Zoe Williams has written a piece today about the term “metropolitan elite” and how it has become a catch all phrase for the political class to essentially try and either distance itself from everything modern Britain increasingly dislikes, or to self-immolate with, depending on how you see things. This, by the way, is not the start of another article in which I have a go at Zoe Williams; I thought her article was actually rather poignant if lacking a conclusion.
There was one quote in the piece that defines for me the whole “metropolitan elite” being used as the scapegoat for all the problems that Britain faces at present motif, and it’s this one from David Lammy:
“There is a liberal value set. It’s David Cameron, really: relaxed about gay rights, relaxed about ethnic minorities, socially liberal and also economically liberal, the strange place where the Guardian meets the Times, which is as New Labour as it is Thatcherite. It’s a cosy place, that squeezes out people who haven’t got the money to be included in that conversation.”
I’ve seen Lammy say this sort of thing before. Labour conference a couple of years ago, someone on one of the panel events I was sitting through for work purposes said something that struck one of the members of the audience as, in their own words, illiberal. Lammy was straight in there: “People need to realise that the Labour Party is not the Liberal Party.”
The problem is that for a lot of younger voters in particular, especially those in the southeast of England, they vote Labour because they do indeed see them as essentially the Liberal Party. Another Labour event I once attended featured Maurice Glasman and Philip Blond on a stage with one another, saying how Labour’s way forward should be focused on how a large, nannying state could create a socially conservative country. Half the crowd, mostly the older half, nodded in agreement. The other half were completely horrified. If the Labour Party wants to leave these people in the cold, these people that would very likely fall into the hated “metropolitan elite” category in some way shape or form (Williams is right – it is a very broad description when you look at how it is used by everyone from Nigel Farage to socialist Labourites), then eventually they will stop voting Labour. Before you tell me they have no other choice, remember people used to say that Scottish Labour was invincible for the very same reason.
My point is – and I am now about to attempt to provide the conclusion that Williams’ article did not – what I hear when politicians rail against the “elites” is an attack on liberalism itself. It’s as if because there is a group of people who live in London and have lifestyles many people envy, the fact that liberalism is the creed (supposedly) of a great number of these folk means that liberalism itself is automatically suspect. What I would like to ask David Lammy is what he thinks the alternative to liberal values really are, because a lot of it wouldn’t be all that pretty once you started setting it in concrete.
Britain is a remarkably liberal country and I think that’s a good thing. However, with nationalism and conservatism on the rise, it’s not very helpful that the left of centre within it seems to want to demonise liberalism. Yes, it’s unfortunate that if you are born in Clacton-on-Sea your chances of ever becoming part of the “metropolitan elite” is slim. But we should look at ways to make that equation less stark, to ensure that everyone in Britain, regardless of the socio-economic status at birth, can achieve whatever it is they want to achieve should they work hard enough to do so. Perhaps it is a failing of liberals that we don’t talk about this enough.
In summary, I fail to see how implicating everyone who isn’t a 1950s comedy post card northerner caricature in directly ruining the country is particularly constructive. I’m sick to the teeth of left-wing politicians engaging in this behaviour – it is beneath them and not useful to the aims they promote. The problem David Lammy constituents face cannot be solved by engaging in North London intellectual bashing, surprisingly enough. We need to start hearing some constructive stuff from the Left, and quickly, because the fact is that Britain is not going to vote in large numbers for a left of centre party that cannot construct a positive yet realistic platform.
Steve Davenport says
Nick, I’m glad you provided a conclusion as I also did not get much of one from Zoe Williams’ article. I don’t see disparaging terms such as the “the metropolitan elite” being helpful to understanding any issue – this seems like an easy way of dismissing a person’s ideas or contribution based on a combination of class, geography and perceived belonging to a “cosy” intelligensia. As “attacks on liberalism” go though this would all rank some way behind nationalism, radicalism and Tory attacks on the Human Rights Act to name but a few.