What to make of Matt Goodwin's controversial book?
Welcome to this week’s edition in which is something a little different: a longer read, taking a detailed look at Matt Goodwin’s new book, Values, Voice and Virtue. The full review is free for all readers, but paid-for subscribers also get the footnotes and can also find at the end their usual ten extra bits of polling news from the last week.
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Values, Voice and Virtue: is it a convincing argument?
I first remember meeting Matt Goodwin in person at a political science conference. If was after the Brexit referendum and he made the point that nearly every political scientist in the room had voted Remain, which for a profession that has to understand Remainers and Leavers alike, was a potential danger.
A fair point, you might think. Someone else remarking of the dangers in how the room was also male dominated yet the electorate is majority female would have probably meet with general agreement. Yet there was something about how Matt Goodwin made the point that seemed to rile many in the room - and I came away with the feeling that there was quite a lot of backstory between him and others in the room. That backstory is, especially if you follow political scientists on Twitter, very much frontstory now, even spawning its own in-jokes.1
Yet mindful both of that original incident, and of the general principle that it’s best not to get caught in an echo-chamber of listening only to views you already know you agree with, along with a sneaking admiration for anyone who eats their own words on TV, I’ve approached his new book about Brexit and long-term trends in British politics with interest.
Even more so because there is a curious conundrum at the heart of one of the best books written recently about Brexit and long-terms trends in British politics. Brexitland: Identity, Diversity and the Reshaping of British Politics by Maria Sobolewska and Rob Ford (the second of whom is a former co-author with Matt Goodwin) has rightly been garlanded with praise and awards.
It paints a compelling picture of a long term liberalisation of Britain - of a society getting more liberal and more multicultural, with those changes also creating strains that help explain Brexit.
For all that book’s much plauded brilliance, there is a puzzle at heart of it. Whilst British society may be on a long-term, sustained journey away from populism and authoritarianism, that isn’t the picture you get from looking at election and referendum results. How to explain that difference?
Both of the authors have kindly taken the time to discuss this on podcasts with me, and my best stab at explaining this is the idea of ‘two-speed liberalisation’. Long-term and sustained demographic and social changes are making our country more liberal. But not every part of society is becoming more liberal at the same rate. As a result, although overall we’re been becoming more liberal, the gaps between how liberal people are have also widened.
That therefore serves up the paradoxical mix of both the country becoming more liberal and liberalism feeling under threat - and often defeated - due to the increasing gaps caused by two-speed liberalisation.
This seems central to understanding British politics. Which is what made me intrigued by Matt Goodwin’s book. He would, I thought, no doubt approach some of this from a very different angle and most likely quite different preferences. But perhaps that would be all the more useful for shedding light on the paradox? Especially given he, Rob Ford and I did once share a short, constructive and (at least to me) illuminating Twitter thread about this.
What then to make of the book itself? To clear a few things out of the way, although it is subtitled The New British Politics, it is a book in which Scotland, Wales and their respective nationalisms barely feature.
Also, as with many books, if you dive into the footnoted2 sources, they don’t always backup the main text. Though what I found in a few test dives wasn’t too serious,3 there are some sections where the evidence is much more contested.4 It's notable that as the book's rhetoric gets more heated in sections, the footnotes thin out or disappear.5 But as you’ll see from what follows the big questions over the book’s argument are about its approach rather than the details of its evidence.
It’s a book whose most persuasive aspects could fit neatly into a classic anti-capitalist critique of our politics.6 (Though such a critique would have rather more to say about the power of financial institutions such as central banks, hedge funds and private equity than this book, from which they are mostly absent.) For such an anti-capitalist critique, it’s possible to coherently lump together the politicians of the last 50 years who have held powerful posts - Norman Tebbit and Harriet Harman, Willie Whitelaw and Humza Yousaf - as part of a capitalist ruling class, to be juxtaposed with another sector of society, left behind by economic growth, let down by politicians and locked out of political power. Whether or not you agree with such a critique, it is one that can be internally consistent.
Such an anti-capitalist critique is also one that can embrace the importance of the 1980s in Britain’s immigration story. From the mid-1960s to the early 1980s annual immigration gradually fell before then hitting a turning point and first steadily rising in the Thatcher/Major years before rising more sharply in the Blair/Brown years, and then being sustained at high levels in the clutch of Conservative Prime Ministers after that.
In this story, Margaret Thatcher and her first home secretary, Willie Whitelaw, are part of the same story as Tony Blair and his, Jack Straw, or Theresa May and hers, Amber Rudd.
But in Goodwin’s book, the story is told as being about the rise of a new elite. It’s about the rise of a woke class, forcing high immigration and diversity training on an unwilling public. The story he tells is one about their steady rise over the last 50 years, and the resulting continual rise in immigration.
Which makes for a conundrum. Who is in the new elite? Is Norman Tebbit, the long-serving right wing Conservative Cabinet minister of the 1980s, a member? Those governments oversaw the immigration turning point. New elite perhaps? Yet he also, for example, opposed the legalisation of same-sex marriage, saying he was worried that, “When we have a queen who is a lesbian and she marries another lady and then decides she would like to have a child and someone donates sperm and she gives birth to a child, is that child heir to the throne?” Very much not woke.
The book's descriptions of its new elite regularly flip between those which would include him (influential member of the 1980s governments which oversaw such rises in immigration) and those which very much would not include him (lesbian monarch scares are not part of the woke mindset). In the elite, out of the elite, in the elite again: the Norman Tebbit hokey cokey gets rather confusing.7
(There is a brief mention part way through the book of New Labour adding cultural liberalism to the new elite mix,8 but it doesn’t clear up the hokey cokey confusion because this is only a brief mention, not something presented as a fundamental remaking of the new elite9 - and also leaves the hokey cokey problem for the post-New Labour right-win Conservatives.)10
The repeated, forceful (even heated, given some of the language in the book) simple dividing of the country into new elite and neglected Leavers makes it hard to classify many of those who have held political office in the last 50 years. There’s a strong ‘us and them’ flavour to much of the book (and all the more so in some of Matt Goodwin's social media promotion of the book11), but the two camps are defined more by vibes than by detailed definitions, and the sum of both leaves out much of the country.12
This division has a problem with the many non-socially liberal Conservative politicians of the 1980s who oversaw rising immigration but, as with Tebbit, it seems absurd to put them into the new elite category. Yet if you put in them in the neglected Leavers category, then the problem is that you are giving that category a whole batch of political power and agency - when Goodwin’s story is that this category has suffered from a lack of both.
It’s a problem too for understanding political power. Who has it in the UK now and in recent years? Or more narrowly, bearing in mind the book’s omissions mentioned up front, who has it now and recently in Westminster? In the book, it’s all about the power of the new elite. Where does that leave Boris Johnson, Priti Patel or Suella Braverman? They’ve had lots of political power, but they’re hardly woke elite?
Overall, the book seems to place cultural power above political, financial or media power, hence talking up the power wielded by the new elite, even though often describing that elite in a way that exclude many, even most, of those with significant political or financial power. There's lots on the views of university professors and very little on the views of hedge fund managers or newspaper editors.
There is an interesting story to tell about the relative importance of each of the three of these. But it’s not told in this book as instead the supremacy of cultural power is mostly asserted rather than argued.13
This approach also means the book neglects the other explanations for the increasing volatility of British politics, as set out in another book from a group of current and future professors, Electoral Shocks: the volatile voter in a turbulent world. (Again, it is a book to feature authors who have kindly come on my podcast to discuss its findings.)
That book’s emphasis on forces such as partisan dealignment and the rise in the number of political parties are again an important part of the picture, but parts neglected in Values, Voice and Virtue.
Sometimes, social media can be great for discussions of an author’s book, and teasing out the pros and cons of the framing the author has taken. A good example of that comes with another recent political science book by another professor. Ben Ansell’s tweets are a good example of an author adding light. Matt Goodwin’s tweets, however, on who the new elite really are and how much power they have, do heat rather than light.14 Likewise for his newspaper writing, adding Carol Voderman to the new elite “governing” the country yet still leaving out of it Rishi Sunak.15
While that may be confusing, it’s clear that are some people whose views and actions Matt Goodwin really isn’t keen on. There are numerous passages of the book that merrily lay into the arguments and behaviour of others. These are the passages where the footnotes dry up as the rhetorical heat is raised. A reader can lose themselves for extended periods of time trying to pick apart the details of what is said in such passages.
One example comes early in the book, in the introduction, where he disparages those who explain Brexit by reference to short-term factors, including tabloid newspapers in his list of such short-term factors that are (in his view) over-hyped in their impact. There’s a lot to unpick in the inclusion of the two words “tabloid newspapers” in his list of ten different things crammed into one sentence. One bit to pick is the oddity of classifying tabloid newspapers as having a short-term impact on politics, when their power is often talked about being both long-standing (it’s been around for over a century, at least) and also being long-term (in the agenda setting in particular that newspapers can do). Another bit to unpick would be whether he’s right to be so dismissive of the media’s impact, over whatever timescale.
In a way, all of that unpicking would miss the point, because the book’s argument isn’t really altered whether or not “tabloid newspapers” feature in the list. Yet in another way their presence do matter, as part of the drumbeat all through the book of disdain for many others and down-playing of sources of power other than cultural ones, a down-playing that is rarely closely argued.16 (There’s no footnote reference to the two words here nor a follow-up paragraph to justify their usage.)
The book’s framing is also a problem because it doesn’t follow through on the trends it describes. One of the more interesting pieces of evidence presented is that those at the more liberal end of the spectrum are further away from the average person than those at the more authoritarian end. In that sense - as Goodwin repeatedly stresses - there is a group of liberals who are more out of touch with the average person than those on the other side. He also presents some evidence that should give any decent liberal who prides themselves on tolerance a pause for thought, such as:
While only 11 per cent of Brexit-voting parents would feel upset if their child married somebody who had voted to remain in the European Union, 39 per cent of Remain-voting parents would feel upset if their child married a Brexiteer.17
However, it’s also true to point out - as Brexitland does so well - that overall people’s views are becoming more liberal. We see that in the ever-shifting grounds of culture wars.
Each round of culture wars gets fought on more and more liberal grounds. Think back only as far as David Cameron. The signature conflicts during his time – over adoption by same-sex couples and over same-sex marriage – were won by liberals. Not only won by liberals, but so overwhelmingly that the illiberal right is not pushing to undo them. They fought, they lost and they’ve given up on those issues. There is no caucus of right wing Tory MPs calling for Rishi Sunak to make same-sex marriage illegal.
So are those uber-liberals out of touch or ahead of the game? Extremists forcing their views on others or pioneers showing the way? The book alas skirts around the dynamics of this, and so limits its ability to explain what’s happening.
Take recent polling about golliwog dolls. Nearly half of people (48%) say that selling or displaying a golliwog doll isn’t racist. So far, fuel for Matt Goodwin’s argument that there are large numbers of people whose views are decried by the new elite. Yet that polling also shows the 48% figure is fifteen points down from 63% in just six years. Given it just a few more years of that sort of change and it’ll become a very minority view.
So is the group who unequivocally say yes, it is racist, an out of touch elite - or just a group who are a few years ahead of everyone else, holding views that will be mainstream in less time than it takes to write and publish many academic books?18 (And indeed, might they be right to hold their views which would be a not unreasonable justification for holding them?)19
Nor is this question an exception.20 At Matt Goodwin himself tweeted last October, on one tightly defined measure of liberalism, the proportion of liberals has jumped from 5% to 21% in just a decade. Once again, a low figure rising sharply.21
How high or low the liberal percentage is depends a lot on your definition. For example, in 2015 Professor David Howarth and I pegged it at up to 38% and the book itself also floats figures of 13% and 23% (p.22). What should be common ground though is that on many measures it’s both less than half and also growing quickly. It looks set to continue on that path as the pattern of each generation getting more right wing as it ages seems to have broken - a huge change in the basic dynamics of political values in Britain which the book’s arguments neglects.
To understand what’s happening in British politics, you need to try to describe, understand and explain both of those parts of the picture: both the size and the growth of the most liberal parts of the population.
Values, Voice and Virtue, however, emphasises the former and neglects the causes and implications of the latter. As a result, many of the values, voices and virtues of modern Britain do not get much of a look in.
I’ve not yet had a chance to watch it in full, but the debate between Matt Goodwin and Mic Wright hosted by PoliticsJoe looks to be well worth a watch if you’re interested enough to have read down to here. If you want to read more:
Electoral Shocks: the volatile voter in a turbulent world by Edward Fieldhouse, Jane Green, Geoffrey Evans, Jonathan Mellon, Christopher Prosser, Hermann Schmitt and Cees van der Eijk - Waterstones / Amazon / Bookshop (independent bookshops).
National voting intention polls
Here’s the latest from each currently active pollster:
Labour’s lead now varies between 13 and 21 points, with even the lowest lead one point greater than the Conservative lead in 2019. It has dropped somewhat from the height of the Truss-triggered Conservative unpopularity but is still substantial.
If you ignore that Truss-triggered period, Labour’s lead is still averaging its best since early 2002.
For more details and updates through the week, see my daily updated table here.
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