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A review of Matt Goodwin’s Values, Voice and Virtue
In Values, Voice and Virtue, Matt Goodwin argues that a liberal ‘new elite’ dominates Britain, the values and interests of this elite conflicting with those of working classes. Since last week’s publication, the book has proved controversial, liberals arguing that the thesis is exaggerated and paranoid.
As readers of this Substack know, I have a longstanding interest in such issues, being critical of developments in progressive ideology. In the lively style which characterized his excellent work on populism, Goodwin makes important points. But this book has problems.
Primarily, Values, Voice and Virtue suffers from its vague definition. Goodwin tells us that the new elite have ‘university degrees from one of the prestigious Oxbridge or Russell Group universities… financially secure if not prosperous professional and managerial jobs… urban postcodes in London… parents and partners who belong to the same elite graduate class… [a] loud and dominant voice in the country’s most important institutions… [and] strongly liberal cosmopolitan or radically progressive values’.
This is too broad. Eliding several categories, Goodwin fails to engage with key debates on these different groups. For example, Goodwin’s main target seems to be socio-cultural professionals, this class being employed in sectors such as healthcare, education and the arts and tending to have left-liberal political values. Yet Goodwin engages little with the detailed academic work on socio-cultural professionals (or other groups), entailing lack of focus.
This imprecision creates further problems. Goodwin associates the new elite with neoliberal economics, emphasizing New Labour’s implementation of such measures and the gains of new elites at the expense of workers. As he put it in a recent Sun article, new elites ‘hoover up the economic gains of globalisation’.
This is problematic. Socio-cultural professionals tend to be economic left-wingers, opposing neoliberalism. Whilst there can be tensions between the economic preferences of socio-cultural professionals and working classes – for socio-cultural professionals, redistributive policies can be of secondary importance – one can scarcely blame socio-cultural professionals for neoliberalism. Goodwin might assert that different parts of the new elite supported neoliberalism, yet this brings us back to the viability of the definition.
The definition creates other problems. Many of us worry about the influence of social justice ideology - this emphasizes identity, emotional safety and state oppressiveness – because it lies in tension with traditional liberalism. Yet Goodwin’s broad definition entails the grouping of liberals with supporters of social justice ideology and he seldom considers the differences between the positions. Ironically, this conflation echoes the position of progressives who deny a conflict between social justice ideology and liberalism.
Deeper consideration of the interplay between economic pressures and political values tells a more interesting story. To a great extent, socio-cultural professionals have been victims of the economic processes from which Goodwin argues new elites have benefited. Data from the American National Election Study (ANES) suggest a strong link between social justice attitudes and the belief that economic conditions are poor. Lack of relevant questions in panel studies precludes similar analysis of British voters – recently, I submitted a request for such questions to the British Election Study (BES) - but there may well be a similar relationship.
Certainly, critics of socio-cultural professionals and progressive ideology will agree with many points. As Goodwin notes, the position of white working classes has deteriorated, this scarcely registering on progressive radars. Atmospheres in socio-cultural sectors can be censorious and asphyxiating. There are discrepancies between the values of socio-cultural professionals and those of the wider population.
Yet emphasis on these points can feel one-sided. As Goodwin’s critics note, conservative elites have dominated politics in recent years, being in government and carrying out Brexit. There is little concession that socio-cultural professionals can play a positive role; beyond their commitment to equal opportunities, BES data show that these voters tend to be more committed to liberal-democratic values such as the separation of powers. Remarks about certain individuals feel too personal, Goodwin’s recent newspaper articles also taking this approach.
We need analysis of socio-cultural professionals and progressive ideology. But this book could do more to meet this need and sets up strawmen.
Recently, Goodwin has offered to debate his critics. He may not wish to engage with me – my profile is minor and I agree with him on many things – but I would be happy to discuss these issues.
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