Once, politicians remained in their safe spaces and elections were fought in a handful of swing seats. This time Theresa May is campaigning in Labour heartlands, pitching herself at people who have never considered voting Conservative before. Tories are targeting seats they have not held since the 1930s and social class seems almost irrelevant. Pollsters YouGov recently observed that class now tells us ‘little more about a person’s voting intention that looking at their horoscope or reading their palms’. As Tony Blair might have put it, the political kaleidoscope has been shaken and the pieces are in flux. A picture of a Britain with new fault lines is emerging.
To begin to understand what is happening, one must accept British politics is now as much about values and meaning as it is about money or class. To many liberals it feels like a step backwards, but it’s also a reaction to a world out of kilter.
David Goodhart and Fraser Nelson discuss ‘Red Theresa’ on the Spectator Podcast:
Just as organised labour emerged in the mid 19th century to challenge the power of capital, so a more populist, cross-class politics has arisen now in the first part of the 21st century to challenge the destabilising dominance of the metropolitan, meritocratic elites.
Britain’s main fault line now runs between Anywheres and Somewheres. Anywheres, about a quarter of the population, are well educated and mobile, and tend to favour openness, autonomy and fluidity; they are generally comfortable with social change. Somewheres, about half the population, are usually less well educated, more rooted, value security and familiarity, and place a greater emphasis on group attachments (local, ethnic, national) than Anywheres; they are generally uncomfortable with
This sounds very binary but there is a great variety of Anywheres and Somewheres as well as a big Inbetweener group of about 25 per cent of the population. And while I have invented the labels for a new book, I have not invented the value groups themselves: they are there in the opinion and value surveys. The job of politics now is to achieve a settlement between these two groups: to create a more comfortable country for Somewheres without endorsing illiberalism or alienating the most dynamic forces in Britain. Theresa May is the first leading politician to talk in such terms. ‘If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere,’ she said in her first Tory conference speech as party leader. ‘You don’t understand what the very word “citizenship” means.’ So the Prime Minister seems willing and able to shape such a settlement: we have yet to see many specific policies but she does grasp the problem.
Why has this divide emerged so strongly now? The old socio-economic politics of left vs right has not disappeared but has ceded ground to security and identity issues, in response to the greater openness and moral uncertainty of the modern world. And a rapid growth in Anywhere numbers, driven by the expansion of higher education, has unbalanced the boat. Graduates tend to welcome globalisation; those who didn’t finish school tend to see it as a threat.
All main political parties are dominated by Anywhere progressive individualism and most of the policy agenda, too. So we have a knowledge economy with its high rewards for the highly qualified, alongside the disappearance of many Somewhere middle-status jobs. We see the rapid expansion of higher education and continuing neglect (until recently) of non-academic post-school training. We have greater openness of an economy and society symbolised by large-scale immigration and rapid ethnic change that discomforts many Somewheres. And we have a modern family policy with its bias against the private realm and suspicion of a gender division of labour that is still valued by many people.
Underlying so many of these changes is one bigger change: the elevation of educational qualifications into the gold standard of social esteem. Only a couple of generations ago, a large number of people performed skilled jobs that required little cognitive ability but required a lot of experience to do well. And those middling, often manufacturing, jobs also offered achievable incremental progression. Now the majority of jobs in Britain either require a degree or virtually no training at all.
And thanks to residential universities and the dominance of London, cognitive ability and social achievement is associated with leaving, separating oneself from one’s roots and becoming an Anywhere. Today, about three in five Brits still live within 20 miles of where they lived when aged 14 — but few of those people are Russell Group university graduates.
Social mobility is the mantra of all political parties, yet the main tool to achieve it has been expanding higher education, disproportionately benefitting the middle class and southern England.
No sensible person is against getting the best-qualified people into the right jobs, nor against bright people from whatever background travelling as far as their talents will take them. But listening to Anywhere politicians talk about social mobility (as they do a lot) it often sounds like the upwardly mobile insisting that everyone should become like them. Yet there is only so much room at Oxbridge or in the top professions and, in any case, it presents a very narrow vision of what a good and successful life entails.
Should it not be possible to lead such a life in Rotherham? Justine Greening, the secretary of state for education, seems doubtful. In a recent speech about social mobility she said this: ‘I just had a flashback to all the years I spent growing up in Rotherham where I was aiming for something better — many of the things we have been talking about; a better job, owning my own home, an interesting career, a life that I found really challenging… I knew there was something better out there.’ Now, I’m sure I would have wanted to leave Rotherham too. But the unselfconscious way in which a cabinet minister doubts whether it is possible to lead a fulfilled life in a town of more than 100,000 people reveals something topsy-turvy about our country.
There is, to be fair, already a retreat from Tony Blair’s target of sending half of school leavers to university and growing recognition that non-university paths have been neglected. But there is still an odd disjunction between the praise lavished on ‘ordinary hard-working families’ and Greening’s assumption that ‘success’ means leaving them as far behind as possible.
So this is the new ‘third way’ of our times: how to achieve an open, mobile society —and elite —while continuing to value meaningful (in other words, stable) communities? How to encourage success without casting
a shadow of failure over those who do not (or cannot) move up and out? This is Theresa May’s opportunity, embodying as she does that balance in her own life: a Remain-voting Conservative moderniser who was also a tough-minded home secretary and an unusually rooted middle-class, southern Englander.
The new settlement is not about a lurch to the right—large majorities have accepted the great liberalisation of recent decades on race, gender and sexuality—but about redistributing status as much as money.
The Brexit vote itself represents a significant rebalancing, above all in ending the freedom of movement that worked so much better for Anywhere lawyers than Somewhere food factory workers. Some rebalancing can also be achieved with a simple change of language and priorities, as we see in Mrs May putting workers’ rights and council housing on the Tory agenda.
She also has the opportunity to restore the value of national citizenship. This means putting citizens first in the queue for public goods and becoming more selective in our openness to the outside world. This can be done by returning immigration to more moderate levels, with as much of it as possible being temporary. A new department of Immigration, Integration and Citizenship could underline the importance placed on issues of borders and identity. A ‘citizenship ID card’ could reassure people about social fluidity and free riding. And the pledge to keep spending 0.7 per cent of GDP on overseas aid could be made less unpopular by using more of the money on helping refugees living here, as well as abroad.
In recent years, British employers have cut back on training and used immigration to fill skill gaps. We desperately need new institutions — something like the American community colleges — to restore the prestige of technical education. We also need equal subsidies for the three main post-school options of university, technical college and apprenticeship. Young people need to be matched with jobs that actually exist via closer cooperation between schools and local employers, and the armed forces (which themselves need a funding and morale boost). We should also adopt a more emotionally intelligent attitude to social mobility, with more stress on incremental steps.
Even infrastructure projects, such as the HS2 rail link and Heathrow expansion, seems to be aimed at making Britain work better for the Anywheres. Instead the focus could shift to the small and local—for example in vital rail and road connections in the north and Midlands, and keeping open pubs and post offices in small communities. And if London over-heating is cooled a bit by Brexit, then let it happen.
The weakening of family ties has contributed to several of today’s most pressing social problems, such as the social care crisis. Yet even Conservative politicians seem more interested in equality in the workplace than making it easier for low income families to stay together. We should allow couples with children to share their tax allowances and make it easier for parents to draw on childcare subsidies to look after their own children.
The Tory modernisers were wrong to think that the most fashionable ideas were the best prescription for the future. There is no appetite for returning to 1950s paternalism, but there is a desire to balance liberal Anywhere preferences with some real choice and greater respect for tradition. Moreover, people yearn not be judged solely on merit, but to be recognised as members of a national political community.
In her unflamboyant way, Theresa May has the chance to project an idea of the ‘modern middle’ that combines the best of the two world views. In the process she might also usher in a new Christian Democratic phase of the modern Conservative party.
David Goodhart works at Policy Exchange and is the author of The Road to Somewhere