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How Effete are our Elites?

Populism has been brewing for longer than you think…

Having met him only in his writing, I guess you could call George Walden (pictured above), the former diplomat, Tory minister and PPS to Sir Keith Joseph, likeable.

I wouldn’t, though.

I’ve nothing against snobs as such, but snobbery is like a startling hat: if you can make it play with the rest of your outfit it’s great. If not, it’s simply annoying. George Walden, undoubtedly a snob, has a hat-problem. Just when you’ve started to like him, the appearance of his hat shocks you and you have to begin all over again.

His memoirs Lucky George, said to be written by an “Anti-Politician”, were first published in 1999, six years after Alan Clark’s Diaries. There are similarities. It’s not a coincidence that Penguin added a blurb from Matthew Parris, calling Lucky George “brilliant, the best since Alan Clark’s Diaries”, to the front of the paperback. Alas, Walden’s short and condescending description of Clark in that same book is a perfect example of why Walden, at the end of the day, isn’t likeable: Clark turned up at the BBC in loud country tweeds on a weekday in the metropolis - the sheer horror of it!

There’s too much primness and not enough acerbic zest in Walden’s cant. Nevertheless, Walden is nobody’s fool and he’s still at it, of sorts. His latest is an update of his 2006 book Time to Emigrate? The original was not very well liked by the Guardian-reading crowd. Walden professed not feeling at home in England anymore, partly but not exclusively because of immigration. That can still get you into trouble in neighbourhoods with posh postcodes. The update basically consists of a longish letter to his daughter, debating the need to emigrate after Brexit, and a foreword explaining why no one is fit to run the country.

It’s a good, easy read, if not an encouraging one. Walden is a Remainer, but not of the silly kind. He explains his position to his daughter, the day after the referendum. She suspected that her father would vote to leave, because of his views on immigration. Walden recoils:

“Vote for Pantaloon? Of course I was a Remainer! That was the whole point of what I was saying about immigration! To warn that if we didn’t listen to decent Brits on the rough side of it, then God help us. Well, we didn’t, and He hasn’t.”

In 2000, the Blair government was still considered interesting and Peter Mandelson had only fallen from grace once… George Walden not only saw past that, he saw into the souls of the new political caste. It wasn’t pretty.

But I can’t help but feel that George Walden should have made a little more of an effort. The book he needs to resurrect is the one he wrote twenty years ago this coming year.

Ever since it was published I’ve found myself returning to The New Elites – Making a Career in the Masses. In 2000, the Blair government was still considered interesting and Peter Mandelson had only fallen from grace once. It was – at least a few months after the millennium celebrations in London and at

least for us foreigners – possible to use the catchphrase “Cool Britannia” without giving it an ironic twist.

George Walden not only saw past that, he saw into the souls of the new political caste. It wasn’t pretty.

The gist of it was that a kind of inverted elite had taken over politics. It was in a way more of a cultural change than a political one, so no party was immune. The inverted nature of the new elite took the form of an unmitigated support for anti-elitism. What had grown out of the counter-culture in the 60s and what had at that time been a liberating force had now, argued Walden, become “constraining, a secular religion with its dogmas, its clergy, its cloudy hermeneutics”.

Britain, Walden wrote, had fallen into the hands of a “select group of professional egalitarians”. These egalitarians did nothing to raise popular aspirations or make people better themselves, instead they “exploit mass taste, mass gullibility, mass spending power for their own advantage”.

Walden’s book was timely. There was a tentative discussion that revived Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses. Christopher Lasch’s last work The Revolt of the Elites: And the Betrayal of Democracy was published just six years earlier. It’s almost hard to imagine today, but there was an international debate on the relationship between governed and governors, between elites and the people, driven by honest curiosity. Words like “populism” and “elite” still had a descriptive meaning, not only a pejorative function.

Walden outlined a whole set of implications from his thesis. One of them was that the “New Elite” had no sense of “noblesse oblige”. The anti-elitist elites were by definition meritocratic. So they truly believed that they were self-made. Once they had climbed the ladder they saw no reason to look down, unless they had to in order to secure their position. They were even tempted to raise the ladder, to stop the competition from climbing up high.

Here’s a paradoxical twist: the anti-elitist elites, Walden mused, were probably less interested in and less in touch with “the common man” than the elitist elites they had supplanted.

Where would that take us?

And here we are, twenty years later.