Rise of the New Elite
How Britain's new ruling class lost touch with the country
This is essay is drawn from material in my new book, Values Voice and Virtue, which was released last Thursday and is available here.
Britain is in the grip of a new elite, which has been rapidly losing touch with the rest of the country, setting the stage for a looming backlash among the masses.
If you want to understand why, over the last decade, Britain was radically reshaped by the rise of Nigel Farage’s national populism, Brexit and the post-Brexit realignment, symbolised by Boris Johnson, then you need to make sense of this elite.
Britain has always had an out-of-touch elite, of course. Henry Fairlie first talked about “the Establishment” in the 1950s, an Old Boys network of wealthy, right-leaning elites in the City who fill the Tory donor class and private members’ clubs on Pall Mall.
The old elite -clearly- still exist. It continues to wield enormous power over politics and the economy. But today, in Britain, as in many other Western democracies, the axis of power is now rapidly tilting toward a new ruling class —one that overlaps with the old elite but is distinct from it in important, under-appreciated ways.
Whereas the old elite was mainly defined by its wealth, inherited titles, estates, “small C” cultural values and, often, though not always, its lack of university education, the members of the new middle-class professional elite are defined by different things.
They were swept forward, mainly, by the rapid expansion of the universities, by their elite education at one of the most prestigious Oxbridge or Russell Group universities which, like them, have swung sharply leftwards over the past half century.
Whereas back in the 1960s left-wing academics outnumbered right-wing academics by a ratio of three to one, today it’s closer to eight to one, a symbol of how both the universities and the graduates they produce have increasingly swung left.
Unlike the right-leaning old middle-class and the Tory elite, over the last ten years the new middle-class graduate elite has shifted behind the Labour Party and other liberal left parties, such as the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, or the Greens.
In fact, had only Britain’s graduate class been eligible to vote at the last election, in 2019, then Jeremy Corbyn would currently be prime minister. And this shift is now being compounded by generational change; ask Millennial graduates how they voted at the last election and only one in five will say the Tories.
The rise of the new elite, then, reflects the rise of a powerful new ‘education divide’ in Britain and other Western democracies, a deep-rooted rift which is now pushing the elite graduate minority and the non-graduate majority firmly apart —economically, politically, culturally, and geographically.
Economically, the new elite are fond of portraying themselves as the oppressed and disadvantaged, the underdogs who are railing against the ‘real’ elite. But the reality is quite different. More often than not, they have been the real winners of globalisation and the transition toward a post-industrial knowledge-based economy.
For much of the last half century, the new elite, whose families often descend from the professional and managerial classes, benefitted far more than others from the shift toward a university-based meritocracy —a system which has increasingly whittled down the definition of ‘success’ to mean having a degree from the right university.
Shaped by their privileged family backgrounds, their educational qualifications, and their much greater ‘cultural capital’ —gained from their more immersive experiences in the Oxbridge and Russell Group college system— the new elite hoovered up most of the gains from Britain’s embrace of hyper-globalisation and a political economy which was rebuilt around them, which both demanded and rewarded their skills.
They’ve benefitted culturally, too. After flooding into the creative, cultural, knowledge and public sector institutions, becoming a new “epistemic class” which creates, filters and determines what is or what is not acceptable or desirable within the national conversation, the new elite watched the prevailing culture be completely reshaped around their far more socially liberal values, tastes, political priorities, and interests.
Increasingly, when they’ve looked out at the institutions and what they create -the television programmes, films, adverts, books, museums, galleries, columns, and the national conversation more broadly- they’ve seen their worldview staring back at them while millions of others struggle to recognise their worldview at all.
This is why the rise of Nigel Farage, Brexit, Trump, and Boris were so visibly traumatic and bewildering for the new elite. Until then, this culturally isolated and politically insulated group had largely had everything their own way.
At the same time, as academics have shown, their very status as highly educated, high-flying, liberal graduates has become central to their collective identity, giving them a powerful new sense of “class consciousness”, encouraging them to look down on the less well educated or the rising number of graduates from less prestigious institutions.
Increasingly, over the last decade, this has been driving what Michael Sandel calls the ‘politics of humiliation’, a palpable sense among millions of ordinary voters that they are now being cut adrift by a highly educated elite which not only hoovered up the economic gains but often rigged the system to favour their own group over others.
Whether reflected in the new elite bribing their way into America’s prestigious Ivy League colleges, the finding in Britain that it was mainly the children of the new elite who benefitted from the expansion of universities, or the repeated failure of the elite universities to devote anywhere near as much effort to helping children from the white working-class as they devote to those from minority backgrounds (as recently symbolised by Cambridge ignoring left behind white kids altogether), this sense that the deck has been rigged for the new elite has pushed many into populism.
And geographically, too, the new elite has been drifting away from much of the rest of the country, hunkering down in elite enclaves which is compounding these divides. Aside from their degrees, members of the new elite are also defined by their postcodes in the most affluent or trendy districts in London, the big cities and university towns.
They’ve consolidated their power not only by living in the most dynamic and prosperous epicentres of the economy, benefitting from buoyant housing markets and higher rates of growth, but are also more likely to marry other members of the elite graduate class while unfriending, blocking, and distancing themselves from people who do not belong to this class or who hold different political beliefs and values.
Almost half of all university students who graduate with a first-class or 2:1 degree from one of the most prestigious Oxbridge or the Russell Group are living in London within six months of graduating, while many others flock into the same parts of south Manchester, Bristol, Brighton, Sheffield. Increasingly, as much research shows, this is pushing apart the thriving, metropolitan and diverse centres from what geographer Christophe Guilluy, who forecast the rise of the Yellow Vests, calls “the periphery”.
It’s in Britain’s declining towns, rural areas and coastal communities, the areas filled with workers, non-graduates and pensioners which the new elite deride as “Little England” or “going nowhere” — where the backlash against them is strongest.
One reason why Labour lost the last election so heavily is precisely because the party, dominated by the new elite, had spent much of the preceding twenty years doubling down on the values and the voice of the new elite while ignoring the periphery.
This is underlined by the fact that, even today, the party has still not won the popular vote across non-London England since 2001, or that Labour strategists now openly confess they did not even bother to hold focus groups and speak to voters in many of these areas for close to twenty years. They just weren’t considered important.
This is not just about Labour, however. In recent years, the growing power and reach of the new elite has been just as visible on the right of politics, reflected in the likes of of Anna Soubry, Dominic Grieve, Sarah Wollaston, and many other culturally left conservatives who either opposed Brexit or now feel completely at ease with very high immigration, hyper-globalisation, and key aspects of radical progressivism.
Consistently, as surveys show, many of Britain’s MPs on both the right and left lean much further to the cultural left than millions of voters in the country, refusing to represent, recognise and sometimes even respect people who hold different values to the socially and economically liberal consensus which tends to dominate Westminster.
And now, today, it’s this deep and growing rift between the elite graduate class and everybody else which is giving rise to three new fault lines which have been reshaping our politics and country over the past decade and will almost certainly drive more unrest in the years ahead unless we can find a way of closing them.
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