Of the many reactions to that Matthew Parris article, some of the most interesting were from those who agree with him.
For instance, there’s Jeremy Cliffe of the Economist, who claims that England is divided between “fizzing, optimistic” places exemplified by Cambridge and “drably, barely comfortable” places like Clacton:
“…the great divide is not north versus south or cities versus towns or left versus right, or even working-class versus middle-class. It is between those communities that have found a way to thrive in the economic circumstances conscribing England today—a high-wage, Anglo-Saxon service economy on the edge of Europe—and those that have not been able or (debatably) willing to do so.”
Cliffe goes on to argue that the great divide isn’t just economic and social, but also political:
“Just as England is splitting along lines perpendicular to its traditional divisions, so its two main political parties are tearing along their middles. Mr Parris’s column and the reaction to it neatly depict the debate within the Conservative Party. A very similar conflict is playing out in Labour ranks, too. In both, communitarians have come to blows with cosmopolitans.”
Within the Conservative Party, he places Tim Montgomerie, Peter Oborne, Philip Hammond, Theresa May and David Davis on the communitarian side and Matthew Parris, Nick Boles, Michael Gove and “probably” George Osborne on the metropolitan side.
This is far too neat a division. For instance, on an issue like the need to build more homes, Tim Montgomerie is at one with Nick Boles.
But there’s a much more important reason why Cliffe and Parris are wrong, which is that the choice between the paths represented by Cambridge and Clacton doesn’t exist – and never has.
Firstly, let’s not pretend that the two kinds of community are reacting differently to the same issues and circumstances. For instance, Cliffe notes that in Cambridge, people are “turned off by anti-immigration rhetoric” and that “fully one in five… residents were born abroad.” Well, good for them – but immigration is not a single undifferentiated phenomenon. A global centre of learning like Cambridge will attract some of the most talented individuals on the planet; the same does not apply where unskilled migrants compete with hard-pressed locals for limited job opportunities and public resources.
Secondly, any suggestion that the development of each community is primarily shaped by decisions made within the community is misconceived. England is one of the most centralised countries in the developed world, and if one community has turned out one way and another a different way, it is as a consequence of decades of decision-making by London-based elites.
Far from making their own choices at a fork in the same road, Cambridge and Clacton were always on different roads – with itineraries chosen for them by others. Of course, because those doing the choosing are dominated by Oxbridge graduates, it’s not entirely surprising that elite decision-making suits Cambridge better than it does Clacton.
This brings me to my third point, which is that while the whole country is subject to the same set of decisions, the liberal elite selectively protects itself from the impact of its mistakes. Whether it’s cheap money economics, reckless financial deregulation, the single currency, uncontrolled immigration, post-war planning policy, ‘progressive’ education experiments or indifference to family structure, the architects of economic and social liberalism have always worked themselves into the upside of every deal.
To turn to those on the downside and say ‘bad luck’, ‘it’s your fault’, ‘nothing to do with us’ is not only callous, but intolerably hypocritical.