Book Review: The Road to Somewhere, by David Goodhart

September 13, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

There was a moment a few years ago when I was walking through Brixton with my son, Calum. I was tediously droning on about how much I loved the cultural and ethnic kaleidoscope, compared to the plain vanilla places where I grew up. Calum suddenly turned on me – ‘you’re just a tourist; you visit on Saturdays. It’s different growing up here’ and proceeded to fill me in on the harsher side – the back and forth of endless attempted muggings as a teenager, the constant low level fear (he has since declared that there’s nowhere he’d rather he grew up, and wants to live in south London for the rest of his life…)

Calum recently gave me David Goodhart’s new book, The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics, which sets out the critique of Brixton tourists in rather more detail.

For a wannabe contrarian like me, David Goodhart is a bit of a role model (Prospect magazine never recovered after he left). He combines good writing, sharp argument and survey data to pick holes in lazy arguments and received wisdom, then sets out some mildly heretical proposals for how to do things better. The Road to Somewhere is provocative, original and well worth careful reading (even if you end up disagreeing with it).

The starting point is, of course, Brexit (it’s primarily about the UK, but touches on the Donald too). The vote to leave the EU was an existential blow to the people who thought they ran the country (I remember the morning after, for the first time feeling like a member of a reviled elite). The vote didn’t follow party lines – solid Labour Lambeth, where I live, was the second biggest remain voter after Gibraltar. The third was our neighbouring  London borough, Tory-dominated Wandsworth.

Goodhart’s big idea is a new faultline, between ‘Anywheres’ and ‘Somewheres’, with Brexit/Trump a sign of a revolt of the Somewheres who had been ignored by the political class for the previous 30 years.

Drawing heavily on attitude survey data, he characterizes the mindset of Anywheres as ‘progressive individualism’. On the basis of survey questions – e.g. those who disagreed with the idea that you have to be white to be British (!), he estimates their number at 25%. They include a small band (3-5%) of hard core ‘global villagers’ entirely indifferent to national identity. Anywheres have been deracinated by their university education, often move away from their home town, and love London (Goodhart really has it in for London – ‘A rootless, laissez faire, hyper-individualistic, London-like Britain does not correspond to the way most people live, or want to live’).

On the basis of people who say they would like Britain to be how it used to be, or that employers should hire British workers first, he puts the numbers of Somewheres at a bit over 50%. They include a small group of ‘hard authoritarians’ (eg the 10% still opposed to gay marriage) – but most of them are ‘decent populists’ who are perfectly capable of accepting their non-white neighbours while worrying about the level of immigration. Somewheres tend not to go to university, stay near their mums (yes, there’s data on that) and have ‘ascribed identity’ stemming from where they live, or who they are, in contrast to the ‘achieved identity’ of Anywheres defined by their jobs and qualifications.

Chapters then unpack the Somewhere-Anywhere divide in party politics; the big issue of nationalism and immigration; the economy; social mobility and the family. In all these areas, Goodhart argues that the chips have been stacked against the Somewheres: politicians have ignored their concerns on immigration and identity; traditional jobs have disappeared; family policy has failed to support traditional family structures that are often valued by lower income citizens, in favour of the equality in the workplace  agenda favoured by the Anywheres; the flipside of the emphasis on social mobility is that if you are not (whether through choice or capability) mobile, you are seen as a second class citizen.

Overall, the book feels like Goodhart is trying to influence different fractions of the Anywhere elite, mainly on the Left. He delves into New Labour’s inability to respond to populism (aka ‘the new Socialism’ with its overwhelmingly working class base), so unforgettably captured by Gordon Brown’s election campaign confrontation with Gillian Duffy. On this argument, the Corbyn labour party has moved more towards the Somewhere vote on economic policy and Brexit, but is solidly Anywhere on social policy (and a lot of the Anywheres don’t seem to have noticed the Brexit bit yet, judging by Jeremy Corbyn’s rapturous reception by Glastonbury’s Anywheres).

After such a good diagnosis, his final ‘so what’ chapter is a bit disappointing, comprising action on Voice (more localism, less London); the National (immigration, ID cards, national preference in procurement) and Society (shift resources from universities to vocational education and apprenticeship, revalue two parent families in social policy). But the real value is in the Anywhere/Somewhere framing, which is very useful when trying to disentangle issues of cultural identity and politics.

Assuming you think there is some value in the core argument, there are plenty of implications too for those working on international development. Goodhart is arguing that the chattering classes need to pay far more attention to how identity is constituted, strengthened and threatened, rather than just believe its own analyses on ‘what is good for you’ – plenty of echoes with the arrogance of aid technocrats there. But the underlying challenge is perhaps that a lot of people in the aid industry are among that small percentage of global villagers, who are very cut off from their own societies – not a good place to be. I’d be interested in your thoughts on this.

Here’s a longer, fairly critical review from the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland, and the Economist, which has the best ‘digested read’: ‘David Goodhart, a “post-liberal”, seeks to accommodate the decent elements of identity-based populism’.