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Home Opinion Understanding the 'middling majority'
Britain's cosmopolitan future

Understanding the 'middling majority'

David Goodhart - 30 July 2015

It is a mistake to conflate ‘mainstream’ and ‘metropolitan’ liberalism. Politicians should ignore the cultural anxieties of the average voter at their peril

First of all congratulations to Jeremy Cliffe for challenging, in his paper Britain’s cosmopolitan future, the standard ‘lurch-to-the-right’ account of Britain’s 2015 election. He makes the best possible case for this election being a sort of last spasm of socially conservative views before the forward march of Economist-style metropolitan liberalism is resumed.

But his vision is both undesirable and, thankfully, unachievable. Cosmopolitan means citizen of the world but if everyone is my brother (or sister) then no one is, and my actual brother – or fellow citizen – becomes less special to me. Yet the paradox of cosmopolitanism is that it actually requires the existence of distinct national cultures that the cosmopolite can flit between.

But Cliffe's liberalism is not just illogical it is far too narrow. His picture of a rootless, laissez-faire, hyper-individualistic, London-like future driven forward by the expanding cohorts of graduates and ethnic minorities does not correspond to the way most people live or want to live.

That does not make them reactionaries. The fact that more than 50 per cent of those who voted backed the Conservatives or the United Kingdom Independence party was a decisive vote against metropolitan liberalism but not against everyday liberalism. The middling majority of the electorate might be described as ‘conflicted liberals’. They are opposed to large-scale immigration (as people tend to be everywhere) and suspicious of the centralising and anti-national tendencies of the EU. They often come from the more rooted and middling sections of society, from small towns, suburbia and former industrial areas, places that sometimes feel the national story has passed them by. They do not share the progressive individualist world view of the mobile, graduate elite, but they are not illiberal. Most of them think that their country is a better place for the advances in sex and race equality of recent decades (and many have benefitted personally), but also think that somewhere along the way we have lost a sense of moral community and common sense.

This modern mainstream voter is a political mongrel: hostile to unearned wealth and unjustified hierarchies, increasingly individualistic, suspicious of authority, comfortable with abroad and supportive of equal rights. But such views are often combined with more conservative or communitarian intuitions: most people are suspicious of rapid change, want to live in stable communities, think people should take responsibility for themselves, prefer relatively traditional families and without being flag-waving nationalists think that national citizen preference matters. They also generally want a narrower and more conditional welfare state and worry that some ethnic minorities remain too separate from the mainstream. Most are not opposed to gay marriage and similar causes but think that metropolitan liberals give them too high a priority. They are in the main what I call "post-liberal" – they want, in other words, a more balanced and rooted form of politics that embraces the tolerance and individualism of modern life without neglecting tradition and community.

What we are dealing with here is an argument between two different strands of liberalism – “metropolitan” on the one hand and “mainstream” on the other – based partly on the different lifestyles, experiences and interests of, on the one hand the upper-professional class (over-represented in politics and the media), and on the other hand the numerically larger but less influential ordinary voter of middle or lower income with an average level of education.

Of course, on many big political and economic issues the argument over varieties of liberalism does not arise. This is because the issues are either essentially technocratic, say, how best to manage the energy market, or because they remain strongly subject to left v right priorities, for example how much to tax the rich or how large a budget deficit is acceptable. But there is one very big reason why, in recent years, metropolitan liberalism has been losing ground to mainstream liberalism: metropolitan liberalism is invariably a cheerleader for restless change. When change seems to benefit everyone the conflict between the two liberalisms recedes but when change does not seem to benefit everyone or happens too quickly mainstream liberalism finds a voice and punishes those parties that have the least understanding of the cultural anxieties of the average voter – at the last election Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

What about Cliffe’s favourable social trends and the social groups that will ride to the rescue of metropolitan liberalism? He either exaggerates their importance or misreads them.

On national identity, for example, there has been a welcome decline in crude chauvinism (and racially exclusive definitions of Britishness) but a large majority remains proud to be British and new narratives are being invented to express that pride in modern ways, combining both ethnic and civic factors, as Jeremy himself admits in highlighting the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony.

On mobility, Jeremy talks about “churning Britain” and it is true that in many of our largest cities there are areas where more than half the population changes every five years. But much of that is temporary churn due to large student populations or immigrant landing places. Most people, most of the time, live quite settled lives, especially when young or old or bringing up a family: nearly three-quarters of UK-born people live within 50 miles of where they lived when aged 14 and 60 per cent live within 20 miles.

And Britain’s ethnic minorities are going to be a terrible disappointment to Jeremy because far from carrying the spirit of the new cosmopolitanism they are in fact rather fond of the “flag, faith and family” ideals that he disparages. With some exceptions British minorities, especially south Asians, are much more religious and family-oriented than the average white Brit and rather less feminist. They also identify strongly as British and are not even very keen on mass immigration – 60 per cent of UK-born ethnic minorities think that immigration has been too high or far too high, compared with 80 per cent of the White British population. No wonder the last election saw a significant shift away from the traditional ethnic minority support for Labour, a trend that is likely to grow especially among successful groups like Hindu and Sikh Indians.

And with the expanding student body Jeremy is guilty of reading past trends permanently into the future. But in a system of mass higher education, much of it vocational and less likely to involve leaving home, the sort of liberalism associated with Russell Group university humanities courses will no longer set the tone. Look at the US, after all, where several decades of mass higher education has not made the country noticeably more liberal – even if there are enclaves of liberalism in Ivy League colleges and liberal arts colleges.

Well-educated people with high human capital are natural meritocrats and tend to have a built in bias against discrimination and prejudice. So the more of them in your society the less likely it is that there will be any reversal of the egalitarian advances on race, gender and sexuality of recent decades. But the implication that without all these progressive graduates an army of authoritarians would be pushing women back into the kitchen and advising non-white people to know their place is an enormous straw man.

Cliffe is also far too sanguine about London as the model of the future. London is a great global city but it is also the most economically, politically and ethnically polarised part of Britain and unless you are affluent has the lowest quality of life of anywhere in the country.

He also looks at only one side of the story when describing the country’s “genius” for absorbing newcomers. As Eric Kaufmann’s work has shown the white British and non-white ethnic minorities are mixing less not more in where they live (more than 40 per cent of minorities live in wards where the white British are in a minority). And a majority of ethnic minority school pupils now go to schools where the white British are in a minority, in many cases a small minority. Jeremy celebrates the rise of mixed-race Britain but the numbers are rising only more or less in line with the ethnic minority population as a whole.

To reprise my main point: Jeremy has a far too narrow and static a view of social conservatism which, loosely defined, remains the default instinct of a large majority of the electorate.

For the generation born in the 1970s and later there has been some reaction against the libertarian excesses of the baby boom generation but most of today’s social conservatives are modern people who do not wish to return to the 1950s. They are more tolerant of deviations from the norm than their parents or grandparents but they still want there to be norms. They prefer two-parent families which take responsibility for young children and older people; they want to live in stable places, with a high level of trust, low level of crime and some degree of neighbourliness; they want responsible businesses that train local people rather than importing cheaper eastern Europeans; they are friendly to individual immigrants but place the interests of fellow members of the local or national club (of all colours and creeds) before outsiders.

These are norms that are socially conservative but by no means illiberal, norms indeed that protect us from the consequences of Jeremy’s cosmopolitanism.

David Goodhart is director of the Demos Integration Hub

This article is a response to Jeremy Cliffe's Policy Network paper Britain's cosmopolitan future. You can read further responses and a new supplement to the paper here. You can listen to the debate that took place at the paper's launch event here

Tags: David Goodhart


14 August 2015 23:48

Oh and btw, isn't there quite a degree of stereotyping going on here? Are all ethnic minority members 'liberal' and 'cosmopolitan' in outlook? I think not. I can think of plenty of people from an ethnic minority background who are socially very conservative. What we are building is a mini version of the US on a small, densely populated island. I wouldn't bet on it cracking - the British have a history of deep flexibility - but don't expect people to throw themselves into civic life either. I think the whole thing is a mess but to call it out as such is too painful a taboo for many people to break. They put their heads down and soldier on. Which I think is what the likes of Osbourne and Johnson really want.

14 August 2015 23:42

I f-ing hate what my city, Manchester, has turned into. First a corporate playground, now a multicultural mess. A profound, epoch making change that no one was ever consulted about. And this is from someone who was 'intensely relaxed' about mass immigration up to about five years ago. I will be leaving at the earliest opportunity. Thank you to the bizarre coalition of global big business, liberals and left wing cranks who brought it about.

Tim Waite
01 August 2015 13:17

bemused by Jeremy Cliffe's rejoinder in a "Case for Cosmopolitan Populism " that a practical step to take would be the establishment of an ' Immigration Fund ' whereby some of the fiscal uplift provided by newcomers each year is invested into the infrastructure and culture of ' left behind communities ' around the country ! Surely it is widely accepted now ( pace Rowthorn ) that Immigration may actually add very little net fiscal uplift to the exhequer each year anyway . Is it a figure between + £1.18 billion and - £1.18 billion that he postulates is the most likely statistic after two years research . Isn't this just hopeless wishful thinking on Cliffes part ?

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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