Skip to content

Debating the New Elite

A Prospect magazine debate at Conway Hall pitched the Anywheres, represented by former Times columnist David Aaronovitch, against the Somewheres, represented by postliberal academic Matthew Goodwin.

· 6 min read
Debating the New Elite
David Aaronovitch (left) and Matthew Goodwin onstage at Conway Hall (image: Alan Rusbridger/Twitter)

During a debate last week on populism at London’s Conway Hall, the name of David Goodhart was invoked more than once. Goodhart worked as a journalist at the Financial Times for over a decade before establishing Prospect magazine in 1995 and serving as its editor until 2010. In 2013, he published his first book, The British Dream—a provocative examination of the successes and failures of immigration policy, which attracted harshly critical reviews from the intellectual circles in which its author moved, not to mention accusations of racism from those who either misunderstood or misrepresented his arguments (or both).

After Brexit, Goodhart found popular fame with his 2017 book, The Road to Somewhere, in which he described the world, or at least the European part of it, as divided between the Anywheres and the Somewheres. The former are cosmopolitans who see the nation as a malleable institution with inconvenient borders to be transcended wherever possible, especially by commerce; the latter live a life more closely defined by place, family, friendship circles, and occupation. The conceptual division Goodhart identified is now routinely referenced to show a nodding acquaintanceship with a social problem: Anywhere and Somewhere people are used, all but universally, to describe a fundamental schism at the heart of the Western world.

The Anywheres, overwhelmingly drawn from the more affluent end of society, still determine most of our politics, economy, and social relations. The Somewheres, for their part, have become more restive, and trade unions are showing signs of growth following a long decline, while the new far-Right parties report, in many cases, that the bulk of their supporters are from the working class. The Anywheres tend to be the highly educated, the Somewheres less so. In his 2020 book The Tyranny of Merit, American philosopher Michael Sandel describes a US similarly divided, in which the Anywheres increasingly define personal and institutional progress by “aligning worldly success with moral deservingness,” while large numbers of the Somewheres continue to service their needs.

Goodhart had found a phrase that seemed to describe one of the essential features of the modern West—a great gash dividing the rich from the poor, high from low status, and comfortable affluence from relative hardship. Citizens may be equal in the abstract quality of their citizenship, but they are unequal in the homes and places in which they can afford to live. It is from the latter cohort that Donald Trump and other populists draw much of their support. “For seven years,” Trump told an entranced crowd in Georgia earlier this year, “we’ve been engaged in an epic struggle to rescue our country from the sinister forces within who hate it. … And on November 5th, 2024, we’re going to stand up to the corrupt political establishment.”

The Conway Hall event convened to debate these matters was organised by Prospect (now helmed by former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger), and joined by two vividly argumentative men. On one side, postliberal polemicist Matthew Goodwin, a professor of political science in his early 40s, and on the other, liberal writer and broadcaster David Aaronovitch, now in his late 60s.

Goodwin believes that British society is divided between an out-of-touch ruling elite of Anywheres, who help themselves to the best places in the universities, the media, the government, the civil service, publishing, NGOs, the main state institutions, and increasingly, corporations. Such people, Goodwin told the audience, don’t see themselves as an elite, but rather as radicals dedicated to change. Nevertheless, they have “the same social and liberal beliefs, they are usually graduates of one of the Russell Group universities, and they often come from privileged backgrounds.” Though dominant, they “no longer understand what other people are thinking,” so instead, they create, broadcast, or follow policies which bolster their own position, while stridently policing the speech and tastes of working- and lower-middle-class people, determining “what is and what is not okay to talk about.”

As a theorist, Goodwin now stands accused of crossing an academic line. No longer content to merely explain and analyse the New Right’s “populist” parties and movements (as he did in National Populism, the book he co-authored with Roger Eatwell in 2018), Goodwin increasingly behaves like a would-be spokesman for populism itself. That charge is difficult to deny (and when Aaronovitch made it during the debate, Goodwin didn’t try). National Populism eschewed the politically loaded language that Goodwin now routinely employs when speaking about migration controls and the fondness for strong families and Christianity that are part of most of the New Right parties’ political offering. He’s now a nearly full-time, passionate, and committed polemicist, talking to political parties and corporations (such as Santander), posting on Twitter and his Substack, and participating in public debates like this one. His students at the University of Kent must see precious little of him. Besides, most of his fellow academics, who are heavily biased to the Left, see him as an ideological enemy.

Aaronovitch, on the other hand, is at once a more singular and more familiar figure in the media-intellectual world than Goodwin (though both men are part of the “chattering classes” and both would dislike being so described). He has spent his professional life working all over the British media establishment, including lengthy stints at the Guardian and the Times (from which he was recently fired after 18 years). He continues to host The Briefing Room on BBC Radio 4 and he writes for a range of magazines. In that respect, he is similar to other high-profile, high-output journalists like Andrew Marr and Matthew Parris.

But Aaronovitch grew up in a family entirely devoted to working for the Communist Party—his father was a leading member, and for eight years, the National Cultural Organiser. He initially followed in his father’s political footsteps before breaking away to liberal centre-leftism, where he still resides today. His 2015 memoir Party Animals told the story of a family who lived according to the dictates of meetings, demonstrations, and electioneering. These were people, I observed in a review for the FT, who “lived in Britain’s capital but were militantly not of it: they saw their country as imperialist, aggressively capitalist and with a Labour Party drawn rightward in betrayal of the socialism it proclaimed.”

Aaronovitch retains something of the Party-educated sniffer of reactionaries about him, and he maintains that Goodwin is constructing a fantasy. The new elite, he protested, does not command society in the vaguely conspiratorial form Goodwin proposes. On the contrary, if there is a new elite, it is to be found on the right of the Conservative party, where he believes Goodwin has found (or hopes to find) a new political home. He also pointed out that Goodwin’s inclusion of teachers in the new elite covers many thousands of men and women whose incomes are quite modest, which is hardly the mark of an elite.

A longstanding supporter of relaxed controls on immigration, Aaronovitch ducked a question about what he regards as a reasonable net level, dismissing as temporary the estimate of 600,000 net immigrants this year because it will certainly drop in the future. Goodwin, by contrast, said that if present trends continue over the next 10–15 years, the British immigrant population would grow to 10 times that of a city the size of Birmingham (1.15m). If that prediction is realised, it will no doubt be used to lend credence to Le Grand Remplacement theory developed by the French writer Renaud Camus in 2011. Most Muslim immigrants, Camus argued, openly display their disdain for France and wish to destroy or fundamentally change it from within, and their entry into the country had been promoted by self-serving elites.

The debate was an enjoyable spectacle, and often witty, especially on Aaronovitch’s side. Goodwin had the initiative because he was proposing a dynamically changing state of affairs, while Aaronovitch’s response was to say, in various different ways, “You must be joking!” Interestingly, Aaronovitch, the former communist and present left-leaner, frequently found himself defending the status quo, while Goodwin, the allegedly would-be Tory, demanded radical change on behalf of a neglected working class. In that sense, the encounter provided a microcosm of the way in which the debate is pitched to society at large—a growing number of people on the Left and the Right believe that British society is fundamentally unequal and unfair, while their opponents reject their concerns as a product of paranoia and resentment not thoughtful analysis.

At one point, Aaronovitch seemed to imply that Goodwin’s positions were motivated by personal chippiness, when he pointed out that Goodwin neither teaches at nor attended one of the Russell Group universities he says provide a training ground for the new elites. It was a cheap point, but it appeared to receive some support after the debate. “One of the more amusing aspects of last night's debate w @DAaronovitch & @arusbridger,” Goodwin complained on Twitter the following day, “is they all went for dinner afterwards and didn't even bother to invite me, despite me giving up my time for free to help make Prospect Magazine money! Classic New Elite.”

John Lloyd

John Lloyd was the FT’s Moscow correspondent from 1991–95. He is co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and his forthcoming book is about the rise of the New Right in Europe.

Latest Podcast

Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.


On Instagram @quillette