but “was sort of 52-48” about it.) “I think the battle in our politics now is between the militant Anywheres and the admonished Anywheres,” he says. “The admonished Anywheres are people who think, bloody hell, Brexit, Trump, we screwed up here. We’ve got to think again, we live in democracies.”
It also helps to have a more sympathetic figure in Downing Street. Theresa May, the suburban vicar’s daughter, is palpably a more Somewhere figure than David Cameron and his cosmopolitan set: indeed, Nick Timothy, her joint chief of staff, is one of the many people credited in Goodhart’s acknowledgements.
“I know Nick a bit and I think our ideas do overlap quite a lot,” he admits. “I haven’t spoken to him since the book was published. But yes, there are some echoes in May’s famous line, ‘If you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.’ I was rather pleased with that.
“I would obviously be flattered if the book did have influence in government. Part of the book is obviously about the great divide between these value blocs and their sub-blocs, and the instability that it has created in our politics. But I do try to talk about how creating a new settlement between these groups is the principle objective of politics now for the next generation or so.”
So, I ask Goodhart, what would success look like? Perhaps a fall in that statistic about the number of people saying Britain feels like a foreign country? He likes the idea.
“Let’s try to get that number at least below 50 per cent. It may already have fallen, actually, as a result of Brexit. Even if nothing very much changes, I think a lot of people in the Brexit parts of Britain will feel their voice has been heard.” Indeed: public concern about immigration, the great proxy for Somewhere indignation, has fallen sharply since June 23.
Percentage of people naming immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain, via Ipsos-MORI
And presumably, I ask, you’d be happy to sacrifice a few points off GDP in the process?
“I think so, yes,” says Goodhart. “Some of the smug Anywhere commentators are very snooty about the idea that the people who voted for Brexit are the ones who are going take in the neck. But I think that underestimates the extent to which people went into this in quite a clear-eyed way.
“Proper Scottish nationalists are prepared to live in a poorer Scotland because they think that they are a nation with sufficiently separate priorities to English people. I don’t actually think that is true, but nonetheless they believe that and are prepared to make an economic sacrifice to create that society.
“I think the same is true of people who don’t want to go back to the 1950s, but do want openness to work better for them, in terms of things like immigration and economic and cultural change.”
Early in his book, Goodhart tells the story of sitting between Gus O’Donnell, head of the Civil Service, and Mark Thompson, director-general of the BBC, at an Oxford college dinner in 2011. O’Donnell said that at the Treasury, he supported mass immigration because he believed his job was to maximise global welfare, not national. Thompson emphatically agreed.
For Goodhart, part of the solution to Britain’s problems is making Somewheres feel at home again. But it’s also about helping such illustrious Anywheres remember they have a duty to their own countrymen, too.
‘The Road to Somewhere’ is published by C Hurst & Co. You can buy it here