Beware converts

(reference article by David Goodhart in the FT Weekend, 18th March 2017)

Beware converts. Or better, conversions. People who change sides, as Ronald Reagan did, and I remember the one-time New Stateman editor turned right-wing commentator, Paul Johnson. And didn’t Melanie Phillips, she of the vitriol and the non-sequitur, once write for the Guardian? To switch abruptly suggests an over-simplification of argument, you switch from believer to atheist, you’ve seen the light, you’re St Paul on the road to Damascus.

The most important corrective is always to see the other side, to take it, argue it, from time to time. You don’t have to be a racist to argue in favour of restrictions on immigration, or an inveterate woman-hater to argue against abortion. Passions run deep in life and politics, especially when you’re young, and if you’re not passionate in your 20s then you ought to be. But if we’re looking to educate young people in citizenship, let’s also make that civility, and more than civility, empathy, and more than empathy, tucking yourself inside the other’s shell from time to time.

Why am I writing this? There’s a fine political commentator, David Goodhart, founder of one of my favourite magazines, Prospect, and he’s just published a book entitled ‘The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics’. He divides the population very broadly into ‘somewheres’ and ‘anywheres’.  Anywheres are more mobile, usually university-educated, they have ‘high human capital, [they] will thrive in open, competitive systems and only be held back by prejudice or protectionism’. Freedom of movement, membership of the EU, will have obvious advantages. Somewheres are ‘more rooted, generally less well-educated… and prioritise attachment and security’.

It’s a helpful distinction. A typical urban community is disparate, and local communication minimal. A suburban or small-town or village community is more likely to be a community – to be more homogeneous, localised – and people talk to neighbours, meet up at sport clubs and the like.

So where’s my gripe with Goodhart? He wrote an essay back in 2004 about the tension between diversity and solidarity, he thought it uncontroversial, but he ‘met the intolerance of the modern left for the first time’. He was even accused of racism. (I’ve my own experience of this left-leaning mentality.) Goodhart now claims to have left the tribe – but he then describes it as ‘the liberal tribe that had been my home for 25 years’. [My italics.]

I’m a liberal, four square, and first and foremost I don’t accept I’m of the left, modern or otherwise.  Nor the right. Nor the ‘centre’, wherever that might be. I’ve long argued for compassion, caring (shared but interpreted differently by left and right) and community. As well as initiative and enterprise. ‘Big society’ ideas left me cold because they were top-down, and community is instinctive, bottom-up. (The downside of London life is the isolation. The upside of village life can be – well, is – almost too much community.)

(The ‘liberal left’ is a popular term. It’s where many people stand politically. But ‘liberal’ and ‘left’ are distinct terms, distinct political placements. And elements of the press love to emphasise the ‘left’, so ‘liberal’ gets pulled off-centre, and damned for being something that it isn’t.)

Goodhart also has this throw-away comment: ‘Ask English people at a middle-class London dinner-party whether they are proud of their country and they will get bluster and embarrassment.’ Maybe his dinner parties, not mine – and don’t rely on dinner-parties for your straw poll!

He sees himself as a centrist, open to ideas from left and right: ‘Indeed I am now post-liberal and proud.’ I’d argue that he’s now achieved liberal status for the first time, having shed old allegiances. He accuses liberalism of an over-reach that produced the Brexit and Trump backlashes. That I think is too easy, too cheap, and a touch cowardly. We’re back to being a convert, taking sides.

Goodhart is taking a risk by pigeon-holing and denigrating liberalism, arguing for a more woolly, inchoate alternative, where people fall back on the instinctive protectiveness of tribes, whether some- or any-where. It’s left liberalism that’s his target, but he’s risking bringing down a wider liberal mindset at the same time.

Liberals, in their Liberal Democrat guise, within and especially away from the big city have a strong community emphasis. That’s why pre-Coalition they were so successful as a local level – and increasingly are now.

Curiously it’s where I think Goodhart is headed. It isn’t a retreat from liberalism, it’s an avowal of all that’s best about it, and he doesn’t need to be throwing sops to the harder elements of the right-wing, which is what I fear he’s been doing.

Abandoning your ‘tribe’ carries big risks. You can easily get tainted by another.

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