Our Divided Society
Deep-seated inequalities continue to cast long jagged shadows over the map of England. – Alex Niven
We’ve learnt how technology has helped advertisers and political campaigners alike to understand us and how social media is exacerbating societal divisions. We’ve also looked at how the press has helped exacerbate anti-immigrant and anti-EU sentiment and exploited fears and divides that were already embedded in British society. The EU referendum uncovered many of the underlying divisions and social cleavages in British society.
In my last chapter, I was heavily critical of the press and their demonization of both immigration and the EU. I pointed out the positive financial contribution immigrants make to the EU, the opportunities that the EU has afforded Britain, and the administrative costs of customs checks and trade negotiations that the EU provides. On the whole, I believe that the EU and immigration have been a net positive for our country and society, but that is not to say that immigration levels should remain untouched or unchanged. What I will gladly oppose every hour of the day is the disgusting ‘hostile environment’ policy that had led to the Windrush scandal and the utterly unforgivable deportation of British citizens. That does not mean immigration should not be discussed. In this chapter, I will lay out what I believe to be the major dividing lines of British politics and the forces that led to the anti-establishment backlash.
Immigration is always a touchy topic to discuss. It can often lead to allegations of racism and can be grossly over-simplified. A detailed discussion of the topic is difficult and asks us to confront issues that we may not have considered or may find uncomfortable to think about. Consider the effect of mass immigration on feelings of community and national unity, how much we value national borders, do we want to prioritize national citizens over EU and non-EU immigrants, or whether we as a country are comfortable with our current levels of immigration. I have often heard the argument used that we shouldn’t discuss immigration in these ways because it ignores the human reality of the people who come to live and work in the UK. Discussing immigration in these terms encourages and acts as a dog-whistle to genuine racists and bigots. I believe that is fundamentally wrong. You cannot shut down discussion in order to prevent it sliding too far to the extreme. Should we never discuss nationalization of water or energy companies in case the Communists take over and put the entire economy under state control? Should we never discuss speed limits on roads out of fear that motorways will become 30mph zones?
The human story of immigrants and immigration is often incredibly inspiring. People willing to uproot and move to another country for the promise of opportunity. They may leave amidst war, famine, disease, or all three, traverse continents and oceans in search of a better life, oft knowing they may never return to the land of their ancestors. This is never a decision that will be taken lightly, thousands of people have died crossing the Mediterranean since 2013[JR1] desperately searching for a better life. It’s a moral blight we won’t quickly forget. I don’t believe that we should let people drown as they flee bombs we are dropping just because they are from some ‘shithole countries’. Immigration can be explored in isolation of this and I believe there is a way to discuss immigration without sliding into racism. We should never treat people like numbers. That is the first step to dehumanizing anyone. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t have a rational and full discussion about the impact that EU membership and mass immigration have had on the country.
The Road to Somewhere
The short book Folk Opposition released in 2010 is an eerily prophetic lament to the loss of a sense of shared community and the rise of neo-liberalism. Author Alex Niven explores what he believes was the re-emergence of a ruling class: ‘modern politics has come to resemble the pre-Labour movement Whig/Tory divide of the 18th and 19th centuries, with two parties representing different divisions of a sizeable wealthy class.’
Niven argues that the ascension of David Cameron to the heights of Downing Street revealed the deep divides in British politics, between the general populace and the establishment. The new establishment is a combination of businessmen, bankers, estate agents, new money from entertainment and leisure industries, the media, advertising, and the traditional old money establishment of the aristocracy, small landowners, and farmers. Released in 2010, Niven argued that the current establishment has, over the past 40 years, successfully diminished the role of the general populace in politics, shrunk their representation, and allowed the neo-liberal ideology of Thatcher to occupy the political mainstream. He warns of the exorbitant inequalities in the UK, those which were further exacerbated as the coalition government enacted sweeping cuts to the welfare state, deepening the divides in British society, and pushing those at the bottom even further down the ladder: ‘In our own country there is an underworld of suffering lurking beneath a surface world of consumerist fantasy and lifestyle myths.’
Niven correctly predicted that this divide would cause a (then unforeseen) backlash against the current establishment. The country was split down the middle as a previously silent majority made their voices heard. ‘The Road to Somewhere’ by David Goodhart successfully identified what I believe to be the new emerging divisions in British society and politics. He splits the UK into two tribes, the Somewheres and the Anywheres (with a few inbetweeners stuck in the middle). This might seem reductive and Goodhart readily admits that the simplified aspect allows us to understand broad voting trends whilst conceding that no one individual is a perfect representative of either category.
He defines the typical Anywhere broadly as:
- Feeling comfortable about the modern world
- Having a loose and open idea of national identity
- Putting liberty before security in the civil liberties debate
And the typical Somewhere as:
- Feeling uncomfortable with the modern world
- Having a more ‘fellow citizens first’ view of national identity
- Being prepared to sacrifice liberty for security
Electorally, both groups can include a broad coalition of voters – Goodhart estimates that some 50 per cent of the British population can be categorized as Somewheres, 25 per cent as Anywheres and 25 per cent as Inbetweeners. The Somewheres make up who Trump described as the ‘forgotten people’, those left behind by the modern world ruled by affluent and mobile Anywheres. It may seem simplistic to reduce the British population to just two groups and some inbetweeners, but technically that is how the First Past The Post electoral system often divides the country, between Labour and Conservative (with a small portion of inbetweeners voting Lib Dem). What we are witnessing with Brexit is the unveiling of the new split in British politics, it’s driving the divisions within both Labour and the Conservatives over Brexit policy. This divide is not a new phenomenon, it has been growing since Thatcher redefined the political landscape, going unrecognized and unaddressed by the Anywheres who occupy government. Before we get too deep into the ideology of the Anywhere establishment, I think it is important to explore the divides that separate the Somewheres from the Anywheres.
The major dividing lines between the two tribes of Britain are where you live, your type of education, and your attitude towards the modern world. Those who feel they belong to their neighbourhood have a stronger attachment to their national identity. A total of 42 per cent of UKIP voters and 62 per cent of Plaid Cymru voters live within 15 minutes of where they grew up, compared to 25 per cent of Greens or 30 per cent of Liberal Democrats. A large part of this depends on whether you left school and took a job in your home town or whether you took yourself off to university.
Before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I am not here to disparage those who have not gone to university. It is an educational path designed for some but not all. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, successive governments oversaw a huge transformation of educational norms and that has made an unforeseen contribution to the division of Britain. In 1992 the Conservative government abolished the two-tier higher education system, designating the 35 polytechnics as universities and essentially pushing a university education as the single most desirable form of higher education. Tony Blair pushed even further with this transformation, advocating for a US-style mass higher education system. In a 1999 speech, Blair proposed what may have seemed an outlandish target of 50 per cent of each age group attending university. Yet by 2017 it was estimated that 49 per cent of people would attend university before the age of 30, compared to just 14 per cent in 1984. John McTerna, the former New Labour Adviser, once commented that: ‘New Labour rhetoric was always on the side of change and mobility. But it was off-putting to many people. We were in effect saying too many people especially in the north: stay with your community and fail, or move.’
To the Anywheres in government, it is only natural that one should attend university. A total of 90 per cent of the 2010 parliament had a university education (94 per cent of newly elected MPs), though this number dropped slightly in 2017 to 84 per cent. The 2017 election was also the first time in history in which Labour elected a higher percentage of graduates (84 per cent) than the Conservative Party (83 per cent). Though Conservative MPs are still far more likely to be privately educated, with 48 per cent having attended a private school (private education in Britain costs over £16,000 per year on average) compared to 17 per cent of Labour MPs and 14 per cent of Liberal Democrats. Most MPs are part of a select group of 1 per cent of the population who attend Oxford or Cambridge. A total of 75 per cent of the 2017 parliament went to one of these two universities. McTerna astutely pointed out that, ‘In Britain it is, increasingly, university or bust.’ In ‘The Road to Somewhere’, Goodhart is particularly critical of this policy, questioning whether it made any sense at all to push for mass university education without considering our need for tradesmen: ‘Where were all the sub-graduate technicians and engineers going to come from? And how were the 50 per cent not taking the approved route supposed to feel about their place in the world?’
Having been told all their lives that the way to make a success of your life was to move away and attend university, more than half of each age cohort is left to contemplate life without university. There has been a significant deviation in the rhetoric about good jobs (i.e. graduate jobs) and more basic jobs, ones that don’t require a degree but still offer some form of career opportunity. The decline of career opportunities without higher education has not been addressed by any of the main political parties in a meaningful way. Not attending university is sometimes seen as less socially acceptable, something you choose as a last resort or if you’re not cognitively capable of handling a university education. How should we deal with a society when half of every age group are told they were not worthy of the most desired path on the way to a brighter future? One of the problems is that we simply don’t acknowledge it. The university educated Anywheres who have run the country for decades have no idea what it is like to fall at that hurdle. It’s just a natural progression, you finish school and then go to uni. What else would you do? Goodhart writes,
‘While the expansion of higher education has certainly created new opportunities for many people it has also exacerbated the fault line in British society that this book is about – those that leave and those that stay.’
A lot of people, until globalization arrived, had access to a well-paid unionized manufacturing job without the need for a university degree. In-work training has declined and apprenticeship schemes are few and far between. Employers have been willing to pay to train a young employee for decades, it was accepted as a necessary cost. With Freedom of Movement employers can hitch a ‘free ride on the training systems of other European countries’. Why go to the costly expense of training someone who may leave your firm inside a year or two? It makes more financial sense to import trained workers from Europe. There has also been a fiscal incentive for governments to push university attendance as mandatory. Higher education has become big business and more students means a larger university sector to tax. Today, universities generate around £95 billion for the economy annually. The Conservatives have begun to sell off billions in student debt at below-market value to make the government accounting look more effective.
Our world view is substantially influenced by our experience (or lack thereof) at university. Those who leave home to attend university in another city, or perhaps even another country, become immersed in a culture that celebrates the idea of finding a new home, one where you belong. You’re coming together with a whole bunch of people who have left home at the same time, to forge a new identity and find your place in the world. It’s only natural that such an experience is going to be crucial in forging your outlook on the world as you learn more about it and take your first steps away from home. University is a fast track to the Anywhere class. A total of 90 per cent of academics voted to remain in the EU. It helps to shape an elite that is insider based, tight-knit, and distant from much of society. The higher education industry has profited greatly from the influx of foreign students (who pay much higher fees) since the New Labour years. The 24 Russell Group universities are vocal opponents of immigration restriction and heavily promote the import of foreign students. They have ideological and financial incentives to back remaining in the EU and the cocoon of university helps to perpetuate this. University drops you right into a cacophony of people who think they are going to change the world, you’re exposed to new ideas, new foods, new ways of looking at the world, new drugs, new people, and new music. Almost everything about going to university in Britain pushes you away from the Somewheres of the world and transforms you into an Anywhere. Safe and comfortable in the modern world.
This is an excerpt from Brexit: The Establishment Civil War