Ryan Shorthouse is Director of Bright Blue.
In the battle of ideas, it is anti-establishmentarianism which is winning. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Donald Trump’s presidency. Marine Le Pen’s ascendancy. Deep anger with politicians and a “metropolitan elite” – commonly perceived as immoral and self-serving – is fuelling the rise of illiberal and fringe “outsiders”.
There are numerous possible reasons for the growth in anti-establishment sentiment in Western democracies. Escalating income inequality. One of the worst financial crises since the Great Depression. High-profile corruption and expenses scandals. The constant exchange of information through the internet and social media.
Those on the Left have prodded at this, arguing that only an elite have prospered from a ‘neoliberal’ orthodoxy that has dominated policymaking for so long. There are those on the Right who have indulged in this too, arguing that a disconnected and decadent elite have imposed a social liberalism – a cocktail of high immigration and disregard for stable families – that has eroded communities and quality of life.
On the back of Trump’s election, British Conservatives now have a choice. They can jump fully on board the anti-establishment bandwagon, repeatedly insulting “international elites” and “out-of-touch judges”, for example. Or they can challenge it: stick up for the liberal, democratic and meritocratic institutions and values that generations before us developed so that we can enjoy more peaceful, prosperous and freer lives.
There are still people in our society who are vulnerable or struggling. As the Prime Minister recently articulated, they deserve more support, including from a smarter state. But, for the vast majority of people in our country, life has got better and they have not been “left behind”: levels of education, health, employment, tolerance and civic engagement have all improved in recent decades, including for those on more modest incomes.
Most people are not fed up with living in our liberal, capitalist system. And, it should be noted, many millions every year try to migrate to liberal, capitalist societies. The Office for National Statistics’ annual personal well-being survey shows conclusively that a large majority in Britain, including in less affluent local authorities, are generally satisfied with their lives. Some people are angry, clearly. But most seem to be angry with “the establishment”, rather than the state of their own lives.
There are some bad eggs in “the establishment”. We should criticise them if they behave immorally or antisocially, but not for being a member of “the establishment” per se. The establishment are essentially people in senior positions of often critical institutions such as parliament, the judiciary, the civil service, the media and business that protect freedoms, keep us safe and enhance affluence. The vast majority are good people who have worked extremely hard nearly all of their lives. We should not be knocking but praising them, and wanting more people from a wider range of backgrounds to aspire to and achieve these positions. Indiscriminate attacks on them are anti-meritocratic and nihilistic, which should trouble those on the Right.
And it is wrong to stereotype and sneer art people – rich or poor – on the basis of their socio-economic characteristics. If we do, we conjure culture and class warfare and an expanded sense of victimhood. This sows divisive identity politics, which is now so strongly and worryingly present in the United States. Anyone who wants One Nation politics should therefore firmly reject anti-establishmentarianism.
Despite progress, injustices still need fixing. But this, by the way, is no excuse to endorse candidates who openly adopt racist, sexist and bigoted views. Left unanswered or unresolved for too long, though, such injustices risks voters giving up on the mainstream options.
Conservatives now need to vigorously defend the importance and successes of liberal and capitalist societies. Bashing the successful is no remedy to helping those in difficulty. But that alone is not enough. It is time to be much more creative and radical in the policies we implement – especially on immigration, welfare, education and housing – to ensure more people, particularly those who are ‘just managing’, feel engaged and empowered.