'The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics' by David Goodhart (Hurst & Company)
David Goodhart knows what it's like to gaze upon massed ranks of pitchforks. The founding editor of Prospect, he was ex-communicated by elements of the left after questioning certain immigration orthodoxies in a 2004 article for the magazine. Undeterred by the hostile reaction, he returned to the issue in his book 'The British Dream', which was shortlisted for the 2014 Orwell prize. In his new book 'The Road to Somewhere', he broadens his scope to examine the rise of populist politics, albeit concerns about immigration feature prominently alongside other sources of discontent. Unlike William F Buckley, he isn't standing athwart history yelling stop but he is recommending that we slow down and take stock.
Goodhart's central argument is that British society is divided into two groups which he labels Anywheres and Somewheres. Their essential characteristics are drawn out and confirmed using various data sources but he is clear that their boundaries are not absolutely fixed. They are arguably captured best and most succinctly when he describes them as 'alignments of sentiment and worldview'.
Anywheres are autonomous, open to change, well-educated and mobile. Their outlook is marked by a belief in meritocracy, expressive but ultimately shallow identity politics, loose national affinities and a degree of political intolerance that contrasts with their social liberalism. Somewheres value secure borders, stability and would like to see the needs of national citizens given preference over those of newcomers. He argues it's not so much that they reject prevailing social and economic liberal orthodoxies but they question the pace at which change has been imposed. They also resent the glibness with which the beneficiaries of these trends have refused to countenance the possibility they might have drawbacks.
Goodhart recognises that recent decades have delivered widespread gains in terms of income, health and social equality, but he suggests 'in other respects life really isn't better for many people in terms of belonging, social recognition, having a valued role, feeling wanted and respected'. He writes particularly well about the declining status of non-graduates in the knowledge economy, with those who miss out, left with little option but to nurse their discontent in the service industries.
Higher education and academic learning have been prioritised over technical colleges and vocational training resulting in an imbalance in the funding provided for different forms of post-school learning. This change in emphasis has been matched by a declining commitment on the part of private companies to invest in workforce training, including the development of STEM and IT skills, when they have a steady supply of workers from Europe to draw on. Goodhart is clear that the beneficiaries of these changes have been the Anywheres and that the Somewheres have lost out.
He suggests that the scale of immigration from eastern Europe after 2004 was probably the most important reason for the Brexit vote but he is careful to frame this as concern about the scale of change rather than outright opposition driven by racism. A belief in universal human equality does not mean we have universal obligations or affections but that the intensity of these ripple outwards from core family attachments. The application of this observation when it comes to accessing services or welfare entitlement is likely to be contentious.
Populism – the Brexit vote, the election of Trump, the creeping advance of the hard right across Europe – is characterised as the political response of the Somewheres to the blind spots in the Anywhere worldview. Goodhart introduces the term 'decent populism' early in the book but it doesn't make a meaningful appearance again until the final chapter. Nor, it is worth noting, does the word populist feature prominently despite its placing in the subtitle.
It is difficult to imaginatively map Goodhart's Somewhere and Anywhere categories in Scottish politics and he has little to say about Scotland. An exception to the rule, he argues that the Yes campaign channelled the same anti-system feelings that led to Brexit and Trump, and he considers the SNP to have a Somewhere grassroots and an Anywhere leadership. There is some truth to this observation.
The Somewhere political outlook is nationalist – Goodhart believes moderate nationalism is both natural and positive – and the average SNP politician probably has more in common with colleagues in other parties than with those on the periphery of society. But it's hard to reconcile the impulse to leave the UK with an essential belief in continuity and the pro-independence movement is impeccably Anywhere in the stances it adopts because it believes Westminster, contrary to Goodhart, is driven by Somewhere impulses which are increasingly conflated with English impulses. Elsewhere, he comments on the growing importance of the imagined community of the nation as the industrial communities have declined but in a multi-national political entity this must necessarily lead to friction.
Throughout the book, there seems a degree of second-guessing about the inferences readers might be drawing based on Goodhart's reputation. A defensive use of parenthesis is noticeable, as when he writes: 'The liberalisation of modern societies – and the welcome decline in discrimination – has often gone hand in hand with a general relaxation of boundaries.' Perhaps out of the same desire to avoid provoking those looking to be provoked, the tone of the book is restrained and the writing without affectation. This is vastly preferable to the literary barbarism of some academic writing but there is a certain think-tank flatness to the whole thing. A defensive posture is also adopted on the inside back cover where the biography notes that Goodhart voted remain and has been a member of the Labour party since his student days.
There is a certain restraint, too, when it comes to the policy proposals set out in the final chapter. These range from the predictable (more emphasis on vocational training and apprenticeships at the expense of higher education) to narrowly radical (shifting funding from institutional childcare into an allowance for mothers). He sensibly favours a 'politics of small steps rather than grand gestures' because mild policy adjustments are likely to be more achievable and successful, not to say less vulnerable to hubris and hijacking. Public life already has enough two-bit schemers with grand designs and the means to effect them.
This leads to a final thought. Goodhart has produced a nuanced and largely sympathetic examination of the sources of populist discontent but it stands in sharp contrast to the political figures who have sought to channel this unhappiness. The Trumps, Farages and others we might mention have coarsened and simplified and vulgarised what are often legitimate, low-key concerns. To the extent that they give such irreconcilable figures a platform, Somewheres are complicit in giving Anywheres another reason to dismiss them. They need to find better leaders.