BOOK REVIEW: The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics
David Goodhart is a British journalist who, until recently, was perhaps best known for having founded a political affairs magazine called Prospect in the 1990s. Lately, though, thanks to his new book, The Road to Somewhere, he’s developed a reputation for provoking controversy with views on immigration and diversity that run counter to what most left wing-leaning journalists, particularly in the circles he is associated with, tend to hold.
Here, William Clutterbuck, a marketing executive with financial services experts Maitland, and a former journalist himself, considers Goodhart’s arguments.
The first thing to say about this book is that it is well worth reading. Do not be, as I nearly was, put off by the first sentence, with its reference to a “broader critique of contemporary liberalism from the radical centre” (whatever that means).
Or by the author’s impeccable Islington credentials: a career in media, UK Labour Party affiliations, Oxford University.
Luckily I started with a piece of prior knowledge. The author was married to Lucy Kellaway, the Financial Times columnist who delights in deflating pomposity and ridiculing corporate-/speak wherever she sees it. So I knew that in that north London household, at least, the comfort of being prosperous and left wing would not have stood in the way of an open-minded examination of the evidence.
Goodhart, I knew, also writes clearly, and resists the temptation to use socio-political terms.
Finally, I also know that these ‘of the moment’ political treatises can be valuable in that they usually give you insights and knowledge about their subject that you didn’t previously have, and typically, a decent fistful of answers to a clearly analysed problem. In this regard, Goodhart doesn’t disappoint.
In fact, he delivers in spades. And this is all the more impressive because the further you read, the plainer it is that few of the seismic political changes that we in the UK have recently experienced can be neatly explained.
This book, a reader soon comes to realise, could just as easily have been entitled Politics Today: It Isn’t That Simple.
‘The Somewheres’ v the ‘Anywheres’
The core of Goodhart’s argument lies in the marking out of the differing backgrounds and divergent paths of the “Somewheres” and the “Anywheres” in our society.
As Goodhart explains it, Somewheres are socially conservative and communitarian. They have clear identities: Scottish farmer, Cornish housewife, working class Geordie.
By contrast, Anywheres dominate our culture and society. They tend to do well at school, and flourish away from home or even abroad.
There is, of course, a vast overlap between the two (and people move toward Somewhere Land as they grow older, Goodhart points out).
It is, we soon find, a useful framework with which to examine why the traditional class and economic categories don’t apply any more.
According to this narrative, both the UK’s decision to leave the EU and the Americans’ election of Donald Trump as their president were manifestations of a shared sense that disgruntled Somewheres in both countries had, that their worries and needs had been too long ignored, and change was needed.
The day after the Brexit vote, Goodhart notes, Britain’s Remainers (who represented 48.1% of the total votes cast) briefly experienced, in political reverse, the sense of living in a foreign country. Which is what, Goodhart suggests, Somewheres have been feeling every day.
Origins of the revolt
In his book, Goodhart helpfully takes us back to various incidents he tells us planted the seeds of the dissatisfaction that led to last year’s Brexit vote. These included the fact that the then-in-power UK Labour party chose to open up the UK labour market immediately in 2004 – before other EU states did – to new Eastern and Central European EU members.
The generally-accepted consensus of Anywhere and establishment opinion – that immigration is desirable, and anyway, unstoppable – jars, he contends, with the irrefutable fact that 75% of the UK population (including half of its ethnic minorities) has, since 2000, consistently said immigration is too high.
He also argues that consensus politics under the Labour and Conservative parties brought the UK a surge in university education rates, from 14% of the age cohort in 1984 to 48% today.
And yet, he tells us, the UK is nevertheless currently languishing at the bottom of the OECD’s rank of literary and numeracy skills for the world’s 23 richest countries. Meanwhile, as school budgets have been ring-fenced, adult education budgets in the UK have plunged 41% since 2009.
Goodhart also addresses what he portrays as a headlong rush for social mobility, pointing out that a meritocratic society often forgets about those who do not climb the ladder. We are reminded that the seeming unassailable principle of meritocracy can legitimise inequality, and reduce empathy, as those not at the top begin to be seen as undeserving of being there.
Goodhart also cheerfully proceeds to upend accepted wisdom and political correctness, providing evidence at one point, for example, for his case that there is little to support widespread claims of sharply rising inequality and job insecurity.
The average women, he argues, is less interested in seeing women on company boards than in having a supportive and prosperous life partner with whom to raise children.
He even maintains that there’s only a small gender pay gap for men and women who do the same work, and cites statistics that suggest women in their twenties who work full time actually earn, on average, more than their male counterparts.
Goodhart concludes his tale with some worthwhile suggestions for mending the situation. These include more and better options and support for children who leave school but aren’t heading to university, and probably shouldn’t; less focus on London; some distinction between permanent and temporary citizens.
Placing small local improvements ahead of massive projects like London’s Crossrail.
Create more ‘stepping stone jobs’ – teaching assistances, para police officers – for bright people who for whatever reason aren’t able to go the university route.
Goodhart concludes, worryingly, that without a different mindset, the Anywheres will continue to dominate, and the UK will become more fragmented and disaffected, while an increasingly shrill political class celebrates the virtues of openness, from well inside their gated and burgar-alarmed communities.
With luck, this book may help to change to ensure that this doesn’t happen.
UK RRP £20 (US$24.95)
Photograph of David Goodhart by Karen Gordon Photography