What if I'm wrong?
Rebellions are built on hope
Its important to occasionally consider the fact that you might be completely wrong. Not too often, of course – my ego is subjected to enough regular crushings without adding to it myself.
In January I wrote a post called ‘The Perils of Polling’, where I basically argued that conceptions of politics operating on a right vs left spectrum belong in the 20th Century. I argued that on the grounds that, whilst Yougov polling shows ‘the average Briton’ is self-reportedly shifting to the left, every election since that polling began has returned a Conservative Government. I then looked at specific issues of voter concern reported by Policy Exchange, pointing out that reducing taxes, lowering immigration, increased energy independence and getting the NHS back on the rails (again) is hardly a radical left-wing agenda.
This is all based on a fundamental belief that politics has been re-aligned from the right/left divide of politics that dominated the last century - based on people’s relationship to the means of production - to a new dividing line along people’s relationship to the effects of globalisation. On one side are those more likely to benefit from globalisation, who adopt a more cosmopolitan, socially progressive stance, whilst on the other are those more likely to lose out from globalisation, who take a more nationalist, traditional and socially conservative view of the world.
That latter group are, as Adrian Pabst describes, ‘broadly communitarian: somehow small-c conservative in their approach to matters of state, law and order, and small-s socialist on public services, fair play and hard work.’ I’d argue against the use of the word ‘socialist’, but that is the general gist. Most people belong to this group but, importantly, the vast majority of those wielding power are not. As Matt Goodwin writes:
One big reason why many Western democracies have found themselves confronted with one populist revolt after another is precisely because their political, cultural and media institutions have been taken over by an elite graduate minority who tend to share the same backgrounds, went to the same schools, the same universities, share the same values, and routinely look down on those from the working-class, who do not have a degree or hold different values.
But... what if this isn’t true? What if elites aren’t that out of step with the British electorate?
That’s what a recent substack post by Will Jennings argues. Using a variety of sources, he uses data to point out that, in fact, the British electorate are growing increasingly liberal. Here's the essence of Will’s argument;
If we turn to the subject of intense debate - the social liberalism of British voters - it becomes clear that the public is increasingly liberal on cultural issues...
While key groups of voters, with electorally significant geography (i.e. Leave voters in the so-called ‘Red Wall’), may hold socially conservative values, British society overall is headed in a more liberal direction...
A huge amount of commentary about the ‘realignment’ of Brexit politics, and how Brexit forged a new electoral alliance for the Conservative Party, is silent on these deep underlying shifts in public opinion - an electorate that is increasingly liberal on social issues and leans left on the economy. This is especially apparent in calls to throw policy red meat to the Red Wall in the form of tax cuts and declaration of a ‘war on woke’ (in the form of talking a lot, paradoxically, about what can be said in the teaching of British history and freedom of speech).
I'm not going to argue that it isn’t a sound reading of the data – but it doesn’t change the fact that the ‘steady trend since 2005’ of ‘growing social liberalism’ has returned four successive Conservative governments. So are people actually more liberal - or could it be they’re just parroting the views of higher-status elites?
The liberal viewpoint is largely entrenched in powerful institutions. Liberal graduates now dominate our media, politics, arts and culture – in fact, it is hard to think of a single institution wielding any degree of power or influence in Britain that is not led by progressive, graduate liberals of one kind or another. Many of the institutions that have been captured by progressives were formerly politically neutral, but have now been weaponised as part of a nexus of institutions that push a progressive, liberal agenda; think of the Wellcome Trust, the National Trust or the Arts Council.
University education has a significantly liberalising effect on those who attend, and university acceptances increasing by 50% in the last two decades. Much of the trend of institutional capture stems from an oversupply of university graduates, as Ed West argues:
The politicisation of previously neutral institutions is a facet of elite overproduction; large numbers of people are going to universities to study areas of the humanities and social sciences where progressive ideas about deconstruction are overwhelming and unopposed. The number of these courses has expanded to the point where they no longer select for people bright enough to question their claims, and who struggle to find useful or profitable work afterwards.
Thanks to the overprioritisation of university education and marginalisation of technical education, people looking to enter higher education are given only one high-status option – university. This teaches them socially liberal values which, thanks to the traditional better performance of graduates in employment and their higher visibility in public life, are paraded as a marker of high-status. Unable – or unsuited – to succeed in graduate jobs, their quest for the Inner Ring then causes them to drive forward a progressive agenda. Little wonder then, that a recent paper found that ‘going woke is an emergent strategy that is largely shaped by… middle managers and support personnel using their delegated responsibility and specialist status to engage in woke internal advocacy, which may increase their influence and job security.’
Those who don't share this university-inspired worldview, meanwhile, are derided as low-status - as Matt Goodwin writes in his defence of Lee Anderson:
Much like Leave voters after the Brexit revolt, he’s been derided as “thick as mince”, a “northern neanderthal”, an “utterly awful type”, “stupid”, “moronic”, and an apologist for far-Right politics. Ironically, much of this class snobbery has come from the very people who claim to be the most open of all, who would never allow such prejudice were it directed toward any other group in society.
So if the copypasting of liberal, progressive values as high-status is guiding the nation in an increasingly socially liberal direction, what hope is there for social conservatives? Well, despite the liberal trend, I’d argue still quite a lot. Let’s return to Will’s post:
As John Bartle and colleagues observe, the political centre moves, and it would be unwise to assume that voters are not updating their preferences in response to changing circumstances. The growing tax burden and sustained pressure on the cost of living could yet see voters’ views on the economy shift rightwards, while constant hyping of hyper-liberals, woke activism and political correctedness gone mad might yet stimulate a ‘thermostatic’ response from public opinion.
As part of their UnHerd Britain series, UnHerd polled public views on trans issues. Their data showed a strong degree of ‘goodwill and understanding towards transpeople’, but that ‘once you start asking about specific policies and impacts, the results move in a decidedly more sceptical direction.’ This could be proof of one of Conquest’s lesser known-laws; ‘everyone tends to be more right wing on any question the more he knows about it’. Or, as I’d argue, it’s a suggestion that people lean towards liberal ideals in the abstract but, when they begin to address their lives as concrete realities, people turn rightwards. Freddie Sayers describes the effect of this rebalancing in Scotland:
For each issue, the most “trans-sceptical” constituencies in Britain are found in Scotland. In aggregate, Scottish people are also more trans-sceptical than English people, meaning that a higher proportion of them disagree and disagree strongly with the statements we put in front of them.
This result confounds political cliches about the new gender ideology being synonymous with “progressive” politics, given that Scottish people in aggregate self-describe as more Left-wing than the English, and are led by a leading proponent of the ideology, Nicola Sturgeon. It provides a glimpse of what may happen in other nations when the debate moves from a theoretical side-issue to a mainstream political argument with real-world consequences.
I’d argue that the public’s view on immigration bears this out too; the public is broadly in favour of taking in refugees feeling persecution or war, but UnHerd polling shows ‘a desire to reduce levels of immigration is almost universal across the country’, with 57% of Britons agreeing that “immigration levels are too high.” And of those critical of Government’s handling of migration, the vast majority cite pro-low immigration reasons for doing so. This again confounds a political cliché - the public aren’t just anti-immigration. Yes, they want greater control of immigration and yes, they want to lower immigration, but they still hold the liberal view that Britain has a duty to refugees. Like the trans sceptics, they have a strong degree of goodwill and sympathy for refugees, but their opinions move decidedly rightwards when you start talking about specific policies and impacts.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out; if (when?) the institution-led socially liberal agenda combines with a Labour government more likely to legislate in favour of those beliefs, how will the public react to the resulting entrenchment of the progressive agenda? Will the higher status of their beliefs have more effect than the concrete effects on people’s lives? The great hope for social conservatives may have to be that the concrete reality wins out whilst, as Will points out, the public will shift against the government of their own accord:
A key observation from this long-term data series is how public attitudes tend to react against the current government. This is what Christopher Wlezien famously characterised as ‘thermostatic public opinion’... If there were a change of government in the near future, those on the left would be advised to recognise that the tide of public opinion may quickly turn - even against a popular and competent administration.
Faced with a right-wing wipe out in the Commons, zero traction in the arts and little more in the media, that hope may be all we have. But rebellions are built on hope.
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