The UK populist right has to be defeated or democracy will be trashed
Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics, by Matthew Goodwin, Penguin Press £10.99.
Reviewed by Gerry Hassan
The state of UK politics is not pretty, which is true of many Western countries. The conventional tropes of the mainstream, left, right and centre, have conspicuously failed. In their places have emerged the insurgent populism of an uber-right which the forces of the moderate left and liberals have yet to find an adequate answer to – or even seem to fully comprehend the threat of.
The past few days have seen the National Conservatism conference in central London run by the Edmund Burke Foundation: a Washington based right-wing think-tank. Its array of speakers included two sitting Cabinet ministers: Suella Braverman and Michael Gove, alongside Jacob Rees-Mogg, Douglas Murray, Eric Kaufman and Matthew Goodwin.
Many outlandish things were said which we should take notice of because this is the future face of the right in Britain and elsewhere, and potentially the Conservative Party. Unapologetic neo-con Douglas Murray lamented that German nationalism had tarnished and embarrassed the advocacy of a British nationalism because ‘the Germans mucked up twice in a century’ – an offensive way to describe the First and Second World War and Holocaust.
Tory MP Danny Kruger warned of the influence of ‘the dystopian fantasy of John Lennon’ in the 43rd year after his death; fellow Tory MP Marian Cates railed against the low UK birth rate, blaming ‘cultural Marxism’ and ‘excessive education’: anything but the Tory Government and the ideological dogmas it and she represents.
Academic Eric Kaufman claimed that three-quarters of school students in the UK knew about ‘systematic racism’ and ‘white supremacy; while Kevin Roberts of the US Heritage Foundation spoke of ‘the woke industrial complex’ who have apparently taken over Silicon Valley and business.
One of the star turns was UK academic Matthew Goodwin who claimed that the past 50 years have seen an unprecedented revolution in the UK imposed on people against their will by the left. Goodwin is the populist right’s academic of choice, but it seems to have escaped his notice that in the past half century right-wing Tory Governments have been in office for three-quarters of the time.
Goodwin’s latest book is Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics where he sets out at length his case for what has gone wrong in the UK, the forces who have brought this about, and the discontent it has engendered which has led to amongst many things Brexit and the Tory 2019 election victory. Whatever we think of Goodwin’s take and its shortcomings it needs to be taken seriously and countered as it is informing the populist politics of the right in the UK.
Goodwin opens the book: ‘British politics is coming apart. The symptoms of this crisis are all around: widespread disillusionment with politicians in Westminster, a growing sense of despair with the direction of the country, a fragmented UK …’: the latter one of the few references to the multi-national nature of the UK.
He charges that a new elite – very different from the old – have seized control of the UK – writing: ‘Britain’s new ruling class look and sound very different from the old elite who dominated the country during the 20th century.’
He continues: ‘Decades ago, the country was run by upper-class aristocrats, landowners and industrialists who were united by their hereditary titles, their wealth, and importantly, their instinctively conservative values.’ While conceding that this group still exists, he believes they have been superseded by a ‘new elite’ bound by their Oxbridge or Russell Group university education, cultural power and control of key public institutions such as the BBC.
The problems with the Goodwin thesis
This is where problems with Goodwin’s analysis begin. For a start he conflates a ‘new elite’ with a ‘ruling class’, never offering a definition of the latter, or how this class supposedly rules when faced with successive right-wing Conservative Governments. As seriously, he conflates the dominant UK political trends of the past five decades with its capture by the ‘new elite ’who have ‘imposed on the rest of the country a political revolution which has completely changed Britain’.
He writes of three major trends over this period – hyper-globalisation, mass immigration and the hollowing out of national democracy as power shifted to supernational bodies; of Thatcherism’s ‘radical economic liberalism’ and Blair’s ‘radical cultural liberalism’; which has then resulted in ‘left and right converged on the same political territory, becoming indistinguishable.’
This sweeping account of recent times is despite the dominance of Conservative Governments the product of a ‘radically progressive’ elite. Thatcherism is critiqued for the economic dislocation it created; similarly Trussonomics is given short shift.
But Goodwin lacks any subtlety about differing elite perspectives – lumping Thatcherism, New Labour and Cameron-Sunak Conservatism as embodying the ‘new elite’, ignoring that a period so dominated by Conservative Governments and ideas can hardly be described as ‘progressive’, while different priorities and changes in that elite are mostly unexplored.
Missing in the Goodwin analysis, apart from the dismissal of Trussonomics, is an understanding of the uber-right-wing ideological offensive to take Thatcherism onto the next stage – privatisation, marketisation and the hollowing out of the state. Or the contradictions on the right between a free market libertarian approach and that of the new authoritarians: a divide that was apparent in Thatcherism in the 1980s, but which has only grown larger.
Hence Goodwin’s ‘elite’ includes ‘newspaper editors’ and ‘think-tankers’, but you will not find a mention of Paul Dacre, Murdoch or the Barclay brothers. Nor the increasingly hysterical right-wing press or right-wing think-tanks such as the Institute of Economic Affairs or Taxpayers’ Alliance – despite their role in the disaster of Trussonomics and the fact that they have not gone away.
There is a curt rejection of concerns about forces threatening democracy. Peter Geoghegan’s Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics (2020) is cited: ‘We know that millions and millions of pounds were spent on Facebook ads in the 2016 Brexit referendum’ and dismissed as about ‘the supposed role of dark money’. This is apparently a ‘fashionable narrative’, and not worthy of serious consideration. How suspiciously ‘elitist’ of Goodwin!
The selectivity of Goodwin’s take undermines his case, but it is true that UK politics did experience a dramatic realignment which fed and then brought about Brexit and the post-Brexit Conservative 2019 victory. But as Sunder Katwala has pointed out, Goodwin is talking about a Britain already in the past – the realignment of 2016-19 which Boris Johnson’s personal shortcomings and the inherent contradictions of Toryism and Brexit blew apart.
Goodwin does mention in passing: the ‘backlash against the backlash’ – the rise of Keir Starmer’s Labour, Lib Dems, Greens and SNP, but that is all mentioned without any analysis. And certainly Green politics, environmental causes and climate change, do not figure at all in any serious way in the entire book.
Is this book really about Britain or England?
That is not the only omission in a book with the subtitle: The New British Politics. In its 240 pages it contains not one single sentence on Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Hence it excludes Scotland’s 2014 indyref, or the rise of Sinn Fein and issue of Irish reunification – both amplified by Brexit and the right-wing populism he has addressed over years.
Goodwin it turns out is not really talking about ‘British politics’ on populism. Rather he is talking about English populism. Critically and unstated, Goodwin poses this English populism as speaking for and representing Britain, without noting the fissures and tensions that brings forth.
Such serious oversights have not stopped Goodwin elsewhere weighing in and commenting on Scottish politics – alongside numerous other commentary pieces. In the Sunday Times recently he itemised the failings of the SNP and called their dominance ‘a one-party state’. This was oblivious to Scotland having a PR-elected Parliament, the SNP’s lack of an overall majority, or their agreement with the Greens in government.
Itemising a list of deep-seated policy issues which scar Scotland such as poor life expectancy and health inequalities, Goodwin puts all the blame for this on the SNP ‘because only one party has controlled the country since 2007.’ All aided by ‘no serious opposition, a largely compliant media – including a supine BBC’ and ‘a left-leaning chattering class.’ Clearly he hasn’t read the Scottish Daily Mail or some of the many right-leaning chattering class!
Similarly he chides the SNP for their ‘populism’– the very characteristic he has spent his time studying and expressed admiration of its right-wing English articulation around Farage and Boris Johnson. Double standards abound here as Goodwin is silent in all his writings on the Tories winning the 2019 election on 44% of the vote giving them a parliamentary majority of 80 seats – and the perils of ‘one-party state’ politics at Westminster.
The Goodwin analysis matters because we are living in an age of disruption which shows no sign of ending, while alongside this the forces of right-wing populism will not go away anytime soon. The National Conservative conference, along with a host of advocates such as Goodwin and others, show that there is an orchestrated attempt to advance the Trumpisation of British Conservatism and UK politics.
Goodwin has little of substance to say on the state of the economy and poor wages, and on employment conditions and endemic poverty as a contribution to dissatisfaction. Rather it suits his validation of right-wing populism to prioritise ‘culture war’ issues and charge that an out of touch liberal elite do not care about working class or north of England concerns.
In his journey of recent years, Goodwin has gone from an observer to active participant. As Sunder Katwala’s Literary Review assessment of the book noted this is ‘more in the style of a prosecuting barrister than a dispassionate judge, for this is a book as much of advocacy as analysis’ and in Will Hutton’s similar take in The Observer Goodwin has become ‘an active right-wing advocate.’
In the UK as across the West there is a right-wing assault on democracy, social and human rights, and an attempt to hijack how public conversations happen and what can and cannot be discussed by attacking traditional institutions such as the BBC and creating new ideological media platforms such as GB News.
Hutton commented that a ‘coup needs useful intellectuals’ and Goodwin is one of the leading advocates for the trashing of what is precious about democracy and the values people care about. It is not hyperbole to call this a ‘coup’ – not in the hard Trumpian sense of violently assaulting democracy, but in the slow Trumpian manner of incrementally eroding, then destroying, the way politics and power are undertaken to aid the uber-right.
In so doing, facts are trashed, the rule of law and due process seen as conspiracy theories, and elections where the right loses portrayed as ‘rigged’ and ‘stolen’. This is about the naked brutal assertion of power and authoritarianism and in this the common ground with fascism is evident and alarming.
We need to wake up fast, start addressing and taking action on the big issues and challenging the ideological assault of the right and their apologists. The new authoritarians believe that the future belongs to them and they can sense the weakness and decline in the institutions of Western societies.
The forces of the ultra-right are out to launch what they see as a moral crusade in the UK, US and across the West, to undermine fundamental rights, protect the entitled rich and privileged, stigmatise the poor, immigrants and marginal voices in society, and do so while undermining and trashing democracy. Academics such as Matthew Goodwin have become willing accomplices in this hard right project.
Resisting this onslaught is going to be one of the main political struggles of our time. It cannot be undertaken by the forces of centrist liberalism, the ‘near-left’ of Blair and Starmer, or the traditional clarion calls of the oppositionalist left. Economist Ann Pettifor observed after the National Conservative event and threat it poses: ‘What is striking is the sound of silence on radical solutions offered by the left of the political spectrum. A silence that makes the far right’s appeal resonate far more loudly than it should.’
Such a dangerous politics of the right has to be met by a much more ambitious political programme which addresses greater democratisation and voice, the crises of our time, and poses a different future to the mainstream managerialism of left and right. That involves building social movements, constituencies and platforms, and developing a political project which answers the multiple crises of our time.
Goodwin’s book is a warning of the attempt to normalise such views and present them as the new mainstream – a goal which he has already succeeded in such is the rightward lurch of British Conservatism, mainstream media and politics.