© Illustration by Harry Tennant

The populism of Matthew Goodwin—and its many problems

The academic’s new book attacks an imagined elite and makes the case for a Brexit coalition that’s doomed to fracture
May 10, 2023
Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics
Matthew Goodwin (£10.99)
Buy on Bookshop.org
Buy on Bookshop.org

This is the authentic voice of populism. It is a swingeing attack on what its author, the academic Matthew Goodwin, casts as a small, liberal, university-educated elite who treat everyone else with contempt. And that contempt is clearly reciprocated by Goodwin. He criticises them for, among other things, promoting identity politics (despite this book doing basically the same thing). He sees white, working-class men as the ultimate victims because they are not allowed to express their identity and beliefs when every other group can. Voting Brexit was their reaction to this culture war against them. 

Goodwin is right that white, working-class men have had a tough time, but the book is almost entirely about culture wars and lacks any serious account of economic pressures. Manufacturing has shrunk from 25 per cent of GDP in the 1970s to 10 per cent today. Pay has stagnated. There is no way around the pain and anger that those economic changes have created. But what was the cause? 

Goodwin’s answer seems to be the graduate elite, who, apparently, did not care about these sorts of people doing those sorts of jobs. Instead, we embraced “hyper globalisation”—what used to be called free trade. That meant the incorporation in the global market of other players, notably India and China, which prompted manufacturing decline. But the UK could not have stopped this on its own. And it is not clear what an attempt to keep those rising economic powers out of an exclusively western trading system would have meant for our peace and prosperity, if we had tried. 

These out-of-touch policymakers, who supposedly didn’t care about the effects of this change in the global economy, actually put a lot of effort into promoting key manufacturing sectors such as aerospace and automotive, which are, incidentally, heavily located outside the south east of England. Any success was closely related to the single market, which made us the preferred location for reaching the European market. That model has been destroyed by Brexit and there has been a shocking decline in car output partly as a result. So it is not yet clear that Brexit has been in the economic interests of the white working class—which rather weakens Goodwin’s claim that the old elite didn’t care about these types of jobs, while the new Brexit coalition does. 

The book is almost entirely about culture wars and lacks any serious account of economic pressures

This decline in predominantly male manufacturing jobs has occurred alongside the rise of services, which often provide many more opportunities for women. It has undermined the sense of self-worth of some men. It has also weakened families based on the idea of the male breadwinner.

So, again, Goodwin is on to a real cultural phenomenon. Indeed, one of the distinctive beliefs of Brexit voters was that opportunities for women in the jobs market had gone too far. But, also again, it is hard to see how the move of more women into education and then employment could have been stopped—and, of course, whether doing so would have possibly been right. 

This was a widespread western trend. It wasn’t a plot by an out-of-touch elite. It was accompanied by an intense culture war about the role of men and women. That included wrongheaded attacks on the value of the stable family, but there were also attempts to support families through tax reliefs and other financial measures. There had been rules reinforcing the traditional model—for example, requiring women to leave professional jobs if they married—but sweeping those away was surely right and irreversible. It is hard to see how we could turn back the clock, even if anyone wanted to.

Goodwin’s alternative, which he sees as the opportunity for the Conservative party, is to be left in economics and right on culture. It is a bracing counterpoint to that cliché of “dry in economics and wet in social policy”, with which I was always slightly uncomfortable—not least because, on its own, it neglects the deep sources of human satisfaction that come from belonging to families and communities. And, very crudely, family breakdown is expensive as the state takes on some of the old financial roles of the male breadwinner.

However, Goodwin’s specific approach sounds a lot like the 1970s or earlier: it is a reversion to pre-EU Britain. Ironically, in both the UK and US, the traditional cultural values that he espouses are most powerfully expressed by some immigrant groups. That cuts across the hostility to immigration that forms another part of his agenda. 

Opposition to immigration is another key tenet of the Brexit coalition, and Goodwin expresses their anger that it is running at such a high level now. He has a telling critique of what is conventionally called the Australian points-based system, by which points are accorded to immigrants’ labour skills. Calling it “Australian” brings with it a subtext suggesting that it favours immigration from the white Commonwealth, but the reality, Goodwin points out, is very different: it looks to be leading a surge in migration from Nigeria and the Indian subcontinent. Brexit and the shift to the new system mean that there is no longer any recognition of our close links to our own European neighbourhood. All that matters is levels of skill. Maybe there was a Brexit elite who wanted us to be entirely cosmopolitan and global in our migration priorities, but that may not be what their supporters wanted.

Goodwin’s specific approach sounds a lot like the 1970s or earlier: it is a reversion to pre-EU Britain

Goodwin’s new Brexit coalition has other tensions, too. Older people are an important part of it, and Goodwin is explicit about both that and their voting power, but they are heavy recipients of benefits and users of the NHS. Prioritising them pushes up public spending.

To some extent, spending on them can be funded by cutting spending on others—since 2010, benefits for pensioners have gone up by £666 on top of inflation, whereas benefits for everyone else have been cut by £816 below inflation—but surely there are limits to such intergenerational transfers from young to old. Conservatives could get away with borrowing the money when there were clear crises, such as Covid or energy price rises, but now the long-term cost of a big state for Tory voters has to be confronted. It directly challenges the belief of many Conservatives that they are the party of tax cuts.

Goodwin seems to think that younger people are a lost cause, especially since so many of them now go to university. He believes that there is a widely held, snobbish assumption that graduates are somehow better people than non-graduates; which would certainly be an indefensible viewpoint, though there is no evidence that it is as pervasive as he claims. Besides, it is equally repellent to assume that young, white, working-class men should know their place and not go to university. Indeed, half the time, Goodwin’s grievance does indeed appear to be that they are not gaining access to this powerful opportunity for social mobility. 

If these men do go to university, will they be corrupted by the wilder doctrines of critical race theory and end up voting Labour? That seems to be the fear of many Tories now. Graduates are indeed more likely to be socially tolerant and politically engaged. They are more likely to have voted Remain and are also more sceptical of the state. 

Graduates are also, incidentally, more likely to believe fewer people should go to university—a classic example of pulling up the ladder after you. It is non-graduates, the ones who miss out, who are more likely to believe in expanding higher education. And these young non-graduates are not voting Conservative either. The Conservative party’s real problem is with young people, whether they went to university or not.

Goodwin is angry on behalf of the white working class. He wants a political programme that offers them more protection from the gales of international economic competition and from the erosion of their socially conservative values.

There is a respectable centre-right tradition that gets all this: it is European Christian Democracy. That is not just what we see now in Italy or Poland, it is also the Catholic strand of European conservatism personified by great figures such as Konrad Adenauer. It is enjoying a revival in Europe and, as an economic policy, could be viable across the EU, with its internal competition but external protections. It is particularly potent if environmentalism is added to the mix. 

Perhaps one of the many ironies of Brexit is that it has cut us off from what is probably the best single political and economic opportunity to practise the beliefs that Goodwin himself expounds.