Has the bubble burst? The Westminster bubble I mean. These terms — the bubble, the liberal London elite, the political class — have recently acquired a greater popular currency. A wider public is increasingly appreciating their meaning, and we have the recent EU debates between Farage and Clegg (followed neatly by Maria Miller’s resignation) to thank for that. The bubble — the policy wonks, the special advisors, the spin doctors, the commentariat — almost as one of them called the debate one way, the opinion polls called it the other. Whatever your views on the Ins and Outs of the EU, there is little doubt that something which had hitherto been hazily and lazily accepted as a modern condition of our politics — the conflict between the priorities of the rulers and the ruled — was suddenly and starkly thrown into sharp relief. It will be seen, I think, as a defining moment.
I suppose running a think tank in the shadow of the Houses of Parliament itself puts me at the heart of the bubble, in body if not in spirit. My office is just round the corner from Smith Square, once famously the home of both Tory and Labour headquarters (the former, with lovely irony, is now the London home of the European Commission) and it’s a useful place to be if you want to understand the bubble. Those from the media who inhabit it while at the same time reporting on it have become like courtiers, with a vested interest in protecting the game and its players. And there’s no doubt that the various processes of politics, its snakes-and-ladders aspect, the question of who is in control of “the narrative” at any one time, are obsessions which are alien to, and — quite rightly — considered unimportant by the real world outside.
But the political class is really only part of a bigger metropolitan class, which is as coherent and interconnected as any more traditionally understood establishment, and which includes the broadcast media, publishing, the academic world and so on. There is a remarkable convergence of views within these groups, who tend to hold the same prejudices and uphold the same orthodoxies, and they have essentially made London their own.
The difference in values was nicely encapsulated a couple of years ago, during the summer of the Olympics and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. The BBC covered the games brilliantly simply because they were basically far more instinctively at ease with the idea of them, with the internationalism and multicultural diversity on show. The Jubilee coverage was disastrous because at a fundamental level the BBC had a distaste for something it saw as distinctly and organically British; it just couldn’t quite understand why anybody would want to celebrate.
Meanwhile the capital’s arts, continuously lauded for their dynamism and edginess, in reality merely provide a kind of visual display unit for the greater understanding and promotion of acceptable viewpoints. For people who doubtless see themselves as intellectually accomplished and highly original, it is quite striking to see how in reality they all tend to believe the same things.
The truth is that, far from being individualistic and free-thinking, London’s metropolitan elites are profoundly sheep-like, while retaining a view of the people “outside” as being unable to understand issues in the way they can. I’ve been out on the stump quite a lot recently (for UKIP, since you ask) and it’s noticeable that people — whichever party they intend to support — have really begun to pick up the disdain wafting at them from above. Having spoken at meetings east, west and south of the capital, and tramped up and down a fair number of streets, I’ve been confirmed in my belief that people have a pretty good sense not just of the problems they see played out around them every day, but also of the wider cultural issues.
I took part in a question-and-answer session a few Sundays ago at a church, the Christian Life Fellowship, on my home turf in Greenwich. The congregation of about 200 was largely black, from cradle to pensioner. One young single mother told the Green candidate that while she understood all this stuff about stewardship of the planet, she needed to know in a bit more detail, with her child in mind, what he intended to do so far as schools and hospitals were concerned. He fluffed away, barely managing to disguise his lack of answers. Perhaps without meaning to, she had nailed not just him, but the fundamental weakness of the Green Party in general. Then a tall, fit young guy got up and asked the panel the direct question: “The Queen is the head of the Church of England. This is a Christian country. Why is Christianity being marginalised?”
Nothing about the cut of Nick Clegg’s jib, or whether the Budget would mean a Tory bounce in the polls, and no received wisdom in sight. The political class, like the rest of the metropolitan elite, should get out more.
This article first appeared in Standpoint magazine.