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The battle of Britain’s elites

Emma Watson: not actually running the country. Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty

“Why is the elite always someone else?” says James Marriott in The Times. In his new book Values, Voice and Virtue, Matthew Goodwin identifies a “new elite” of out-of-touch, upper-middle-class liberals who dictate the “national conversation” through their control of the media. Its members, Goodwin says, include Hugh Grant, Emma Watson, Gary Lineker and Keir Starmer. “The Islingtonians duly struck back, pointing out that the country is governed not by Gary Lineker but by the Conservative Party.” Social media is now enjoyably awash with academics, journalists and politicians all “accusing one another of being the elite”.

The reason this debate exists is that Britain’s elite has become “diffused”. In the 1950s there was a smallish class of men, “alumni of a handful of schools”, who ran the country. But during the meritocratic 1960s, it fell out of fashion to admit establishment status, which seemed “fusty and complacent compared to the dynamism of the social climbers”. Today, the vast wealth gap between private-sector types and the old elite makes it hard for a banker and a professor, say, to socialise together, let alone agree politically. As Thomas Piketty has noted, there is now a liberal elite which feels economically powerless, and a “mercantile elite” which feels culturally powerless.

What makes things even more confusing is that many of the most truly powerful figures in our national life don’t even live here. Important companies are owned by foreign billionaires; Silicon Valley CEOs control the public conversation far more than the “puny, crumbling ‘liberal media’”. This new “nexus of power and wealth” is so complex that it is easier to tilt at phantoms: “the deranged liberals of conservative nightmares; the cigar-toting fat cats of the liberal imagination”.