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.