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Below is a provocation piece delivered at the Battle of Ideas, on the panel ‘Too Dumb to Vote?‘
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It wasn’t supposed to be like this, was it? It was all supposed to be very straightforward – a simple, definitive referendum, which would show up a swivel-eyed minority as out of touch, put jingoistic Tories back in their box, and finally close the discussion on EU membership for a generation.
Only, it didn’t work that way, did it? In a fit of bloody-minded pique, the British public decided otherwise; they ignored their alleged betters, held firm in the face of a barrage of threats and insults, and obstinately voted however they damn well pleased, thank you very much. And of course, by a slim margin, they chose to Leave.
The education gap in the vote is undeniable. Or better, the qualification gap, which is not quite the same thing. What is deniable, however, is that this represents any sort of argument against the legitimacy of the voter, or indeed any sort of argument against the legitimacy of the vote.
I have lost count of the amount of times I have read that the Brexit vote was simply the suspension of reason, the triumph of the unreasonable, that there exists no substantive reason to vote Leave, that this was but an emotional spasm of the ‘left-behind’, a xenophobic upsurge characteristic of the ill-educated.
All of which represents nothing more than a juvenile wail against the fact that there exists a group of people, several in number, who have different values, cherish different things, draw their lines in different places.
The Brexit vote wasn’t, in truth, about education – it was about people with a worldview more complex, indeed more nuanced, than the anodyne materialism that underpinned pretty much every Remain argument. It pitted wisdom against intellect, lived reality against spreadsheet theorising – and it was the former that won out.
To declare, in increasingly shrill response, there are no rational reasons to vote Brexit, that those who did so were simply ill-educated, is to do little more than declare oneself an intellectual and emotional desert, so attached to a very particular account of reason as to exclude what else makes us human – identity, community, security, dignity, control.
The Remain side committed two big mistakes. Firstly, they reduced the whole discussion to a material analysis, elevating the quantifiable ‘evidence-based’ lens as the only legitimate forum of discussion, and severely downplayed, where they did not dismiss, the importance of precisely those intangibles that still hold sway over the hearts and minds of many. Or as one person recently claimed, “notions of democracy and sovereignty are not tangible issues, and so cannot be considered rational reasons to vote Leave.”
No wonder these people lost.
But secondly, they also presented their own arguments shrouded in reasoning and argument so arcane as to make themselves look like the ones who had taken leave of their reason. There is no surprise here, – this is common to the highly educated – they are much better able to find ways of providing a rational edifice to uphold their prejudices, and then mock and question the intellect of those who fail to fall into line.
I know of one professor who, with admirable patience, repeatedly explained to me the sovereignty argument was not valid since the EU enhanced our sovereignty by allowing us to pool it for a greater purpose, and that the slogan ‘Take back control,’ really had nothing to do with the EU. Now, this is a valid argument, and boils down to saying that losing some sovereignty can sometimes be a worthwhile trade-off. But it takes a good deal working through to get to that point, a collection of premises running toward a conclusion, and it needs heavily qualified. To declare from the off that there is simply no loss of sovereignty, against both common experience and perception, only reinforces to the masses the feeling that perhaps these terribly well-educated people are not so clever as they appear, or so honest as they proclaim.
The follow-up has proven just as bad – the hysterical reaction toward those who voted Leave, at times personal and too often vindictive, has been a case study the ultimate futility of seeking to get out of a hole by digging deeper. And yet, this is indicative of a certain mindset, a certain class. To broaden this out a bit, there exists today a highly-educated group of individuals, remarkably alike in habit and mind, who stubbornly cling to a worldview that is crumbling around them. As their totems fall, they double down – they abuse and mock their opponents, they insist upon ever more provocative and esoteric creeds, they advocate ever more illiberal and anti-democratic moves to enforce their privileged position in society. And worse, they see in this not only the evidence of their superiority, but the source of their virtue.
The question before us is whether there exists amongst us those whom we might consider to be too dumb to vote. I trust, nay hope, the panel here will conclude this is not the case. I would only add that, were we to decide with the philosopher kings and the paternalists, and task ourselves with deciding who, precisely, deserved categorisation of being too dumb to vote, then I would steer clear of the working clubs and the bingo halls, of the pubs and the pews. No, I’d head instead for the university departments and the news floors, the City bars and the political lobby, where there exists more than enough reason to suspect the wisdom of the inhabitants therein, and wonder whether or not it is they, despite their finger-pointing denunciations, whose intelligence we need to consider more closely.
In the words of Kipling, in his poem the Land, in which he explored precisely the relationship between the rooted and their assorted overlords; ‘Not for any beast that burrows, not for any bird that flies, Would I lose his large sound counsel, miss his keen amending eyes.’ If one cannot see the wisdom in those words, if one feels even the temptation to reverse suffrage in the name of disenfranchising the common folk, then I believe we have found the one who really is too dumb to vote.
A little while back I wrote a blog post reflecting on some of my experiences of social mobility, teasing out some of the effects that have received rather less attention within a political environment that has held commitment to social mobility as a staple of virtuous and socially concerned politics. That blog post received some attention, and I was lucky enough to be offered the opportunity to talk through some of these thoughts on BBC Radio Four Thought. You can listen to the episode here.
The script for Four Thought is largely a condensed version of the original blog post, so I shan’t replicate it here, though for those who might be interested, I did add some further thoughts focusing in on how these things apply to our education system. Partly, these are the thinking through of a theme I have explored as part of Blue Labour here, a TES piece on ‘aspiration’ here, a post on the culture clash in our schools here, and a post on Brexit here. I have included the additional comments from the radio script below.
It is a theme I’ll no doubt return to in due course, but in the meantime many thanks all for the kind comments and good will.
As such, if you arrive from a working-class background, the graduate professions are not always a comfortable place to be. You grow accustomed to the objects of derision being people like your family, those you grew up with, those you know and love. Whilst the disdain might sometimes be delivered in the abstract, the barbs are felt personally, especially when aimed at a viewpoint common amongst those who comprised your upbringing. The creation myth of the liberal mind is one of a virtuous battle against intolerance, bigotry and demonization of the Other – but those who pursue such accounts of virtue don’t always realise, or don’t care, that these are precisely the sins they commit in the eyes of those on the receiving end of their disdain.
And this has become status seeking behaviour: there is prestige to be acquired through the sassy, the rude, the downright spiteful to working-class folk with more conservative views, on immigration, perhaps, or crime, or Brexit. Detractors revel in the eloquence of their disdain, as if articulacy were evidence of truth and justification of their prejudice. Thus the motes are plucked out whilst the beams remain – the cultured despisers find in their intellectual superiority, an argument for their presumed existential superiority, too.
There is nothing particularly new in this, and in any echo chamber dissent is proof that someone is Not Like Us, and thus wrong. From which naturally follows the belief that there’s a moral duty to help future generations become more Like Us, and thus right.
In our schools, this has real consequences, as a class of Anywheres, to use David Goodhart’s terms, seek to educate a generation of Somewheres, with the former believing success includes educating the latter out of the values and culture of their upbringing.
And so pupils from a socially or morally conservative background, which often (not always) overlaps with a working-class (or religious) upbringing, will at times find themselves at odds with the moral norms of those who educate them, a culture chasm always framed as simply a matter of education, or more precisely the absence of it.
For our education system, children formed by such views must simply reject them, since that’s the character of being educated. Virtue, and intellect, demands it – and the educated are much better at making the intellectual case for their virtue.
But this feels unwise. In a contest between home and academic flourishing, some choose home; not because of ignorance, but because of a refusal to shed heritage as participation fee. For too many, education presents itself as not for people like them, at least not whilst they remain people like Them – to be educated too often means not being like your Mum or Dad. Thus, we present our children with a choice they should not have to make, in so doing pushing them away from an inheritance they should not have to abandon.
And so the cycle continues, a tension between home and school, in which the rejection of home is synonymous with being educated. Social mobility, it cannot be denied, has a cultural edge – the ability, even the demand, to walk away from who are you are, or at the very least where you are from. At the same time, a residential university system has entrenched the idea that flourishing is only to be found when we leave, less so when we stay.
If we want to talk about why working-class kids are alienated from education, we could do worse than start a conversation here.
None of which is to say working class kids need not aspire to high culture and education, a calumny which often rears its head in the guise of compassion. No, the precise opposite. It’s to say that our cultural and intellectual treasures are a heritage due to all, and we might better ensure its equal distribution if we focused less on the purity of the receiver, and more on the dignity of the receiving.
Of course, this is more complex than a simple to-and-fro between two competing accounts of the good life, and neither side are entirely wrong, even if heart battles fiercely with head in trying to work out the best, or worst, of the two. Still, if you join the affray from a working-class background, you inevitably have a foot in both camps, leaving you an outsider to each. The world that formed you, that helped you fly, can be the world that risks holding you back, a world which you both reject(ed) and embrace at the same time.
And it’s always the rejection that each side remembers, never the embrace.
So, Corbyn wins. And lots of people are unhappy about it. We know this, because lots of people are tweeting and blogging about How Very Unhappy they are about it. Some have even taken the time to curate their tweets into mini-testimonies, kindly enunciating the precise reasons for their discontent, laced with gloomy predictions for the future. They love Labour, you see – let there be no doubt – and they can’t bear to see what is happening to it. It is surely better, then, to abandon it altogether.
And so, they leave. Noisily. With all the fanfare that can be mustered.
But the question is: why now? What makes the party so unbearable, at this precise moment, that you cannot stay? Oh I know you feel marginalised and disillusioned – so do I – but that’s normal in politics right? I mean, it’s not as if this hasn’t been going on in the Labour Party for the last couple of decades. Indeed, some of you actively cheered it. The price of ‘modernisation’, apparently.
Or maybe we could come at this from another direction: why did you not resign when the party was decimating its working-class support? Why did you not feel so strongly when traditional Labour communities were feeling so systematically ignored? Indeed, so systematically despised? Why did you value your membership over your conscience then?
What you’re feeling now, you have put others through. And many of them left, often into the arms of UKIP, abandoning the political inheritance of their forefathers in the process. The result? To further embolden those who had brought about that very alienation, to give them a free pass, thereby turning Labour into a puritanically liberal party, no longer able to reach out to that core base, nor even deem it desirable to do so.
And the results – socially, politically – have been disastrous.
Do you expect your departure to be any different? Do you expect it will bring forth a bout of reflection, of regret, of penance from those who wave you goodbye? Do you expect that reason will pierce through the groupthink and sense will suddenly dawn amongst the newly victorious? Not a bit of it. It didn’t then, and it won’t now.
And only one party benefits from that.
In other words, walking away really doesn’t help. I’m not saying I don’t understand it – we give our limited time freely, after all – but the oh-so-very-public departures have more than just a whiff of showboating about them. To the outside, it looks like a group of people who hollowed out our party are flouncing off now that their own dominance is under attack. Unfair? Well, prove otherwise. With actions, not words.
We can all beat our chests and mournfully declare the party is going the wrong way, that we’ll never win an election, that the future holds nothing but defeat and despair. Which may well be true. But that likelihood takes on the character of certainty once we all walk away from it. Besides, you helped create this mess; you have a responsibility to stick around and fix it.
Or leave. But save me the pious speeches as you slip out of the exit door.
This article appeared on the Catholic Herald website in September 2016. Read it here.
For all we are told about Theresa May’s cautious nature, her recent approach to education certainly has the air of the renegade about it. Forthcoming Tory plans for our schools have a little bit for everyone to be either angry or enamoured by, with the possible return of grammar schools making the early running in the Look At How Very Outraged I Am education debate.
Still, buried away in the same legislative package is a proposal to lift the grossly unfair cap on admissions for faith-based free schools, a policy that had led to the Catholic education sector simply declining to take up the offer to develop the free-school model. Cue outrage, as all the old anti-Catholic prejudices – particularly acute within education – reared their foam-mouthed, swivel-eyed heads.
And yet, for all one might wish to advocate Catholic education, and the ethos and spirit which underpins it, one might yet sound a note of caution before embracing the idea that this should present the opportunity, let alone the desire, for a huge expansion in the Catholic school sector. The ideological case might be there – the pragmatic case, less so.
In a Catholic school, the Headteacher, Deputy Headteacher, and the Head of RE must be practising Catholics. This is a bare minimum – a skeletal requirement. In a school of 1,500 pupils and hundreds of staff and governors, three individuals on the teaching staff is not really very many. In addition, the Chair of Governors ought to be a practising Catholic, and the governing body must be composed of 51%+ foundation governors, all practising Catholics, appointed by the Bishop.
But this can, and does, cause problems. Finding sufficient applicants with the skills and experience to become leaders is difficult enough; finding sufficient applicants who also meet the faith-based qualifying criteria all the more so. Indeed, in many places it is a challenge that cannot always be met. For those schools in desperate need of candidates to fill posts, this presents an obvious and understandable dilemma.
The result? A grey area, enabling a certain flexibility if one asks only certain questions and studiously avoids others. In other words, a certain amount of ‘playing the game’ emerges, and since eligibility is most easily demonstrated through external observance, through a collection of ‘substantive life choices’ that evidence a practising faith, so the Mass becomes the best place to display those qualificatory benchmarks. So that a sudden zeal, perhaps even conversion, presents itself immediately prior to an application, whilst a puzzling hiatus follows it. Our Lord, in the Blessed Sacrament, becomes a bauble on a CV.
This is why the free schools issue presents something of a headache. I am in favour of free schools and think Catholic ones present a wonderful opportunity for reform. But as an opportunity for expansion, they could prove an act of collective self-harm.
In short, we are already over-capacity. We already have real difficulty in training and attracting the individuals required to lead the schools we have. A whole host of new Catholic free schools would only dilute that pool still further, and further encourage institutions to exist in that grey area in its recruitment of candidates for leadership posts. Indeed, a rapidly decreasing pool of applicants might even encourage diocesan education services, and the Bishops’ Conference which directs them, to suggest the very same. So that our schools, already under such pressure to bend the knee to the secular, would be further incentivised to do so.
The impact would be to further erode the capacity to insist on that very thing which underpins our best and most authentic schools. Or, put another way: in our desperation to maintain and expand presence, we would have to dilute who we are and what we believe in order to do so, and thus become less than the very thing we were hoping to expand.
Catholic schools, on the whole, do an excellent job, precisely because of the Catholic educational philosophy and ethos which underpins them. It would be wrong to think that this could just be uprooted and planted elsewhere, with the effect assuredly replicated. Labelling a school as ‘Catholic’ means little: it is the spirit that enlivens that is everything. As Bishop Stock put it in his paper outlining the fundamentals of Catholic education, a Catholic school, to be authentically Catholic, must have ‘Christ at the Centre.’
We need to ask ourselves whether an expansion of the Catholic education sector would help or hinder that ambition.
If you are a working-class boy, there is every chance that most of the professionals you will come across in your formative years are women. If you are a working-class boy, there is every chance that most of the authority figures you come across in your formative years will be women. If you are a working-class boy, there is every chance that your experience of women/girls during your formative years is that they are generally the high achieving and successful ones.
Unlike you. And your mates.
If you are a working class boy, there is also every chance that a good chunk of the males you encounter are proving less than successful in life. If you are a working class boy, there is every chance that a good chunk of the males you encounter are underemployed and undereducated. If you are a working-class boy, there is every chance that the places you are most likely to come across successful males – secondary school, celebrity culture and the professional services – seem so remote, sometimes even antagonistic, to your own everyday experiences as to be almost alien.
We paint in broad brush strokes, of course, but there is justification, if only to tease out the central point. The idea that women are systematically disadvantaged in society might well be true. For this reason, we might well deem it morally justified to address this, through our politics, through our legal system, through our education system, through our cultural norms and practices.
But by the frames of reference available to working class boys, this can so often seem only to contradict lived reality. And if we then sit them down and tell them that they are part of the privileged, the winners in society, such that their interests must at times be circumvented to help girls and women be more successful, to achieve, to succeed in life – what do we expect the reaction to be? To feel engaged in eradicating injustice, or to feel even more alienated? To feel empowered, or further disenfranchised? To feel magnanimous, or further slighted?
Working class boys have it pretty tough, though there is little political capital in making the improvement of their condition a priority. And if one has already accepted that gender must trump class, then there is little moral reason to do so either.
In the meantime, we have a generation and more of working-class boys becoming a sink subsection of society, developing into the kind of men that only confirms the worst suspicions of those who would so readily write them off. We must not deny moral agency here: oftentimes this is of their own making, engaged in a downward spiral, formed within a cultural landscape marked by precisely that transience and insecurity that shapes a view of life and living that schooling and learning is failing to counter. And which only further feeds into that feeling of alienation, that perpetually unsuccessful attempt at the art of living well.
The result? Disengaged, angry young men. Lots of them. It is no surprise that this is beginning to shape our politics.
The condition of working-class girls is an essential part of this story, though it is legitimate to question how effectively feminism has captured this reality. I am from a northern working-class family in which the women are hard, authoritative, confident – though their concerns seem a world away from the attentions of academics and professionals, that which characterises the principal cultural and political expressions of feminism. My point is not that we must therefore choose between the two, but allow as valid a space where other narratives might appear.
And one of those narratives might be the impact social changes – economic and cultural – have had on working-class boys and men. We might think these changes worthwhile, worthy, fully justified, but we must also take account of the experiences of those on the sharp-end of such progress. Maybe a working-class feminism would better capture an understanding of the needs of working-class boys too. Maybe it wouldn’t. I really don’t know.
But what is clear is that working-class boys are struggling. Economically, socially, culturally, they are fast becoming a dalit class. We cannot claim to be a society that seeks justice if we stand blindly by and allow it to happen. And if feminism is really the best vehicle we have for providing an account of the way gender interacts and impacts on one’s place in society, then maybe there are grounds for hope. Because this seems to be precisely what working-class boys need right now. Maybe, then, working-class boys need feminists too. I suppose the question is: would feminists be willing to address that need?
So you feel disenfranchised? Alienated? Like your party has been stolen from you? That you have no voice? That you are not welcome? Not valued? Feel that nobody is willing to listen, let alone talk about your concerns? That your political home has been taken over by those hostile to you? That your contribution to the history and indeed DNA of the party has been re-written? Ignored? Mocked? Despised? That without your help, and your support, the party would never have had the success it has? And yet your party now scorn people like you? Call you appalling names? Render your views outside the mainstream?
Sh*t, isn’t it?
But you did that too. Whilst you were in charge, you did the very same. And here’s the thing: given half the chance, you still would. Indeed, you still do. You’ve learned nothing. If the response to the referendum has shown us anything, it showed us that. You might wail now, but you are simply on the end of the same treatment you dished out to others for so long. You remain as convinced of your own superiority as are those that now displace you; if you hadn’t been, they would never have had chance to replace you. And every time you seek to grab the party back, to regain the levers of power, you do it whilst re-asserting the same. For those you disenfranchised, you are no better option. The worm has turned – you need those whom you made feel so unwelcome for so long; but they no longer need you. So many of them have somewhere else to go now. And the guilt and blame for that lies at your door as much as anyone.
The new politics isn’t left and right. The new politics, and a lot of the old politics, is defined by this:
But here’s the thing – if your politics is solely about clubbing together with those in the right-hand column against those in the left, then you’ve already lost. And this is what you’ve done. This is how you’ve defined yourself, measured yourself. Any appeals to common ground that cannot bridge this divide is no appeal to common ground at all. You wouldn’t even be willing to unpick the threads, to see what’s going on. Your only explanation is moral degeneracy or intellectual retardation or both. Bigots or blaggards, all of them. You smugly proclaim, eyebrows raised, that the Hard Left would sooner die in a ditch that compromise on their ideals. But so would you. Every bit as much. Indeed, this is exactly what you have done. Exactly what you are doing.
And yet, for all that, you are right. The country needs a Labour government. An actual Labour government. Which means we need you. Those who put themselves on the left need to come together. Which means you need those you despise. To find common ground, as the cliché goes. Though to be honest, for all you proclaim it, I’m not convinced you really believe those words. Or could deliver on it. Or would deliver it, even if you could.
And so we have a mess. Labour is dead. Long live Labour.
Re-posted from the Catholic Herald blog. The original can be read here.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Labour is the party of the working class. We weren’t supposed to end up despised by them. We weren’t supposed to end up despising them.
But here we are. After decades spent embracing the creeds and infrastructure of liberalism, we are at a juncture which threatens our very existence. Labour’s doctrines have delivered a fractured civic space – we can no longer build coalitions, for where we once saw comrades we now convince ourselves there are only villains.
It is the startling descent into misanthropy and insult which hurts most.That moment when Gordon Brown called Gillian Duffy a “bigot” was but a scratching of the surface. The demographic most enthusiastic about voting Leave have been dismissed as racist or xenophobic for years, but it is only in the last few days, following the referendum, that I have seen the very legitimacy of their suffrage questioned – the prosperous, well-educated liberal left, summoning Victorian-era paternalism to question the wisdom of giving votes to the ill-educated.
Of course, this chasm between party and people is of surprise only to those cloistered away amongst the like-minded. Much has been made of the demographic divide between the two competing mindsets prior to the referendum. But turning this into one-dimensional face-off between the haves and the have-nots presumes an irresolvable conflict. That’s too pessimistic: there is a way out of our current malaise.
But we first need to understand what has gone wrong. It can be summed up in a word: liberalism.
This has been the central insight of the movement that coalesced around the name Blue Labour. Building upon foundations laid by Phillip Blond and his Red Tory analysis, its central claim was clear: to use the succinct words of Maurice Glasman, ‘Liberalism is alive – and it’s killing us.’
Blue Labour provided an account of the impact of liberalism upon our relationships, from the economic to the social to the romantic to the filial. Liberty defined over and against the duties and obligations we owe one another, we contended, served only to loose the ties that bind our futures together. In a barren, empty landscape, free of obstructions, cold winds blow unfettered – and it has been the poorest who have felt the chill most keenly.
In a world in which our futures compete and do not cohere, we have found it difficult to forge a politics for all, since we have convinced ourselves that not all have a place in our politics. Labour embraced the new liberalism more keenly than any, first socially, and then in the realm of economics, in so doing surrendering its conservative defence of the family and society against the excesses of market and power.
Offering to patch up the victims with state largesse has proven insufficient. People want livelihood, stability and dignity, whilst all we offer is low-grade subsistence delivered with a slight sneer at a class of people quietly deemed unfit for this newly globalised world. It is quite an irony: in proclaiming “diversity”, we have become homogenous, no longer able to even understand the language of our comrades, let alone speak it.
Until it boils over. And then everybody has a theory about what has gone wrong and why. Most of these analyses consist in reinforcing much of that which has brought us to the precipice. Those who presided over the years in which Labour became so very distant from its core communities are now the ones seeking to lay all the blame at the door of its current leader. By trying to make this about Jeremy Corbyn, Labour are leading themselves away from a truth they must confront: this is about Labour.
And so the gap lengthens, and the people have turned from exasperation to active hostility. And we, as a party, have made ourselves unable to respond. Whatever happens next will be historic in the future of Labour. If, after whatever happens next, we still have a party called Labour. Either way, one thing is certain. There is a new politics. One wonders if a new party might be needed to meet it.