Ukip Leader Nigel Farage mixes with the audience after delivering a speech at a rally in Broadstairs, Kent, in 2015. Photo: PA

Facing down the whitelash

How we vote increasingly depends not on class but ethnicity. To stop us going down this dangerous path liberals should listen, understand and argue back
November 14, 2018

The chief question of politics, the one whose answer does most to define the electoral dividing line in the west, is no longer “what do I have?” but “who am I?” The first can be a disruptive question to ask because what I have may change over time, and so my politics might change with that. Who I am, though, is more fixed, and so the second question carries the contrary danger—that politics gets stuck. Identity politics is a demand that the world outside becomes identical with the world we see from the inside. As such, it is a recipe for endless conflict between people who never change.

While the phrase identity politics is most often used in connection with minorities, it has more recently been attached to majorities too. The argument that the cultural majority should be given special attention in the same way minorities are is at the heart of two new books, National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracyby Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin, and Eric Kaufmann’s Whiteshift. Both books have sweeping implications: could populism perhaps be the prelude to the demise of democracy?

Eatwell and Goodwin, as well as Kaufmann, try to elucidate the causes of democracy’s troubles. In that respect at least, the books follow on from other volumes of varying degrees of anxiety published in 2018 from David Runciman, Timothy Snyder, Yascha Mounk, Stephen Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, which explore how liberal democracies might conceivably come to a sticky end. They all trace a story of decline similar in tone—though on a much larger canvas—to the decline thesis that once gripped accounts of modern British history.

Eatwell, Goodwin and Kaufmann have alighted on a serious subject and their work is too detailed to be lightly brushed aside. But let us register the caveats first because they are significant. The liberal democracies in the United States and western Europe are surely resilient enough to withstand their current discontents. As David Runciman showed in his 2013 work, The Confidence Trap, democracies are good at wriggling free from crises. This is no guarantee they will always be able to do so, but we should keep in mind that democracies are flexible and resourceful. Kaufmann, in particular, poses some troubling political questions but it is too pessimistic to assume, as Eatwell and Goodwin appear to do, that they cannot be answered within the existing traditions of liberal democracy.

Indeed, one of Goodwin’s own predictions is relevant here. In Revolt on the Right, his 2014 book with Robert Ford, Goodwin helped to explain the rise of Ukip in British politics. The book, though, had one major flaw and I said so at the time. It concluded that the fund of potential Ukip voters was very large, and seemed to predict a major shift in political alignment in Britain. Goodwin hasn’t given up on that theme, as it is one of the four “historic shifts” behind contemporary populism he identifies in his new book.

Yet that did not turn out to be the Ukip story. As I write, Ukip has no parliamentary representatives and stands at a derisory percentage in the opinion polls. You might say, as Andrew Adonis has been saying too often, that Ukip’s values have infused Theresa May’s government, but that is exactly the point I am making. As we know, the argument that Ukip were pressing led the prime minister of the day David Cameron to seek a referendum on the European question, which was endorsed by a majority in parliament. That led to a plebiscite in 2016 that issued a decision to leave the EU, which the government is now seeking to enact.

Whatever one’s view of the wisdom of any of this, it can hardly be said to be the negation of liberal democracy. On the contrary, the long-standing institutions of that democracy, slowly and imperfectly, accommodated a majority view. The identity impulse did find an expression in the apparatus of politics.

Besides, we need to be careful not to make too much of the vexatious European question. Many of the writers I have mentioned overstate the importance of 23rd June 2016. In particular, they overstate the degree of surprise that “the elite” felt when Britain voted to leave. I know several leading politicians—the then chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne, for example—who did not want to hold a referendum for fear that it would be lost. Labour MPs in the north of England were reporting that they hardly ever met anyone who was going to vote Remain.

This is an important corrective because the supposed chasm between “the elite” and “the people” is a populist trope that Eatwell and Goodwin, as well as Kaufmann, accept too readily. There is a sense of relish and “I told you so” in their accounts of Brexit, but their prophet in the wilderness shtick is not convincing.

I think they are largely wrong about Brexit itself too. Brexit, in Keir Hardie’s description of British socialism, “wears a local garb.” I am not sure that we learn much about either Brexit in particular or populism more generally by placing Britain’s departure from the EU on a line that runs through President Donald Trump, the Front National in France, Viktor Orbán, the Polish Law and Justice Party, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey and the rise of nasty parties in Sweden and Denmark—let alone the resurgence of fascism in Germany in the form of Alternative für Deutschland.


Read Nesrine Malik on why identity politics isn't going away

_____________________ Placing Brexit in this context associates Leave voters, without warrant, with genuinely vicious politics—an argument that these authors claim “the elite” is always unfairly making. Yet to look at Brexit this way is nonsense. The vast majority of Leave voters feel about politics much as they did before the referendum, which is to say not very much. They were just asked a question about an institution for which there has never been much love in Britain and, for a host of reasons, not all of them relevant, they decided to get shot of it.

I imagine Leave voters would be baffled at how portentously they are taken by these three authors. Not many among us are genuinely revolting against liberal democracy: we are too busy wondering what to have for tea. The grand categories are all very well when you are analysing the consequences of millions of political choices. They are less than useless, indeed they are misleading, when we adduce such impulses as causes.

This is an error that Eatwell and Goodwin, and Kaufmann, make throughout. They make, in other words, the supposed classic “elite” mistake of supposing that the people think just like them.

I don’t think many people do and a good thing too because the most potent objection to Kaufmann’s thesis is contained in his title, Whiteshift. I do not accept that “white people” is an especially useful category: it includes too many different people. Whiteness is not an ethnicity, it’s a skin colour—a phenotypical variation of dubious biological importance. Kaufmann’s best and most important sections are when he shows that “the basis of politics has shifted from class to ethnicity.” He is rigorous and decks out his text with plenty of evidence to show that an important shift of affiliation is taking place. This work deserves close attention. I just think he is wrong to describe that shift in colour terms.

Colour is not ethnicity. Shall we lump together the north Indians and the south Indians, the Pakistanis and the Sri Lankans, the Hindus and the Muslims, the Arabs and the Hispanics because they are all ethnically “brown”? It’s an absurd gathering of people of different heritages, religions, allegiances, nations and cultures. You cannot roll all that specific cultural detail into a shared skin colour. The minute we begin such a stupid enterprise we find ourselves getting into the question of how brown does brown have to be? What ethnicity are the Afghans?

Ethnicity is often taken to mean culture, but white people live in many different cultures. The bourgeoisie of north London don’t have much in common with the working class of Middlesbrough or with crofters in the Highlands and none of those would have a great deal to say if they showed up at a dinner party in Helsinki or a ranch in Colorado. There is an immense diversity in the cultures of “white people.” I’m afraid only racist doctrines put the colour up front. Who really identifies primarily as white? As a liberal columnist at theTimes, I might be thought the very embodiment of a citizen of nowhere. Yet I think of myself as Mancunian, English and British. Being “white” is a fact and yet doesn’t really add anything to my thicker identities. Kaufmann is far too scrupulous and thoughtful to be a racist. But he’s got his categories all tangled up.

I could also point out that the elites, who are supposed to have caused the resentment on which populism feeds, are also largely white. So why does the resentment against an elite take an ethnic or phenotypical form? Eatwell and Goodwin have a complex answer to that, which takes in rising inequality, growing distrust of elites and institutions, the effects of mass immigration and the fraying of old party alliances.

Kaufmann thinks—and he is brave and probably right to say so—that this is largely about immigration. His book is organised around the four different responses of white majorities to the ethnic change that has been the result of migration. People either vote for populists (fight), pretend nothing much is going on (repress), avoid diverse neighbourhoods (flee) or live in diverse areas and even intermarry (join). This is a good taxonomy and Whiteshift is packed with interesting and illuminating facts. White people are already a minority in most major cities of North America. The same is set to happen by 2050 in Canada, New Zealand and the UK.

Immigration is one of the two novel questions with which liberal democracies are now struggling. The decline in wage growth after the financial crisis of 2008 is a serious event but not wholly out of the ordinary; indeed, in the US especially and to a lesser extent Britain it was evident long before the crash. Democracies have resources to meet economic problems even if they are slow to deploy them.

Human longevity, though, is another matter. Never before in their history have democratic nations tried to accommodate a society in which so many of its citizens are so old. That is causing problems of generational justice which are both new and intractable. We have no prior experience of governing such an ageing society. At the exact same time as the average voter in liberal democracies is getting older and more set in their ways, those same democracies are struggling to adapt to the creation, for the first time ever, of truly multicultural nation states. That is the problem that Eatwell and Goodwin and Kaufmann all raise and it is a vital one.

*** It is often said, though it is no longer true, that immigration cannot be discussed. It is important that it is discussed. Liberals do have a tendency to talk about immigration in aggregate terms, as if a small increment to overall GDP is enough to justify opening the doors. Cultural questions really matter too. While the answers these books provide seem to me to be wrong, the onus is now on liberal writers to supply their own.

For my liking, Eatwell and Goodwin, and Kaufmann, are too ready to take at face value the testimony of those who do not like immigration. An honest liberal response to the hostility to immigration does, at some point, have to point out that not everything bad you hear said about immigrants is true. It is possible to understand why people feel anxious about a cultural threat and yet to also argue that the anxiety is misplaced. The tone should be understanding but the argument has to be resolute.

The best response to the questions posed by these authors is not to avoid them but redefine them. “Immigration” in public debate is not always, in fact not often, principally about immigrants. The concern about immigration is a cultural question but it is not only a cultural question. Such concerns would surely be allayed if wage stagnation were addressed. It would surely lessen if people were certain that the borders were well policed and patrolled. Or if welfare entitlements were more closely linked to contribution, and it became impossible for people to believe that benefits were unfairly handed out.

That is a cursory summary of what needs to be a long argument and a serious policy programme. It would not eliminate the cultural identity debate and neither should it. There would still be people who felt threatened by those from different places. But they would be fewer in number than they are now, and we would have found a way to accommodate the problem. The task is for liberal democracies to provide the recognition and opportunities that human beings crave. The pessimism of these writers is not yet necessary.