The right-wing myth of Britain’s ‘liberal elite’

Warming up the audience at the Darlington hustings for the Conservative leadership on August 9th, Tom Newton Dunn as compere asked if Boris Johnson had been responsible for his own misfortune. Cries of ‘the media’ came back; and Liz Truss commented ‘Who am I to disagree with this excellent audience?’

Conservative activists thus showed their acceptance of the conspiratorial myth that enables Liz Truss to present herself as an insurgent against a dominant establishment. The idea of a dominant liberal elite, entrenched in the BBC, the civil service, universities and state schools, extending into the ‘lefty lawyers’ in the courts and the gatekeepers of cultural institutions and prizes, pops up regularly in Conservative speeches, Telegraph Op-Eds, and justifications for political reforms by Cabinet ministers. David Frost, now accepted by many on the hard right as an intellectual authority, has just published a paper for Policy Exchange (which describes itself as ‘Britain’s leading think tank) on ‘sustaining the Brexit Revolt’ which attributes the failure to make greater progress in breaking with collectivism and Europe since 2017 to the resistance of this entrenched elite – rather than the divisions within his adopted Conservative Party, or hard evidence of the irrationality of what they aimed to achieve.

Like many other aspects of our current right-wing revolt, belief in the malevolence of a dominant liberal elite has spread from across the Atlantic, reinforced by the counter-factual style of the Brexit campaign. Michael Gove was an early proponent. He labelled teachers and others who resisted his plans for educational reform as ‘the blob’: people reluctant to think outside the box, stuck in their ways, raising awkward issues of practicality and detail to slow down his vision for change. His famous dismissal of evidence – ‘we’ve had enough of experts’ – made it impossible to engage with him on reasoned grounds; faith and assertion took over. Farage also successfully portrayed himself as an outsider, talking the ‘common sense’ of the neglected ordinary voter against the sophisticated arguments of an over-educated elite. David Goodhart’s division of the country between ‘somewheres’ and ‘nowheres’, picked up and adopted by Theresa May, carried the same anti-intellectual message of right-wing populism.

‘They’ are patronising ‘you’ with over-complicated arguments; ‘we’ understand what ordinary people feel in their guts. I cannot be the only active Liberal to have hit the accusation that I’m being patronising when I have made reasoned arguments against radical breaks in domestic or international policy; I met it first when canvassing before the EU Referendum, and a Brexit-supporting Labour peer used it against me a few weeks ago.

The idea that a left-inclined elite still dominates our political and social life provides a convenient excuse for breaking the rules of constitutional behaviour and ignoring reasoned criticism. If lawyers are part of this intellectual conspiracy, then Boris Johnson was justified in standing up to the Supreme Court. In his parting Commons speech, he claimed that he had ‘seen off Brenda Hale’, not bothering to give the President of the Supreme Court her official title. If British universities are overwhelmingly left-wing, and ‘indoctrinate their students’, as the editor of the Sunday Telegraph has asserted, then academic criticism can be swept aside as hostile prejudice.

Liz Truss thus presents herself as an insurgent, against the conventional wisdom of Whitehall and the north London dinner tables of the liberal elite. On any rational calculation, this claim is absurd. The insurgents have on their side the Telegraph, the increasingly hysterical Daily Mail, the serried ranks of property billionaires and hedge fund magnates who fund the Conservative Party and its phalanx of think tanks, and of course the Murdoch press – pushing wilder conspiracy theories in the USA than in Britain, but feeding its readers and listeners here a diet of anti-BBC stories, examples of ‘wokery’, tales of left-wing university reading lists, liberally-minded bishops and other targets of the populist right. Yet the ‘cultural Marxists’, they protest, still manage to block their plans.

We need to work harder to ridicule this myth. It’s doubtful that its most skilled proponents really believe it; but those to whom they appeal soak the allegations in. It’s subversive of constitutional democracy. It’s peddled by wealthy and privileged people to discredit reasoned government and distract the disadvantaged. Populism is a powerful poison, with the potential to kill off liberal democracy.

* William Wallace has fought five parliamentary elections in Manchester and West Yorkshire. He is a former president of the Yorkshire regional Liberal Democrats.

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  • James Fowler 11th Aug '22 - 8:54pm

    I don’t think the we should ridicule the myth, partly because that defence plays precisely into the narrative populists want and partly because there is a certain amount of truth in the ‘liberal elite’ storyline which we do better to own and understand rather than just reject outright.

  • This article is asking the party to make the same mistakes that the Remain movement made both both during and after the EU Referendum campaign.

  • David Garlick 12th Aug '22 - 9:59am

    Superb article and far from asking us to ‘make the same mistakes’ it is showing us that we need to stand up for truth and fight for democracy.
    If we |liberal Democrats don’t do that we cannot complain at the right wing domination. Hence the slide into the divde where the ‘poor need handouts becuase they are workshy’ and the ‘rich are good guys making a profit and helping us all (themselves)’ .

  • Peter Watson 12th Aug '22 - 10:27am

    @James Fowler “there is a certain amount of truth in the ‘liberal elite’ storyline”
    I believe there’s a lot of truth in that statement! 🙂
    I don’t have the vocabulary to describe or name it, but there’s definitely something, an influential group (shared values and similar backgrounds rather than organised and conspiratorial) somewhere between the right-wing media’s characterisation of an elitist left-wing conspiracy and this article’s dismissal of it as a myth.
    Educated and affluent with a London-bias, socially and economically liberal yet also conservative and very dogmatic on some issues, … “Metropolitan liberal elite” is used pejoratively, but perhaps it does describe people who, although well-intentioned, have a background and world-view that is very different from the wider population to whom they can often appear condescending and even intolerant. That difference provides the gap that right-wing populists can exploit. I don’t know what the solution is, but I suspect it is better to acknowledge and address it somehow, rather than deny its existence.

  • William Wallace 12th Aug '22 - 2:33pm

    Responses to populism are difficult to judge – because the essence of populism is to reject reasoned argument, and to blame elites (often portrayed as plotting against the common people) for their discontents. Dismissing ‘the mainstream media’ as inherently biased and leftist enables Fox News and populist websites to discredit the evidence and arguments they present; Tory attacks on ‘the media’ in the UK as leftist implies that the BBC is the establishment, and the Mail, Sun, Times and Telegraph are somehow outside the circle of privilege that they attack. Opening up our over-centralised politics, reviving local democracy, investing much more in education, and tackling the roots of inequality have to be central parts of a liberal response.

  • Reason why “Ridicule” is such a toxic concept in politics is that nobody is won around by being insulted. When you ridicule an idea, people who believe that idea or even think that the idea may have some merit also think they are being ridiculed. This caused them to either become more entrenched in their views or if they were wavering become more receptive to the idea.

    Also as Brexit debate shows, it doesn’t matter whether the party considers that it is insulting the electorate, if the electorate considers they are being insulted then that is the end of the matter when it comes to the ballot box.

    Ridicule of idea can only backfire. Rebuttal in a respectful way is the way forward.

  • James Fowler 13th Aug '22 - 9:10am

    I don’t like populism at all, but the whole issue needs to be handled a lot more carefully than it has been these past 20 years or so. Blanket rubbishing of the concerns of a significant proportion of the population is neither wise nor tolerant, and it’s played into the hands of Farage and Trump whose tone of injured petulance is infuriating, but gains traction in the face of superior and self righteous dismissal.

    Much of populism is wrong and vicious, but the well springs are desperation and loss. Some of this is intangible, some of it is the retreat of former and unjustifiable privileges, but some of it is real and unfair. We (liberal elitists!) would to well carefully pick it apart and show that we are prepared to discuss it.

  • It is also worth remembering that populism and illiberalism can come from the left as well as the right.

    Liberals need to stand up for core values of individual rights, the rule of law, freedom of expression and so on recognising that hostility to these values comes from both ends of the spectrum.

  • I feel the most important weapon against populism is drawing attention to ‘inconvenient truths’ which deflate those who peddle unsustainable myths.

    Local campaigns are a good way to do this. It’s quite interesting that in South Thanet there’s been a demonstration outside the office of Craig MacKinley MP reported in the local media. He has a history of climate change denial. This comes at a time when some will also have noticed that Suella Braverman has accepted donations from a wealthy denier.

    If you look at the clip that shows the demonstration, you will note it is dominated by people calling for socialism and socialist solutions. I suspect many local residents (I am not one, incidentally) will be put off by this. However, some will notice that Ed Davey got there before Keir Starmer in calling for no energy price rises this Autumn and producing a costed proposal to show how this could be done.

    There must be many constituencies where we can come through the middle, so to speak, between Tory Brexiteer enthusiasts like Braverman and MacKinley, and left-wing populism. We also know we can do local campaigns well.

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