Is There a New British Politics?


Values, Voice and Virtue seeks to explain new developments in British politics. Three major revolts against the status quo in recent years, namely the ascendance of Nigel Farage, Brexit, and the election of Boris Johnson as prime minister, surely demand careful consideration. Unlike many commentators, however, Goodwin contends that the answers are not social media, a stupid public, or the influence of dark money. Rather, backlash against the status quo is best explained by the rise of a ‘new elite’, consisting of affluent graduates committed to economic and especially cultural liberalism. The new elite, having revolutionized Britain during the past forty years, remade it in their own image. Their values, their voice, and their sense of virtue – or superiority – have prevailed. Meanwhile, the values, voice, and virtue of non-graduates, the traditionalist working class, and older voters have been disregarded and indeed repudiated. Hence a political realignment is unfolding, where the key division is that between cosmopolitans and traditionalists. Unless the elite begin to understand and represent the concerns of those who have been left behind, populist rebellions will continue to destabilize politics.

We will begin with Goodwin’s strengths. First, the book is well-researched; copious data is supplied for his claims in every chapter. Second, a good deal of what Goodwin says about the revolutionizing of Britain over the past few decades is true. Some observers, especially ruling elites, do not at all appreciate how large parts of the country have been left miserable and unrepresented since Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. For these observers, revolts against ordinary politics are virtually inexplicable. There are no real grievances that explain why millions would vote to leave the European Union, or support Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson. These gullible citizens, with no rationale for their behavior except ignorant prejudices, have simply been riled up by demagogues. Goodwin shows, on the contrary, that there is a rationale behind the protests against the establishment: those who feel left behind are not to be dismissed. In this way, Goodwin’s book is a useful corrective to the most dreary anti-democratic liberalism.

The weaknesses of Goodwin’s book, however, far outnumber its strengths. First, Goodwin fails to define his terms. The word ‘populism’ appears repeatedly and is a fundamental part of present discussions of democracy. One would expect such a slippery idea to be defined somehow, but no definition is given. There are examples of populism: Nigel Farage, Brexit, Boris Johnson. But in a scientific analysis of politics examples are not enough. The question why these events and personalities are populist, and not others, such as Jeremy Corbyn’s improbable leadership of the Labour Party, is never answered or even engaged with.

The ‘working class’, though frequently mentioned, is never clearly defined. But who belongs to the working class is a controversial question. Is a working class person someone who must sell their labour to survive? Is it someone who works in a particular sector or sectors? Is culture relevant to the definition of working class? Goodwin’s idea of the ‘working class’ appears to include blue collar workers and to exclude white collar graduates (12), but this is never justified. It is not a definition of the working class that most Marxists would accept, for example, nor does Goodwin make any arguments for why they should accept it.

Another term which is used but undefined is ‘radical progressivism’. Examples of progressive beliefs are given: radical progressives support diversity; they support immigration; they believe Britain is racist or that racism is a major problem; they want to address historic injustices; they disagree with traditionalists about sex and gender; and they favour restrictions on speech that conflicts with their values (89-91). Interestingly, however, radical progressivism is almost solely characterised by cultural beliefs. Why does radical progressivism exclude economic ideas? A definition might clarify matters; but none is given.

A writer of political journalism might forego definitions. If, however, one sets out not to write journalism, but to write a long and rigorous analysis of political change, it is necessary to define one’s terms at the beginning. Otherwise all sorts of confusions arise, and your use of terms with disputed meanings will mystify some readers.

This first criticism might be considered pedantic. When understood in the context of the broader flaws of Goodwin’s thinking, however, it will become clear why definitions matter. The great weakness of Values, Voice and Virtue is that it is a thoroughly dishonest book. It is not dishonest because it tells outright lies: many of Goodwin’s claims are documented and verifiably accurate. It is dishonest because Goodwin is a motivated reasoner.

An honest thinker, in crafting their arguments, will not ignore or suppress evidence that seems to undermine their case. They will instead present this recalcitrant evidence and explain why they think their argument still holds. They will not evade difficult questions or objections, but will tackle them head on. We may disagree with the conclusions that such a thinker reaches, but we cannot question their honesty. They examined the issue from multiple sides and tried to support their opinions. The motivated reasoner does not examine issues this way. When evidence is unfavorable to them, they conceal it. When questions or objections are difficult, they simply do not answer them. Why do they do this? Because they are actuated by a motive other than seeking truth. They have an opinion that they cherish, regardless of its truth, and pile up evidence in its favor while ignoring contradictory evidence. It is certain that we all have biases, and some of these may be incurable. But the motivated reasoner does not take even the most rudimentary steps to correct their biases; they refuse to seriously engage with the other side. This is the form of dishonesty that Goodwin practices.

I suspect that motivated reasoning is more common in politics than almost any other field. A physicist who refused to even consider serious findings that undermined their research would be laughed at. A political writer, however, can easily practice motivated reasoning. The comparative difficulty of reducing politics to experiment and observation means that the suppression of evidence is easily accomplished and excused. Furthermore, the passions involved in politics, and our desire to support our opinions, mean any work, even if it is utterly fraudulent, can gain approval and an audience.

Goodwin’s dishonesty is compounded by the fact that throughout this book he never declares his opinions outright. There is nothing wrong with writing a neutral, analytical book. But it is cowardly to pretend to write such a book while loading it, at intervals, with moral anger. It seems Goodwin could not decide whether to write a dispassionate analysis of political change or a vindication of the traditionalists. In the end he produced a surreptitious vindication of the traditionalists. He says ‘This book is written for people on all sides of the debate’ and notes that he ‘openly challenges much of the conventional wisdom and misleading narratives that have taken hold of our debates about politics’ (xi). We do not need to dig very deep, however, to discover where his sympathies lie.

We are told that ‘many voters’ feel ‘their values and voice have not only been cast aside but that they and their wider group are shamed and stigmatized as a morally inferior underclass, consisting of uneducated thickos, racists, authoritarians, gammons and Karens’ (xxi); ‘many people have found it easier to rehearse the standard script by blaming … a morally inferior underclass of racist, irrational and ignorant Little Englanders’ (1); ‘some writers prefer to portray their fellow citizens as mindless, irrational, ignorant lemmings who are being pushed around from one election to the next by lies, misinformation and post-truth politics’ (2); ‘workers and non-graduates’ find themselves ‘berated by the new elite for their allegedly racist, intolerant and ignorant views’ (29); ‘while elites are fond of portraying their fellow citizens as a morally inferior, racist underclass, the evidence tells a different story’ (9); ‘Disillusioned and disgruntled, over the last decade the forgotten masses have been staging a counter-revolution, rallying around national populism, Brexit, Boris Johnson and a very different brand of post-Brexit conservatism to try to swing the pendulum away from the new elite and back towards people like themselves’ (63); ‘the only insight into traditionalists that the new elite are given is usually only provided by other members of the ruling class, who routinely portray their fellow citizens in profoundly negative ways, as morally inferior racists, gammons, Little Englanders, reactionaries or uneducated thickos’ (117); ‘It is not hard to find celebrities simultaneously proclaiming their love of diversity while berating voters who have sought to reassert their voice in the national debate through politics’ (119); ‘Even on the rare occasion when other voices have been included, such as those from the working class, they are routinely portrayed in crude, simplistic and insulting ways, as criminals, teenage mums, feckless dads, chavs, alcoholics, drug addicts, racists or idiots’ (119-120); ‘Feeling derided anddismissed as an uneducated, racist and morally inferior underclass, many people have either given up on politics altogether or searched for more radical leaders who promise to treat them and their group with respect’ (131); ‘today, amid the rise of the new elite, many people feel … they have been not only silenced by the new elite but also stigmatized as belonging to a morally inferior underclass’ (131); ‘Routinely, the implicitly superior “strivers”, “Winners of Globalization”, the “smart” and “mobile” people who are “getting ahead” are contrasted with the implicitly inferior “takers”, “skivers”, “shirkers”, “scroungers”, “thickos”, “Losers of Globalization” and “gammons”’ (136); ‘Hollywood and the media … switched from portraying African Americans in simplistic, unflattering and racist ways, to, today, portraying the white (non-graduate) working class as moronic, raggedy, ignorant, fat, racist rednecks and white trash’ (137); after Brexit, ‘the new elite lined up to stigmatize the mainly working-class and non-graduate traditionalists who had voted to leave the EU as uneducated thickos who did not know what they were voting for’ (138); according to radical progressive ideology, ‘people who belong to the white majority or who hold traditionalist beliefs are morally inferior and suspicious, if not profoundly dangerous (141); ‘those who have been more likely to lose their jobs, wages, families, communities and sense of dignity and purpose have … been derided as racists and thickos for clinging to … cultural guardrails or for refusing to subscribe to … elite beliefs. Whether promoted by elites, politicians or CEOs, radical progressives portray white working-class, non-graduate, and older traditionalists as a morally inferior underclass of racists and ignorant bigots’ (147); after Brexit, ‘many people in the new elite lined up to try to reassert their sense of moral righteousness and superiority by stigmatizing much of the rest of the country as an uneducated, racist underclass’ (147).

The book is morally loaded and painfully repetitive. The moralizing would be no defect if it were openly avowed. But Goodwin adopts a neutral scholarly tone most of the time, and seems to describe rather than to judge. It would have been more courageous for Goodwin to place his banner on the traditionalist side, but he refuses to do so. Though Goodwin’s public political positions now seem to conform to traditionalism as described in this book, the book itself refuses to take a position.

We will now consider the means Goodwin employs to support his motivated reasoning.

1. The opinions and assumptions of the new elite are attacked repeatedly; the opinions and assumptions of traditionalists are continually validated. Some of the criticisms of the new elite are certainly just. The idea that Brexit can be satisfactorily explained by a concoction of social media, imperial nostalgia, racism and dark money is ridiculous, and Goodwin is right to say so.

Nevertheless, by the total validation of the one side, and the near total condemnation of the other, Goodwin conceals from his readers all the problems of traditionalist thinking. Goodwin states that opposition to immigration is ‘often driven far more strongly by people’s worries about how, in their eyes, these changes were damaging not just Britain’s finances but its distinctive national identity and national culture’ (58). Even though the idea that immigration has been damaging to British identity and culture is obviously controversial, Goodwin has no criticism of the traditionalists on this point. To begin with he might have asked what is meant by Britain’s ‘distinctive national identity and national culture’. Britain consists of a variety of cultures: apart from the cultures and identities of its many ethnic and religious minority communities, there is Scottish culture and identity, Irish culture and identity, Welsh culture and identity, and English culture and identity, with many further subdivisions. Which of these makes up British identity and culture? And in what proportions? Perhaps it is all these cultures and identities combined which makes British identity. But if all this variety is capable of being reconciled in one nation, why would immigration, the introduction of further variety, damage British identity? Cultures continually evolve. What damage would result from further evolution? These questions are not seriously considered.

We do not need to accept the idea of nationhood at all. It is in fact notoriously difficult to rationally justify nationalism. What, precisely, is a nation? Goodwin gives no indication that he knows what ‘the nation’ is, though he tells us that the new elite identify less with the nation and a distinctive idea of British identity than traditionalist voters (78-86). But if we do not know what the nation is, then it is as useful to speak of it, in a scientific analysis of politics, as it is to speak of gobbledegook. Goodwin says: ‘traditionalists worry that the new ruling class no longer has much of an interest in the unique and deep-rooted aspects of their national identity and is, instead, far more interested in subordinating Britishness to their liberal cosmopolitan values’ (84). He might as well have written, with no loss of meaning, ‘traditionalists worry that the new ruling class no longer has much of an interest in the unique and deep-rooted aspects of their gobbledegook identity and is, instead, far more interested in subordinating gobbledegookness to their liberal cosmopolitan values.’ Of course people subscribe to the ideas of nationhood and national identity – but these ideas are often held without even cursory self-reflection. If British identity is a meaningless notion, then attachment to it is irrational. Goodwin, instead of addressing the weaknesses of traditionalist thinking in any detail, is only interested in criticizing the ideas he associates with the new elite. Perhaps Goodwin thinks every traditionalist opinion is true – but he has not defended them against serious objections, even where the traditionalist view is highly vulnerable. Scathing critique is reserved for the new elite; no explanation is given for why traditionalists are exempted from the same critique. This is one manifestation of Goodwin’s motivated reasoning.

2. Apart from the continual attacks on new elite opinions, with no complementary criticism of traditionalist ones, Goodwin omits many facts that are unhelpful to his case. As noted, the suppression of evidence is an especially common tool of motivated reasoners.

Goodwin’s writing of history makes important omissions. He contends that New Labour introduced an era of unbridled cultural liberalism by embracing ‘hyper-globalisation’ and ‘throw[ing] open Britain’s borders’ (47, 61). As Oliver Eagleton has pointed out, Goodwin simply does not mention New Labour’s rhetoric against asylum seekers, refugees and Muslims, or how this rhetoric manifested in legislation during the height of the ‘war on terror’. New Labour minister Hazel Blears said that Muslims would have to accept the ‘reality’ that they would be disproportionately targeted by counter-terrorism measures. None of this finds a place in Goodwin’s book. These facts are inconvenient to the straightforward story that Goodwin wants to tell: New Labour’s unbridled cultural liberalism caused a populist backlash. He is not interested in the truth, but in telling his story as persuasively as possible. Hence the suppression of inconvenient facts, and Goodwin’s failure to grasp the complexities of the neoliberal revolution.

In a section titled ‘Why Labour Lost’ (86-93) Goodwin argues that Labour is dominated by radical progressives who are increasingly distant from the opinions of ordinary voters. Radical progressives feel ashamed of Britain and its past; they believe Britain is racist; they want to address historic injustices; they have radical views on sex and gender; they favour restrictions on what they consider bigoted speech. Goodwin dislikes this ‘deeply moralistic and dogmatic approach to politics’ (91). But throughout the section which purports to explain why Labour lost, there is virtually no mention of Labour’s political program. The Labour Party in 2017 and 2019 offered social democratic manifestos that promised to greatly strengthen trade union rights, give workers more control over their workplaces, and increase public investment. In other words the Corbyn-led Labour Party pledged to fight against the economic liberalism of the Thatcherite-New Labour revolution, and many of its policies were popular. Instead of analyzing Labour’s programs, Goodwin spends the majority of the section explaining the cultural beliefs of radical progressives and how these diverge from the beliefs of traditionalists. He makes no effort to engage with the economic ideas of Corbynism. Why? Because Corbynite social democracy does not easily fit into Goodwin’s story of a Labour Party captured by the new elite and detached from working class concerns. Supporting the chain of motivated reasoning means suppressing the inconvenient facts. Sometimes Goodwin writes as though Corbyn had never existed: ‘Over the last two decades, Labour has morphed into a political home for what French economist Thomas Piketty has called “the brahmins” – a highly educated caste of politicians and voters who have little interest in reforming the economy and the wider system to help the left behind’ (100). One might have endless criticisms of Corbyn; but it cannot be said he had ‘little interest in reforming the economy and the wider system to help the left behind.’ Goodwin then considers the 2019 election: ‘Labour’s new status as a party for the brahmins was powerfully underlined at the last election, in 2019, when its candidates were the most likely of all to have postgraduate degrees and were just as likely as Tory candidates to have gone to Oxbridge. By doubling down on the new elite, a political party which wasfounded to tackle economic inequality is now stoking political inequality, leaving millions of people without a voice in Westminster’ (101). Again we see Goodwin’s reticence to discuss Labour’s program. The representation of different parts of our society in parliament is a serious issue. But so are the programs that parliamentary candidates promise to support. It is false that Labour’s 2019 manifesto ignored either economic or political inequality. Labour promised to establish a Ministry for Employment Rights, sectoral collective bargaining for workers, and to repeal anti-trade union legislation. Labour also promised to replace the appointed House of Lords with an elected senate of nations and regions, to call a nation-wide constitutional convention, to introduce automatic voter registration, and to stop MPs from taking second jobs (with some exceptions). Goodwin ignores all this so he can glibly state that in 2019, Labour was nothing more than a ‘party for the brahmins’. Later Goodwin writes: ‘during the Jeremy Corbyn era … Labour was posh, living in a grand house in London … When voters were asked to describe the party in just a few words they said: old-fashioned, chaotic, disarray, lazy, the past, losers, broken, a mess, lost, antiquated, weak, liars, spenders’ (105-106). It appears Goodwin is as averse to mentioning Labour’s programs as he is to honesty itself. He argues that ‘Theresa May’s promise to prioritise ordinary working families, and Boris Johnson’s pledge to level-up left-behind communities help to explain why they were able to make so much progress in the Labour heartlands, capturing some of the most working-class seats in Britain’ (107). But the political programs offered by Labour and the Tories in 2017 and 2019 are not analyzed or compared in any detail.

Sometimes Goodwin seems to revel in his ignorance: ‘Rather than offering voters broad and unifying narratives around things such as calls for greater equality or social patriotism, in more recent years Labour, like other left-wing parties around the globe, has embraced radical progressivism’ (144-145). Notice, again, there is no mention of Labour’s ‘broad and unifying’ 2017 and 2019 manifestos. The evidence that Labour has embraced radical progressivism is that it developed ‘different manifestos for different groups in British society’ and that its rule book ‘contained 139 mentions of women, 43 of ethnic, 41 of BAME, 26 of gender and 11 of race but only 2 of class, both of which were linked to women and minorities. Unsurprisingly, many voters who have abandoned Labour for the Conservatives feel that the left has become more interested in prioritizing immigrants and minorities than the majority’ (145). Labour did produce a short Race and Faith manifesto in 2019, and its rule book does mention women and minorities, but it is thoroughly dishonest to treat these as powerful evidence for your argument while ignoring all the ‘broad and unifying’ pro-worker policies in Labour’s main manifesto. It would be astonishing if more voters were aware of Labour’s rule book than its main policies in 2019. It is no less astonishing that Goodwin, his mind clouded by the need to reach the predetermined conclusion, attaches more importance to Labour’s rule book than its social democratic policies.

The omissions are also glaring in other parts of Goodwin’s discussion. Goodwin argues that ‘Much of Britain’s media, like its politics, has … morphed into a highly educated caste, dominated by the new elite’ (120). Journalism ‘is now dominated by highly educated, often wealthy elites from privileged families, who have moved direct from an elite university into the newsroom and who are often united by their radically progressive views’ (123). The BBC is politically correct and unrepresentative; journalists are politically correct and unrepresentative; the voice of traditionalists is scarcely heard. But with the exception of brief mentions of right-wing television programs GB News and Talk TV, Goodwin has nothing to say about Britain’s right-wing media. After the free newspaper Metro, the staunchly right-wing Daily Mail has the highest circulation in the country. Goodwin does not mention right-wing radio. Nor does he mention press endorsements during the 2019 election. If he had, he would have been forced to say that most major newspapers either endorsed the Conservatives or refused to endorse the ‘radically progressive’ Labour Party – an odd situation, given the media is supposed to be run by radical progressives. Of Britain’s daily newspapers, the Daily Express, the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, The Sun, and The Times endorsed Goodwin’s ‘populist’ Tories. The Independent and the Financial Times endorsed neither party. Only two major newspapers, The Guardian and the Daily Mirror, endorsed Labour. Research has been published showing that during the 2019 election, ‘Labour … accumulated very high levels of negative press coverage for every week of the campaign’ – more so than the Tories. Jeremy Corbyn was the victim of more press vitriol than any other politician in recent memory. Perhaps Goodwin has an argument proving that ‘radical progressivism’ really is the dominant ideology of the British media. But he has barely made it, nor has he defended it against the most rudimentary objections imaginable.

Goodwin’s discussion of universities is marked by the same glaring omissions. He writes that ‘alternative voices are unwelcome in universities’ (128), but it is clear that by ‘alternative voices’ he means only those voices he is interested in listening to. One form of speech that has been routinely suppressed at universities has been support for Palestinian rights and criticism of Israel. Goodwin is not interested in this sort of speech, nor does it easily fit his view of radical progressive domination, so it is not one of his examples. In late 2020, for example, the government threatened universities with funding cuts if they refused to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism. The IHRA definition has been widely criticized for suppressing speech critical of Israel. But no matter: Goodwin is not a principled defender of free speech; he is a motivated reasoner. He is the sort of motivated reasoner who does not even make a pretense of concealing his dishonesty.

We have shown that Goodwin is a motivated reasoner – and not a very skilled one. When a writer is so obviously dishonest it is difficult to treat anything they say with seriousness. I will therefore be brief in my discussion of some of the rest of Goodwin’s errors.

Goodwin is a historical romantic. He believes that Britain once had a functional national democracy and that the old elite was superior to the new. Hence populist revolts ‘coincided with a new elite who appear less interested in upholding the strong sense of obligation to others, national belonging and ethical purpose which had characterised Britain’s leaders in years gone by’ (45). Furthermore, thanks to the Thatcherite-New Labour revolution, ‘in Britain and across the West policies were increasingly decided behind closed doors, through the interaction between political, corporate and financial elites who were more interested in representing the interests of the ruling class, big business and other global elites’ (48). The truth is that Britain has always been ruled by a class, and that this class has always been a minority of the population. Britain was once an aristocratic dictatorship; it is now a capitalist dictatorship. Universal suffrage did not bring about a democratic society: vast inequalities of wealth and therefore power persist. The neoliberal revolution aggravated some aspects of class domination, but it did not introduce class domination for the first time. Throughout most of British history the majority of people have been condemned to lives of drudgery.

Goodwin believes that hyper-globalization has caused ‘a decisive and permanent shift in favour of financial markets over nations’ with London being ‘transformed into a tax-haven for international investors who had lots of money but no sense of obligation to the wider national community’ (39). It is true: capitalism is an international system, and the interests of capitalists often prevail over the interests of workers in nations around the world. What Goodwin fails to understand is that there is no national solution to the problems caused by international capitalism. He thinks that the problems he discusses could be solved if only the elite would ‘reply, seriously, to the grievances that have been expressed’ (167) and ‘find their way to representing the values of the wider majority, recognising the voice of many people who feel excluded’ (183). This assumes that national governments have wide discretion to make policy. Britain has not suddenly regained its ‘sovereignty’ because it has left the European Union. Every government is under pressure to compete in the global market. Every government faces serious consequences if it frightens international investors or offends the global economic hegemon. There is no national solution to the economic difficulties of the twenty-first century: no national leadership, no matter how intelligent or virtuous, can beat back the forces of international economic and military compulsion. To forge a society governed by and for the majority – the working class – means abandoning nationalism and embracing internationalism.

Goodwin, trapped by his shameless dishonesty and careless thinking, has neither adequately diagnosed the problems of modern Britain, nor directed his readers to practical solutions.