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Home Opinion The case for cosmopolitan populism
Britain's cosmopolitan future

The case for cosmopolitan populism

Jeremy Cliffe - 31 July 2015

Those who both perceive and welcome the ongoing shift towards cosmopolitanism in Britain now need an emotive, cultural offer

I have been intrigued and cheered by the commentary that followed the publication of my Policy Network paper, "Britain's cosmopolitan future". Clearly, my claim that Britain is moving in a more diverse, liberal and deracinated direction resonates with many commentators, academics and campaigners out on the proverbial (and literal) doorstep. But I equally welcome the sceptical annotations that the paper has attracted; many of which constructively refine and caveat points in it.

Clearly, for example, I should have stressed the powerful tension between the liberalism of Britain's well-educated youth and the social attitudes of its new immigrants more than I did. And I should have made it clearer that, although London offers a better model for Britain's future than any other part of the country, it contains immense inequalities and is, for many, an all-too arduous place to inhabit. "London", as it were, is the future. London, by contrast, is very much a work in progress.


I do, however, take issue with two prominent criticisms of the paper. The first is the insinuation that I believe Britain is about to become some sort of Randian wasteland and, moreover, embrace that process. I entirely acknowledge the various (well respected) typologies that divide the population into a small, hard-cosmopolitan rump, a larger, hard-authoritarian minority and a more compromising, pragmatic majority between the two (indeed, I quote it in my paper). This describes Britain today and will continue to do so for decades to come. Britons, as I noted, will remain broadly hostile to immigration. People will still tend to live in the region of the country where they grew up. They will continue to value community, family and patriotism.

So let me restate my argument. For most of Britain's history, even most of the life of the typical fifty-something member of the country's media-political establishment, the country was characterised by extreme homogeneity, social conformism and the cultural characteristics of an economy built on heavy industry. That is increasingly less the case; a trend that I see no reason to believe will let up. Yet this important and dramatic shift is entirely absent from the political discourse on parts of the right and much of the left. The argument that Britain's great problem is popular resentment of and alienation from a metropolitan elite is entirely valid; I have witnessed its manifestations time and again as a political reporter. Yet it has become unthinking and knee-jerk; reductio ad Islingtonum. Some critics read my paper as an attempt to deny it. I intended it as a bid to flesh it out, to inject into it some much-needed balance and complexity.

I suspect that part of this story is a guilt reflex on the part of London-based commentators. Some of the country's most assertive proponents of a less liberal, more communitarian politics are both the beneficiaries and the archetypes of the capital's booming economy and metropolitan ways. It is easier, perhaps, eloquently to venerate the preservation of small-town, industrial-era mores from comfortable Hampstead than from struggling Burnley or Middlesborough.

My second objection I direct at the suggestion that cosmopolitanism is not, on the whole, desirable. The trends enumerated in the paper the rise of the graduate population, the spread of the ethnic-minority population, the boom of the cities contain many contradictions and worrying side effects. Yet they all point in the same overall direction: the liberation relative (and that word is absolutely crucial) to the sweep of Britain's past of the individual from involuntary, inherited bonds to particular places, people and ways of life. This is not to say that they mean the sacrifice of community, security and trust on the alter of a selfish, sneering post-modernity.

In fact, I contend the opposite: that a less homogeneous, more plural society in which individuals are freer to make their own lives is the recipe for contentment, collaboration and collective wellbeing. The new communitarians, if I may call them that, talk about the unsettling and disorienting effects of social and economic change. They have a point. But there is another side to that story. Britain in the 1950s, even the 1970s, was in many respects a miserable, austere, petty, curtain-twitching, finger-wagging, stultifying place. That it is no longer so, and on many fronts is becoming even less so, should be celebrated. As I argue in the paper, the country's cosmopolitanisation produces new problems and policy imperatives. Better to solve these than merely to regret their materialisation.

Thus I object particularly strongly to the synthesis of these two erroneous arguments: the contention that the "cosmopolitan" politics advocated in the final pages of my paper means imposing pernicious values of a metropolitan elite on a wider population that neither sympathises with or resembles that liberal London bubble.


In rejection of that synthesis, in recognition of the various compelling criticisms of my paper, and also in response to the dramatic political developments of the months since its publication, I therefore offer the following observation: the great task facing mainstream politicians is to forge a "cosmopolitan populism".

In the paper I argued that the gulf between cosmopolitan strongholds and the "left behind" electorate (so thoroughly anatomised by Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin) generates a series of technocratic priorities. Permit me to reiterate some of these. Better transport and broadband links can offer small town Britain a new, prosperous life as the back office and dormitory to the booming metropolises. Massive expansion of the housing stock surely the single greatest domestic policy imperative facing the country would do much to expand the popular stake in Britain's globalised future. Building an integrated, competitive counterweight to London in the urban north would change the dynamics of the country's politics much for the better.

Yet these are not enough; not in the short-to-medium term, at least. Those of us who both perceive and welcome the ongoing shift towards cosmopolitanism in Britain need our own emotive, cultural offer. On this, four particular recommendations come to mind.

The first is that the liberal heritage of Englishness must be disinterred. For the past decades "British" has been as the identity of choice for the country's cosmopolitans; unsurprisingly, perhaps, as it has always necessarily encompassed more than one nation. Englishness has thus become a receptacle for the grievances and disappointments of those who feel left out of today's modern, inclusive society. It is no coincidence that a map of Ukip support in England and one of English self-identification are almost the same image.

For some cosmopolitans, as Emily Thornberry's career-defining encounter with a St Georges cross in Rochester seemed to indicate, this has given Englishness an aura of intolerance and pig-headishness. Yet it is precisely in recognition of the fact that, though the general direction of the country is cosmopolitan, its progress in that direction is uneven, that cosmopolitans need to reclaim it; to cast off their own much-overstated cultural "otherness". Mike Kenny, perhaps the leading academic observer of Englishness, observes something similar. He describes two prominent guises shire Tory and working-class underling that dominate the expression of that identity. Its third form, a liberal, whiggish, optimistic Englishness, remains to be forged, he argues.

So let it be forged. From William Gladstone to Jessica Ennis, from the England football team to George Orwell, there is a rich seam of references and inspiration on which to draw. Politicians and other public figures should do so, whenever they feel the urge to talk about Britain when, out of squeamishness perhaps, they mean England; a scenario that becomes more likely the more autonomous Scotland becomes. They should use each St George's day to promote a progressive vision of Englishness. Labour should heed calls for the creation of an English branch of the party. Frankly, this may not come naturally to some (your correspondent included), but it is essential that cosmopolitans achieve consent for a politics responding to and embracing changes that, like it or not, are convulsing the country and unsettling significant parts of it.

My second recommendation is that the political parties (and again, here I particularly have the Labour party in my sights) invest in political education and training. British politics has become increasingly diverse in recent years, but it has also become more professional in make-up. Like the media, it is riddled with people, however talented and well-meaning, who were introduced to the game by family or friends. The trade unions used to provide a portal to politics for working-class stars. But their decline shrinks that avenue of opportunity. Moreover, in a related trend, politics has become infected with management speak and garbled platitudes. It is no coincidence that the political "winners" of our era Nigel Farage, Nicola Sturgeon, Caroline Lucas, Jeremy Corbyn share an ability to speak directly and clearly. Both of these problems might be ameliorated by political schools, possibly even state-funded ones, providing those without connections with the foot-up they otherwise lack and helping politicians of all backgrounds and hues to communicate meaningfully and frankly.

Third, politicians and their supporters should do more to "weaponise" the choice between a drab, isolationist future for Britain and a cosmopolitan, prosperous one. One of the defining features of the recent general election campaign was its parochialism. At a time of great threats and bigger opportunities for the country beyond its shores, the wider world was barely mentioned. The assumption in Westminster is that doing so causes voters either to switch off or to switch party.

Yet there is a clear, patriotic argument to be made in favour of a Britain engaged on the world stage, that harnesses its diverse population and international links, that asserts itself in forums like the EU and the Commonwealth to advance the national interest. It starts by showing how democratic decisions made in Westminster lead to successes like the recent Iran nuclear deal, investment like that of Nissan in the north-east of England, new markets for British goods like those in India and, increasingly, Africa. If politicians and the media perpetually (and often disingenuously) treat the wider world as a source of threats and dislocation, they can hardly protest if voters respond accordingly.

Beyond telling the success stories, what can be done? Here are some ideas. One: create an "immigration fund", paying into it a proportion of the fiscal uplift that newcomers generate for the exchequer every year. The fund could invest in businesses and infrastructure projects regenerating and supporting "left behind" places that have seen their industries disappear. Letting voters feel and recognise the dividends of immigration could transform the politics of the subject. Two: consolidate the defence, diplomatic and aid budgets. Then politicise the new single pool of money. Three: give all British emigrants the vote and create parliamentary constituencies for them (as France did for its overseas voters in 2010), introducing into Westminster politics, and its coverage, voices representing the country's huge diaspora, and thus its commercial and cultural links with the wider world.

My fourth and final recommendation is that serious thought be given to moving Britain's capital city so that it is no longer London. The time has clearly come for this idea to receive serious consideration; starting with a government-appointed commission assessing the balance of advantages and disadvantages. The logic of such a move is overwhelming: upcoming repairs the Palace of Westminster will cost more than would building a replacement elsewhere. Moving out of London would also reduce the legislatures administrative and travel costs. Doing so may help keep Scotland in the union, too.

But most of all the case for such a move should be emotive and political. Much of the antipathy towards Britain's slide into cosmopolitanism is bound up with suspicion of London. Relocating the country's political centre of gravity to, say, Manchester (a much more realistic option than other mooted options like Warwick and York) would transform the character and effect of its politics. A new, modern, accessible parliament could infuse that politics with a more current (and perhaps even cosmopolitan) spirit, while helping to tackle the perennial, defining gripe of the anti-cosmopolitans: that the country is run by a bunch of out-of-touch, self-serving elites, stuck within the M25 and drunk on their own internationalism.


Readers may or may not agree with the above proposals. Either way, I hope they share my conviction that the debate about Britain's ongoing cosmopolitanisation is the defining one of our time. The great difficulty of this trend is that it cuts smoothly though both of the main political parties. Increasingly, cosmopolitans from both admit, tacitly and candidly, that they have more in common with each other than with anti-cosmopolitans on their own sides, and vice versa. As a result, the subject does not stimulate the open, frank debate that it should, despite begging for attention from Britain's leaders and legislators. I hope that changes. But until it does, it is up to others to continue the discussion. May they do so with foresight and optimism.

Jeremy Cliffe is Bagehot columnist at The Economist and the author of Policy Network's recent paper: Britain's cosmopolitan future

You can read a variety of responses to Jeremy's paper here. You can listen to the debate that took place at the paper's launch event here

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Prav Jey
04 August 2015 18:57

I am overall supportive of this article but I have a problem with one bit. I am a second generation British Asian. I was born and currently live in England. Ever since I was a child, my parents have taught me that I would never be accepted as English because I am not white. Discrimination is part of their experience when they first came to Britain. If you want an English identity to be created, it has to be one that speaks to those for whom being British is actual about belonging.

Dane Clouston
31 July 2015 15:40

"Its third form, a liberal, whiggish, optimistic Englishness, remains to be forged, he argues." See www.liberal.org.uk and a 2013 Liberal Assembly resolution:- Genuine Opportunity This Liberal Party Assembly [2013] re-affirms its commitment to greater equality of opportunity in health, education and the inheritance of wealth. In addition to VAT on private health and school fees in order to improve the NHS and state schools including sporting facilities, relative to private fee-paying provision, Assembly re-affirms and clarifies its commitment to a citizens’ inheritance for all 25 year old UK-born UK citizens,….to be financed by and clawed back in due course from the more fortunate by progressive taxation on the cumulative lifetime receipt of capital gifts and inheritance from the previous generation of UK and other citizens. In order to be fair to adjacent year groups, UK Universal Inheritance at 25 would be increased annually by £1,000 over ten years or more from £1,000 in the first year up to £10,000 or more, roughly 10% of average wealth of every adult and child in the UK. It would be financed by reforming Inheritance Tax, including abolition of current unlimited exemptions, into a 10% Capital Donor Tax on the luxury spending of all giving and bequeathing to UK citizens (40% to non-UK citizens) and introducing in tandem with it a progressive rate Accessions Tax, or Lifetime Unearned Capital Receipts Tax, on larger total lifetime receipts. In keeping with the far sighted traditional Liberal Party’s Constitutional Preamble calling for liberty, property and security for all, this radical progressive liberal policy would bring about wider home ownership and more business start-ups, would reduce alienation and young adult and young parent poverty and would help university graduates repay loans for tuition fees without burdening those who do not go to university. Taken together, these measures would help bring about a genuine opportunity society and a dynamic and less unequal property owning democracy.

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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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