Tuesday, 28 February 2017

This metropolitan elite business

What are we really talking about?

This is from Hugo Rifkind (in the Times and in the Australian):

"London, at its most reflexively liberal, is often populated by people who have chosen to come from somewhere else. Often those choices will have come with rewards (the sort of career that lets you pop over to Miami, for example) but urbanites also tend to be painfully aware of the sacrifices, too. Or, to put that another way, it’s pretty damn galling to be regarded as an “aloof elite” by somebody with a bigger garden than you. This is not, I think, about mutual incomprehension. I keep reading, as though it were some neat, rhetorical liberal “gotcha”, that the areas most hostile to immigration are the areas with the least of it. “The fools!” the subtext seems to be. “They have no idea!” Don’t they, though? Maybe they do, and just don’t like it, which is why they not only vote against immigration but also choose to live somewhere where it doesn’t really happen. That’s certainly true in Miami, where “white flight” has seen the English-speaking population streaming into northern suburbs for a generation. Closer to home, London’s soaring population has masked the departure of hundreds of thousands of “white British” into the suburbs, which now vote as the cities do not.

Every city has pockets like this, and they are growing, just as every city is increasingly surrounded by people who don’t want to live that way at all. These are different lives with different political priorities. With a metropolitan life, for example, the green belt is somebody else’s, and spiralling fuel prices largely happen to other people. By contrast, city-dweller political priorities such as pollution or minority integration doubtless look false and virtue-signally when viewed from a nice bit of Berkshire. Only that’s not how they feel when I join the hordes on my morning walk down the hill into Finsbury Park."

Rifkind is far from being an idiot. He's got some good points. But isn't this the bigger picture?

(1) Rifkind is the son of a Cabinet Minister, privately educated, went to Cambridge, lives in London, writes for the Times, the Spectator etc etc. I fully accept that he is not one of the people who in fact run the country. I fully accept that there are many state-school educated, non-Oxbridge people with no famous relations who have more power than him. But galling or not, he is, as a matter of fact, a member of an elite section of society. 

(2) That thing about the garden. Seriously? It's just like FE Smith or Lord Curzon or whoever it was (I can't find the quotation now) saying that he does not know why people are snobbish about terraced house since he had lived all his life in a terraced house. £1m, to take a figure almost at random, buys a much smaller garden a short walk from Finsbury Park station than it does a few stops down the line. It's up to Rifkind whether he wants his £1m to buy a small amount of vibrant zone 2 property or a larger amount of leafy zone 6 property.  Houses in Mayfair and Belgravia have pretty small back gardens too, but that doesn't mean that the people who live in them are the downcast powerless.

(3) Which leads me onto my central point, namely Rifkind's insight that maybe the suburban British do know what it is like in multicultural central London. Let me put it this way: where does Rifkind think those people work? Yes, there are schools and hospitals and shops and business parks outside London. But huge swathes of the population of London's suburbs - and beyond - travel into London every day to work in the midst of the pollution and all the rest of it. Even if they don't work there now, they probably once did. The suburbs, the dormitory villages and the commutable towns of southeast England are full of people who know London pretty well but choose not to live there.

But the opposite is not true. The people of Cockfosters pass through Finsbury Park on their way to work. But the Rifkinds have no need ever to go to Cockfosters. Or Purley. Or Basildon. Or - well, you get the picture. Rifkind himself, to his credit, has previously spotted this ("... do I really have a clue about South Hampshire? Or even take the London metropolitan area, which is 14 whole million people strong. If I’m honest, I do know it is not all like Finsbury Park, with its halal takeaways and shops selling hair extensions. Nor is it all like the posh bits I’ll pass through sometimes on the way to visit ex-London friends, full of hedges and cricket matches and Tudor pubs. A lot of it must be somewhere in between.[...] Maybe they’re the people you see in the audience on Top Gear. I’ve always wondered who they were.") This asymmetry is, I think, the real motivation for the 'aloof metropolitan elite' gibe that Rifkind evidently feels so keenly. The people of Cockfosters know all about Rifkind, where he went to university, where he took the children for half-term (Disneyland Florida, since you ask), how he voted in the Brexit referendum and so on. They know how he thinks. They know this he openly and honestly tells us, in the Times, in the Spectator and in the Australian. And the people of Cockfosters know these facts - or essentially similar ones - about many other similarly influential people, for similarly reasons. But perhaps those influential people have no knowledge of similar facts about the people of Cockfosters.

Rifkind is right. It is not mutual incomprehension. It is asymmetric comprehension. We can all accept that Rifkind is painfully aware of the amount of garden space he has sacrificed to live where he lives. But does he think that the people who live further down the line from Finsbury Park are not also painfully aware of the sacrifices they have made, the commuting, the distance, the need to drive their children to school? To put it another way, it's pretty damn galling to be regarded as a troglodyte Top Gear fan by someone who doesn't spend 2 hours a day on the Piccadilly Line. 

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