The proposal to relocate the House of Lords to York is harmless enough, though residents of York might disagree. The idea of an upper chamber of philosopher kings to check democratic excitability is sound in principle but when your definition of a philosopher king extends to John Prescott, you begin to question the merits of philosophy. If immediate abolition is too radical for the Tories, let’s punt the peers to the north east, note the inevitable drop-off in attendance and go in for the kill at a later date. But just as important as the de-Londonisation of the state (and the economy) is the de-Londonisation of the intellectual life of the UK.
Conservatives might suppose that, having won the general election against the ‘thought leaders’, they need no longer concern themselves with commentators, policy wonks and academics. But as long as Radio Four has pundit seats needing filled, as long as the same policy wonks dominate ministerial and select committee briefings and as long as a dispiriting 50.2 per cent of young people insist on going to university, the ‘second-hand dealers in ideas’ will continue to ply their trade.
Anti-intellectualism can be one of populism’s least attractive qualities but only because hostility towards the ruling elite so easily slips into hostility towards ideas themselves. The objection to political and social discourse in the UK today is not the free exchange of ideas but the absence of such an exchange and the prevalence of cartels which dominate and distort intellectual markets. The aim should be to break up the cartels, not to replace them with populist-friendly cartels or disdain the life of the mind altogether.
Guido Fawkes is, in his own way, fighting this fight by live-tweeting the new 11am briefings at 9 Downing Street, much to the chagrin of some members of the Westminster lobby. Ideally, such occasions would be broadcast and streamed live, as they are at the White House. But publishing their contents on Twitter for the punters to see, rather than having the information filtered through a select elite of hacks huddled in the Commons, is a good start.
If all political power in Britain ultimately runs through SW1, the distribution of intellectual influence isn’t much wider. This will only become more of an issue as politics moves further down the path of populism, by which I mean a popular democracy in which the preferences and prejudices of the voters trump those of elites.
Whether the government or the opposition is truly interested in redistributing power northwards — the failure of Scottish devolution might reasonably make them reluctant — both are pivoting in rhetoric and policy to the regions. The intellectuals, meanwhile, remain disproportionately based in London (in attitudes as much as geographically) and resent the shift away from their brand of politics, both on the Brexiteer right and the (post-)Corbyn left. Those who shape public thought and policy are overwhelmingly progressive, internationalist and European. Labour’s abandonment of the centre ground and especially the triumph of the Brexiteers have inflicted deep psychic wounds.
Just as two decades of Blairism alienated anyone to the left of Ed Balls and the right of George Osborne, the new age of disruption is leaving those whose worldview is being upended with a severe case of motion sickness. The people who used to run the country and those who thought they had some influence over how it was run are angry, confused and resentful. They feel, to borrow a phrase, left behind.
This is stirring a profound reaction in some quarters. Matthew Parris, whose sprightly wit turned to traiking gloom around about 24 June 2016, announces that a united Ireland ‘may not be a bad thing’ in the wake of Brexit. We are not, he says, to think of it as a breaking up of our country because ‘there will be a corresponding coming-together’ and ‘we should think about the gains’, for then we will see that ‘the idea makes so much sense’. Parris cannot have the UK on his terms and so the rest of us, it seems, must not have it at all.
Orwell deemed it ‘a strange’ but ‘unquestionably true’ fact that ‘almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during ‘God save the King’ than of stealing from a poor box’. I don’t suggest Parris would dip the collection plate but his amiable scepticism has given way to peevish certainty. England’s decision to leave the European Union may well change England profoundly but perhaps not as profoundly as leaving the European Union has changed Matthew Parris’s view of England.
Nor is he alone. David Edgerton, professor of history at Kings College London, opines in the New York Times (where else?) that the break-up of the United Kingdom ‘may be one of the few good things to come out of Brexit’. England ‘is divided between the vibrant, youthful and pro-European big cities — especially London — and the ageing, stagnating and anti-European rest of the country’ and, ‘freed from the grip of the decayed British nation and British state’, the nation ‘could finally be done with its delusions of grandeur’. Our ‘fanciful beliefs’ about our global importance ‘would crumble’, writes Professor Edgerton, and with it our economic standing and even our nuclear defences.
If you detect in his tone a note of glee it is because, perhaps like a sullen teenager sent to his room, the historian is slamming the bedroom door and screeching at his parents. In fact, it is now common among London intellectuals and other progressives to talk up Scottish independence and even to embrace the logic of the nationalists. Ben Bradshaw muses:
‘I have no doubt that Scotland will become independent. It is completely unsustainable that the government in London denies the Scots the right to self-determination. The Scots expressed in the 2016 EU referendum and the two subsequent general elections that they do not want to leave the EU.’
Scots expressed in 2014 that they do not want to leave the UK but because Brexit strikes so keenly at Bradshaw’s identity and that of those around him it surely must do the same for Scots.
Incidentally, I still think Brexit is a very bad idea and, unlike its advocates, I don’t dismiss seers of catastrophe out of hand. Cassandra was accused of ‘Project Fear’ too. But the dominant intellectual class has proved itself unfit for purpose by its failure to understand Brexit and its insistence on seeing in their votes for it a malignant spirit in the British people.
Brexit need not mark the strange death of British liberalism but it should lead to liberalism extending its concept of Britain to that narrow slice of the country outside the M25.
London is a great city. But while the right-wing caricature of an alien metropolis is dull and demagogic, London and the London mindset are too distinctive to talk and write and think for the country anymore. The necessary de-Londonisation of the ideas market is not about slighting the capital; it’s about giving the rest of the nation a chance to speak.