Citizens of Somewhere

David Goodhart, The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics

Hurst, 240pp, £20.00, ISBN 9781849047999

reviewed by Abigail Rhodes

‘How did the pollsters manage to get is so wrong?’ has been a consistent question asked in news headlines since the unpredicted Conservative parliamentary majority in the 2015 general election. Leading leave campaigners in the UK’s 2016 EU Referendum appeared just as stunned by the result as those who had voted to remain. In both of these instances, the voting intention polls had offered no evidence that prepared us for the final outcome. Such mystifying circumstances were mirrored in the US toward the end of 2016 with the election of a rank outsider. It is difficult to argue against the view that the last few years have produce some surprising political results. The decision to leave the European Union and the election of Donald Trump have astounded many commentators, academics, voters and politicians. It is at this point in our recent history that David Goodhart’s new book, The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics, begins.

Goodhart explains these election results are the culmination of a pattern of ‘protest voting’ that marks the coming of age of Western populist politics. He argues that this is further evidenced by the rise of other populist parties across the EU and seeks to address what these parties and their voters are protesting against in this ‘new political era’. (It should be noted that, since the conception of this title in early 2016, the far-right Freedom Party in Austria, the People’s Party in Denmark and Marine Le Pen in France have all been defeated in elections.) These unusual election results are symptomatic of a ‘backlash against the political status quo’, which he defines as liberal democracy and which his book defends. This centrist political landscape has dominated the UK and US establishment for more than a decade now and, he warns, it is ‘unlikely to be toppled.’

In the UK, the site of the discontentment and disillusion is the ‘white working class voter – motivated, it seems, more by cultural loss, related to immigration and ethnic change, than by economic calculation’. It is these voters that the author categorises as the ‘Somewheres’, to which he ascribes the following personality traits: place-based identities, anti-mass immigration sentiments and traditional, authoritarian and conservative values. The typical Somewhere is educated up to A-levels; they have lost out economically due to a decline in decently paid low-skilled jobs; they hold onto a nostalgia for a Britain that was; and are usually placed ‘right-of-centre’ on the political spectrum. This description, taken together, sums up Somewhere characteristics that, Goodhart argues, make up a ‘latent white identity politics’, which led to both Brexit and Trump.

For Goodhart, the opposite of the Somewheres are the Anywheres. This category is composed of those with portable identities, who are comfortable with mass immigration, are usually highly educated, with progressive and liberal values. The average Anywhere is university educated, many are in professional jobs, are comfortable with a changing Britain and vary between left-of centre caring and creative types and right-of-centre finance or business folks. In short, they make up the ‘liberal elite’ who have dominated the establishment landscape and have been so derided in the post-Brexit/Trump world. In other words, these are the ‘experts’ whose collective wisdom recent UK politicians have called time on.

The dichotomous categories that are propounded in this book are, for the author, ‘both a frame for understanding what is going on in contemporary politics and a plea for a less headstrong Anywhere liberalism.’ Yet, however tempting it may be to understand these labels as ‘obvious’, reader be warned: they have been invented by the author. Via a process of extrapolation, personal judgements and observations, Goodhart constructs his two generalised groupings that he claims can be found in British society. He finds support for his ‘great divide thesis’ via the ‘influential’ British Values Surveys (1983 – 2013), the Understanding Society Survey and a host of other opinion polls. Goodhart’s confidence in research grounded in the work of such polls is surprising given their recent record of getting things so wrong.

In light of my profound misgivings about Goodhart’s division of the UK population into such reductive categories, it was pleasing to see that, by the end of the book, he does acknowledge that his two ‘value blocs’ shouldn’t be thought of as ‘conscious political entities’. Instead the reader should understand them as merely two ‘loose, cross-class and cross-party world views.’ However, even with this proviso, there remains the problem that the classifications underpinning these two blocs are based on sweeping generalisations. The result is a book that, on the surface, offers an easily accessible framework within which to understand the causes and effects of the rise of populist politics and by extension Brexit and Trump. Yet if the reader digs deeper it soon becomes clear that the hypothesis upon which the book is grounded is constructed on opinion only. It is difficult, therefore, to see how Goodhart can offer ‘a compelling proposal for a new political settlement’ without having conducted any robust research.
Abigail Rhodes is an M3C/AHRC-funded PhD researcher at the University of Nottingham.