Richard Pipes famously described the bureaucracy of late Tsarism as a group of people who felt their country to be “under permanent siege by her own inhabitants”. The enemies of society were many, and they were legion. This feeling did not lead to any new energy or inventiveness, but to a grim battening down of the hatches. Rules multiplied, reams and reams of useless paper were produced. Epaulettes, orders, ranks, inspectorates, perks of office, all of these sprouted like weeds, and the main criteria for advancement became one’s ability to game this tangled-up system. Procedure was prized above all else. This class of people was narrow, rule-bound and despairing.
Matthew Goodwin’s new book, Values, Voice and Virtue is the story of a ruling class and its enemies. It is about Britain’s university graduates, who make up around 34% of the population, and their endless feud with the non-graduate majority who live outside of London. The thesis is a familiar one. Britain’s cognitive elite has lost touch with those they rule, and now dislikes them. The latter realise this and react – the consequence is two provincial revolts, first Brexit, then the election of 2019.
This school of thought is now close to a decade old. Its history is not a distinguished one. It turns political questions into psychological stories. Those who voted for Brexit were not voting to leave the European Union, but to give a ‘kick in the teeth’ to an establishment that had forgotten about them. The answer is never a redress of any objective grievance, but to ‘listen’ to them in the abstract, as if they were children. The great symbol of this worldview is the 2019 film Brexit: The Uncivil War. The climax of the film arrives when Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s comms guru, decides to hold a focus group shortly before the referendum. The participants are quickly at each other’s throats; the representatives of the ‘cognitive elite’ keep needling the Leavers until one explodes. She sobs and wails through a description of her personal problems. “I’m sick of it! I’m sick of feeling like nothing!” We have, according to the film, arrived at the true origin of the Leave vote. It is not a political movement, but a psychological breakdown; sympathetic, maybe – but essentially bovine. Needless to say, this view has since become pervasive. As an idea it is hateful and absurd, and it is always shocking to find that people feel entitled to talk about fellow adults in this way.
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