Alex Morton was a member of David Cameron’s Downing Street Policy Unit.
Team May is battling with our new elite
We are seeing the rise of a new elite – the New Professional Class. The decline of professional workers’ allegiance to the Conservative and other centre-right parties, especially in urban areas, the rise of a centre-left divorced from the working class, and a feeling that the elite preach one set of values while adhering to another explain the current fractured political landscape. These are three facets of the rise of a New Professional Class across the West – a change which is transforming politics.
This New Professional Class is diverse but has various characteristics and beliefs:
- Your intelligence, expressed particularly through formal training and attendance at elite universities, and especially when supplemented by further education or non-vocational training, determines your value to society.
- Such expert intelligence is seen as the foundation of a well-run society. Elite expertise is preferred and believed superior to messier concepts like the market or democracy.
Industries with high numbers of patents, government spending, strong and expensive academic qualifications or other barriers to raw market competition are a key base for this New Professional Class.
- Bureaucracy and complexity are thus often seen as a mark of distinction.
- Companies and sectors (e.g. banking or technology) run by the New Professional Class are clearly superior to those that are not (e.g. retail or extractive industries).
- It officially disdains most of the traditional middle class virtues – home ownership, patriotism and saving as socially pointless (even if as individuals they still follow them).
Why this group are not Conservative
The rise of a public and private New Professional Class that leans to the left in areas like the law, technology, academia and so on in our large cities (a process paralleled in the US) is fascinating. The Tories are falling behind in university towns and large cities even as they rise elsewhere. A study of donors found academia, pharmaceuticals, and the legal profession have more donors giving to the Left than to the Right.
This is not surprising. As this group of professionals’ economic value and work is either created by or from dealing with regulatory diktats issued by Government, the more they see such a framework as entirely necessary and beneficial. Their engagement with markets and customers diminishes and their engagement with bureaucracy increases. They become experts focused on dealing with complex issues such as technology and regulation to create their wealth, not entrepreneurs dealing with risk and customers.
The last thing the New Professional Class want is limited bureaucracy, market competition and small Government. As they reach a critical mass in towns and cities, their ambivalence toward markets and their greater support for Government becomes the default middle class setting, and the Tory vote withers. Of course, tax cuts that support them are preferred, all else equal, but they are not broadly Conservative.
NPC views have become the default assumptions in many policy areas
This class is so powerful it creates the background default assumptions in the upper reaches of most Western societies. Their views are not traditionally left-wing. They are not really centrist. Their politics are essentially the demands of the New Professional Class to expand their power and clout, and give due respect to their cultural values. They are, for example, pro-migration. More migrants into the country either makes services they use cheaper, or lets in New Professional Class members to join in globally competitive sectors such as London finance or Cambridge biotech. This pro-migration attitude transfers to issues such as refugees – especially as surging migration numbers won’t impact the New Professional Class too much.
Banking is another example of New Professional Class thinking. Low interest rates crippling middle classes savers and helping drive up house prices should be more controversial. But the New Professional Class sees that Mark Carney, a highly-respected expert, has decreed that savers and would-be home owners must suffer to stimulate the economy. So it must be true. From Obama to Osborne, when confronted with bankers with PhDs who had crashed the economy, our leaders and officials could not quite bring themselves to undertake real reform. Instead they increased the number of well-paid regulators instead, strengthening the New Professional Class yet further. The entire banking system is even more regulated with Government setting the cost of risk, interest rates and so on. But the banks remain too big to fail.
The New Professional Class strongly supports multilateral expert bodies (e.g. the EU) – consisting as they do of highly educated experts that remove the need for markets or democratic consultation. They back costly renewables and expensive research that drive up energy bills while wanting to make redundant those 80s heroes, the miners. They are fairly unfazed by inequality however, and tend to be unsympathetic to protectionism where the impact falls on those they see as undeserving (e.g: most ordinary workers). This creates a skewed world where the powerful New Professional Class insulates itself from markets or even taxes everyone else to pay for their powers whilst often preaching market values to others – generating growing resentment among the wider public.
Theresa May and Nick Timothy are clashing with this group
The fascinating thing is that Theresa May and her policy guru, Nick Timothy, are clashing with this group – so far mainly unsuccessfully. Team May are not impressed by the New Professional Class. As the New Professional Class has gained power, the West’s growth rate has fallen and social resentment has grown. May’s commitment to make a society that works for everyone and critique of ‘Davos man’ could be seen as a shot across their bows.
Yet ignore the opinion polls, and consider on most issues how team May have backed down. Carney defeated May on banking and interest rates. The legal profession is destroying Liz Truss. EU immigration will not be going down even after we leave. I am not in favour of all the measures May and Timothy want, and the New Professional Class has many virtues (often being hardworking, tolerant and open) but Team May is right to want to balance the rest of society’s needs with the New Professional Class agenda.
The rise of this group, often opposed to Conservative viewpoints and insulated from both the market and democratic control, is one of the biggest issues facing the West today and will impact on politics for the next few decades – yet it has only just begun to be understood.