Unpacking the term “Cosmopolitan intellectual elite” in light of Brexit

Unpacking the term “Cosmopolitan intellectual elite” in light of Brexit

In the aftermath of the Brexit vote there has been much contemplation of the great fissure that has been uncovered separating different groups of people in the UK. This fissure has generally been cast as one between working class people who lack university education that voted for the UK to leave the European Union, and city dwelling young graduates that voted for the UK to remain in the EU.

One group of terms often used to characterise one side of this fissure, and interpreted as a slur against remainers, is some sort of variation on “Cosmopolitan intellectual elite”, or as Nigel Farage likes to say the “sneering liberal elite”.

It’s important to unpack and understand this group of terms in order to better understand and engage with leavers on the debate about the consequences of Brexit; with Theresa May’s new government slowly deliberating about what should be their Brexit strategy there is still much to be fought over in this debate.

The term “Cosmopolitan intellectual elite” carries with it connotations of a form of class snobbery. For many leavers it epitomises the well to do city dweller, who reads anything from The Guardian to The Financial Times, and patronisingly refers to leavers as “Little Englanders”.

For many progressives in the UK the term is confusing. Does it refer to the university educated or is it an umbrella term for anyone with a vaguely progressive position, whether that be a belief in the progress brought about by the market or the progress of social values.

It certainly does convey a sense of class interest that many leavers will feel is opposed to their own. Many will feel frustrated with the term as it is often bandied about by leavers to shut down a debate, in what is perceived to be an anti-intellectual fashion.

So then is the term simply a method of othering remainers, used by leavers to signal the status of remainers as the untrustworthy out-group. Or is there something more to the term? Undoubtedly it is used by leavers for this tactical purpose, but it is grounded in reality and refers to something that does exist.

In order to understand the term “Cosmopolitan intellectual elite” it is useful to consider the production of political ideas in society.

Plato was one of the first critics of democracy which he criticised as following the impulses of the citizens’ rather than the common good. Plato envisioned his Republic, to be one in which trained elites, the “Philosopher King”, controlled completely the politics of a society, and were responsible for rational leadership.

Here in the west we have a compromise between these two systems, our representative democracy allows us to choose between different elites who have different ideas on how to run our society. Thinkers like Edmund Burke see the role of these representatives as representing the people but also using their own judgement in the exercise of their powers.

Due to the technical nature of politics it makes sense to have people, the political elites, who are wholly invested in the task to be the ones that engage in politics. Many people whether they be graduates or not, don’t have the time or inclination to fully engage with politics, or to theorise on the best ways to run a society.

Many political elites will merely engage in the bureaucratic elements of running a society, such as Mark Carney the governor of the Bank of England, or will be influenced by someone else’s idea and are focused on putting that idea into practice; we look to them wholly for political leadership, to exercise rational leadership for us, whether or not that be guided by a certain ideological outlook. For this reason then, political ideas and theories will come primarily from a specific subset of elites, the intellectual elite.

The intellectual elite may be from the academy and occupy influential positions in universities, such as Noam Chomsky; they may be political representatives; or they may simply occupy a media space and use their platform, on a blog for instance, to distribute their message.

If you’re an intellectual elite you operate in the realms of ideology, you think about ideas and you propound an idea. You are influential, you put out the set of ideas that you advocate for other elites to reflect upon and to engage with.

Due to the nature of our representative democracy it is important also to engage the people in order for an idea to gain political traction, ideally as large a group of people as possible. This is done by making an idea as accessible as possible, in order to appeal to the people who would normally be put off by the technicalities of a sophisticated and complex argument.

Tim Farron would likely lose his audience if he detailed exactly how his liberalism stems from the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill, much more effective to repeat popular talking points that cohere with his outlook.

Intellectual elites are often thought of as cosmopolitan. Cosmopolitanism is the idea that all human beings should belong to a shared community. Cosmopolitanism is distinctly opposed to some forms of nationalism and rejects any notion of entitlement due to anything like nationality. Britain is not just for the Brits, they would say.

It is true that many elites have cosmopolitan views, but it is not true that elites are cosmopolitan.

This definition is useful, as it allows us to differentiate between Enoch Powell for instance, who some argue was most influential to the Eurosceptic movement, and thus was very obviously an intellectual elite, but not cosmopolitan, and George in sales who graduated from university and voted to remain because he worried that the Head Chef at his favourite Italian Pizzeria would be deported, clearly cosmopolitan but not intellectual or elite.

I can think of many graduates like George who don’t think at all about political issues and who may not even be very cosmopolitan. They lack any interest in intellectualism and go with the flow having very little influence in the domain of ideas.

A survey taken by Eurobarometer before the referendum found the proportion of eurosceptics and europhiles who could correctly answer questions on the EU to be similar. The point here is not that the majority of leavers aren’t ill informed, a lot are, but so also are the majority of remainers, even if they are more educated.

This should also make us reevaluate what we mean by populism. Representatives of all ideological persuasions engage in populism. When the Remain campaign argued that the EU kept Europe peaceful in the aftermath of World War II that was populism.

Scholars are divided on this question with many citing nuclear weapons or domestic institutions as responsible for the peace in Europe.  It may in fact be the case that it was the EU that has kept the peace for so long in Europe, but let’s also not forget that no EU country has conquered Liechtenstein or sought a war with the US. Regardless, there was enough ambiguity on this issue, that to simplify this idea in this way was populism.

The word populism is used as a slur; it is used by elites to describe the rhetoric of anyone who goes against the ideological establishment, by this I mean the elites who embody the set of ideas that are accepted broadly by the majority of elites. So Jeremy Corbyn, for instance, would probably not be a member of the ideological establishment.

This ideological establishment, due mostly to their technocratic nature, has been very good at hiding the ambiguity of their positions, with their emphasis on evidence based policy. Hence why they often use the criticism ‘anti-expert’ or ‘post-truth’. But, leavers listen to elites too, they just listen to different elites like Nigel Farage, Peter Hitchens or David Starkey.

Unpacking this term then, it is clear that the issue is not an anti-intellectual snobbery against the elite, the issue was with the set of ideas adopted by the ideological establishment who did not manage to produce a message strong enough to resonate as well as the leave message did. We are not in a new ‘post-truth’ era that requires a change in strategy to achieve our objectives. We need to stop patronising leavers, get to know them, and find a new message that resonates with them.

If we vote to leave don’t expect immigration to fall

If we vote to leave don’t expect immigration to fall


In the last few weeks the campaign for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union has become much more focused in order to leverage a specific issue which many voters care deeply about: immigration. However, a statement by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove among others reveals a deep schism on immigration between leading politicians in the Leave campaign and many of the voters they are hoping to seduce to the leave campaign.

A poll conducted by YouGov in April found that 71% of people in the UK thought that immigration into Britain is too high, with many feeling that the freedom of movement policy within the EU is to blame. This is not a view held exclusively by social conservatives with even 65% of Liberal Democrat voters, who tend to be highly Europhilic, thinking that current levels of immigration are too high.

Clearly then this is an issue which could reach across many political groups; and, which we know many people feel deeply about, many of whom will harbour grudges against the establishment politicians who dismiss this issue so frivolously. This could potentially be a winning coalition at the upcoming referendum.

The leave campaign has been appealing to this group by loudly vocalising to the media that immigration has been too high, and that the government cannot control levels of immigration whilst the UK remains in the EU.

Control being the key word here.

The Leave campaign is not actually promising to reduce immigration, but promising the ability to control immigration to a level which is deemed acceptable to the UK.

It could be argued that this is due to the Leave campaign not actually being the government and thus not having the power to reduce immigration themselves. However, if we delve further into the statements of the Leave campaign a picture emerges of a group spinning an issue to mobilise public support only to betray them by delivering instead their own vision of immigration policy; a vision entirely concerned with sovereignty.

In a statement outlining Leave’s official immigration policy upon Brexit the Leave campaign talks about the European Court of Justice interfering with the government’s ability to deport people; to  overturn applications for asylum; and to use “the Charter of Fundamental Rights to strike down decisions” on immigration policy.

They say that “Our membership of the EU means we don’t have control.”

The opening sentence of the statement, reads as if it were written by the Remain campaign, betraying the Leave campaign’s true beliefs: “Migration brings many benefits to Britain – culturally, socially and economically.” It continues, emphasis my own: “We want Britain to continue to benefit from migration. But if we are to welcome more people to Britain then the public must be reassured that we have control over who comes here.”

Moreover, in the statement the Leave campaign promise “by the next general election, we will create a genuine Australian-style points based immigration system.” Not only does this contradict the argument used often by the Leave campaign that they can’t propose policies because they are not the government; but, as the Guardian correctly points out net migration into Australia stood at 187,000 at its most recent count, which is more than the UK’s net migration figure of 184,000 used by the Leave campaign.

In addition, the Guardian also points out that the Australian system is designed to encourage immigration into Australia, and that the implementation of the system in the UK would actually double immigration into the UK.

It is clear then that the Leave campaign is misleadingly whipping up public support for its cause; attempting to utilise deeply felt resentments amongst the public about immigration, and promising to control immigration. But whoever is controlling migration may not choose to reduce immigration.

And, when Leave says it wants to welcome more people into Britain, it is obvious that this is just a separate group of elites to the establishment, fighting over their own competing vision of Great Britain as a nation state, willing to go against the wishes of the public.

Because, in reality that is what this referendum is about.

It is not, as portrayed by the leave campaign, a battle between the people and David Cameron’s establishment; but, a battle between two competing elites. Two sets of elites who share the set of assumptions that immigration benefits the economy of the United Kingdom, and that without an increase in the number of people of working age there will be an impending pension crisis, due to a reduction in government revenue from taxes.  But, who differ on ideas of sovereignty.

But there is no way to disguise it, the Leave campaign does not represent the Gillian Duffys of this world. It represents a traditional elite of tweed jacketed, welly wearing, old public school boys with romantic ideas of the nation state.

With romantic ideas of the nation state comes a lust for all the established forms of international power, such as economic might. The traditional elites who lead the charge to leave the EU would want to maintain the economic might of the UK and avoid any crises that would affect their handsome pension pots; don’t expect any falls in levels of migration if they get their way.

Cameron’s speech shows that he is preparing for Corbyn’s successor


The headlines may have focussed on David Cameron’s attack on “Britain-hating” Jeremy Corbyn; but, Cameron’s speech this week at the Conservative party conference shows that he expects Labour to have replaced Corbyn by the next general election.

In his speech Cameron outlined how he would use the rest of his term in government to pursue “an all-out assault on poverty”, and outlined his aims to improve social mobility and increase home ownership. The speech marks a change in theme from the Conservatives, moving from the party of tough austerity, highlighting the importance of living within our means, to one which is highlighting the problem of growing inequality.

Quotes such as: “Here, the salary you earn is more linked to what your father got paid than in any other major country,” would not have been out of place in a speech delivered by the leader of the opposition.

This speech, however, did not signal a complete change. Cameron continued to label the Conservative party “the party of aspiration”. Nevertheless, it was certainly an attempt to appeal to the centre-left.

This shift to the left has been rightly highlighted by many commentators as an astute attempt by the Tories to occupy the centre ground. However, at a time when Labour has shifted so drastically to the left, the question arises why does Cameron feel the need to expand his grip on the centre as far as the centre-left?

With issues such as Britain’s membership of the European Union causing noticeable tension between the Tory leadership and Backbench MPs on the right of the party; and, due to his slim majority in the House of Commons, Cameron would be at the mercy of his backbenchers when any controversial policies come to a vote.

Would it not then be prudent for Cameron to appease discontented Tory MPs by moving further to the right?

Given that Corbyn is perceived by the public to be far to the left, Cameron would have enough leeway to move slightly to the right, as Corbyn would be viewed as further to the left than Cameron is to the right. A rightward shift would help to unify the right of the Conservative party with its much more centrist leadership.

As such, the Prime Minister’s move further to the left can only be viewed as part of a long term plan that anticipates the replacement of Corbyn with a more moderate leader.

Conservative control of the centre ground will make it more difficult for any new moderate Labour leader to reclaim. While also making it likely that the Conservatives would achieve a crushing victory against Labour in the next general election, if Corbyn were to remain as Labour leader until 2020.

Ironically, this leftward shift will only increase the pressure on the Labour Party to quickly dispose of Corbyn. Many Labour members will have cringed at Cameron’s brutal characterisation of Corbyn as “security-threatening, terrorist-sympathising and Britain-hating”. They will have appreciated how damaging this will have been for Corbyn’s image among an increasingly patriotic electorate.

Labour MPs will also be keen to avoid a crushing defeat at the 2020 general election, and to begin the reclamation of the centre ground as soon as possible. The strength of Corbyn’s mandate will already have been weakened by a YouGov poll ranking him as the first new leader of the opposition, since records began, to have a negative approval rating immediately after taking office. Things are beginning to look ominous for Corbyn.

A strategic look at Yvette Cooper’s positioning as the champion of women

Yvette Cooper will be jubilant with Thursday’s events. Following her endorsement for the Labour Leadership by The Guardian, she gave a well-received speech criticising Jeremy Corbyn’s radicalism as “offering old solutions to old problems”.

Cooper has previously received criticism for not taking a clear position in the Labour leadership contest. Sandwiched between Corbyn on the left and Liz Kendall on the right, Cooper and Andy Burnham have come to represent the margarine in this leadership race.

This is understandable, as the candidates, with the exception of the authenticity of the Corbyn campaign, have been weary to say anything that could come back to bite them in a General Election.

Since the nomination of Corbyn by Labour MPs, it has become clear that the party membership has moved substantially to the left. Tony Blair has become a toxic symbol within the Labour Party; Cooper and Burnham have thus made an active attempt to distance themselves from the New Labour project. Both Cooper and Burnham are hindered, however, by the fact that both served in ministerial roles under Blair.

The Labour Party membership’s increasing appetite for radicalism has made it clear that in order to win the leadership contest candidates must move to the left of the perceived ‘centre’.

As the enormity of Corbyn’s lead in the polls has become clearer, Burnham and Cooper have had to make concessions to the left. Burnham has advocated a five-point plan that includes a Graduate Tax and renationalising the railways. Cooper instead is using her currency in the feminist movement in order to court their vote, a strategy that could be powerful and may cut into a substantial part of Corbyn’s support. In her speech on Thursday she said:

“So tell me what you think is more radical. Bringing back clause IV? Spending billions of pounds we haven’t got switching control of some power stations from a group of white middle aged men in an energy company to a group of white middle aged men in Whitehall?”

By placing her emphasis on women in governance, she establishes her radical credentials and diminishes Corbyn’s appeal. Many of Corbyn’s young supporters will identify as feminists and may feel that advancing gender equality should be a higher priority than other forms of social justice.

Leveraging her position as a popular feminist to establish her radicalism also means that she is under less pressure to outline her policies. This will give her a certain advantage over the other candidates if she manages to become Labour leader. She will effectively have a clean slate with which she can establish her claim of the centre ground.

It could also give her an advantage in a General Election campaign. Supporters of social justice in the Green Party, SNP and Plaid Cymru will be enthused by the chance to elect a progressive female Prime Minister. Whilst women are already more likely to support the Labour Party, the appeal of a female Labour Prime Minister could also be strong for aspiring young women trying to get ahead.

Could she alienate the social conservatives who previously voted Labour but voted UKIP in 2015? This demographic is largely male so this is a real danger for Cooper that she will have to manage carefully. However, as Labour leader she would have the flexibility to advocate for policies that they may find appealing.

There is still a long way to go and Corbyn’s support could still prefer the authentic radicalism of the veteran left-winger. Nevertheless, thanks to Cooper’s shrewd positioning in her Labour leadership campaign she is now the best placed candidate to defeat Corbyn and remain largely untainted by the leadership election.