Society and Culture

Britain has a cultural elite. Why not call it that?

Who is “the elite”?

There are types of societies where that question has a simple and obvious answer. For example, in East Germany, “the elite” were the upper echelons of the Socialist Unity Party. They were, most obviously, the political elite. But they were also the economic elite, i.e. the richest people in the country. And they were the cultural elite. They had ultimate control over the media, the education sector, the arts and entertainment. In such a society, even if we disagree on how to define “the elite”, we can still agree on who it is.

In more pluralistic societies like modern-day Britain, this question is considerably trickier, because there is no such thing as “the elite” or “the establishment”: there are multiple, overlapping elites/establishments. The political elite, the financial elite, the cultural elite, and perhaps other elites, intersect, but they are not the same. Politicians, for example, are quite well-off, but they are not who we have in mind when we talk about “the super-rich”. The super-rich, meanwhile, can try to lobby politicians and buy influence, but they will often not get their way, because they do not have political power. A social media influencer with hundreds of thousands of followers has no legislative power, and they may well have an income below the poverty line. But unless their followers are all hate-followers, they can have a disproportionate impact on the national conversation. They can make the whole country talk about whatever they happen to be obsessed with at the moment. (Not least because journalists often take their cues from Twitter, and people get invited on political TV programmes on the basis of something they tweeted.) They can mobilise a mob to get someone “cancelled”. And they can declare certain words or opinions “problematic” or “offensive”.

You can be part of one of those elites, while being far away from the others. Thus, in Britain, to say that somebody is a part of “the elite” is like saying that somebody is “talented”: it is too unspecific. Talented at what?

Let’s stick with that analogy for a moment. Imagine Person A used the word “talented” to mean “good at sports”, while Person B used it to mean “academically gifted”. This would lead to misunderstandings, along the lines of:

A: “Boris Becker is extremely talented.”

B: “Talented?? Becker?? Rubbish! The man used to be a multi-millionaire, and yet he managed to bankrupt himself!”

A: “So? How can you say he’s not talented? Have you not seen him play against Stefan Edberg at Wimbledon?”

B: “No, but I’ve heard him give interviews, and I was… not impressed. He is definitely not talented.”

A: “Well then go and win the Wimbledon Championship three times, if you think this requires no talent!”

If this dialogue sounds made-up and contrived, let’s change the setup a little. Let’s suppose that Person A uses the words “elite” and “establishment” to mean “cultural agenda-setters”, while Person B uses it to mean “rich people” or “politically powerful people”. This would lead to misunderstandings, along the lines of:

A: “I often disagree with Nigel Farage, but you’ve got to hand it to him – he does rile the establishment!”

B: “Are you mad?? Farage is rich! He’s privately educated! He’s a former city trader! And he used to be an MEP for many years!”

A: “So? Look at how all the Guardian readers clutch their pearls every time he opens his mouth!”

B: “By that logic, you could also claim that Donald Trump is “the scourge of the elite”.”

A: “Well… yes! Because he obviously is! I mean, I don’t agree with his politics, but you can’t get much more anti-establishment than him.”

B: “Oh, please! The man inherited a property empire! And he was literally the president of the United States! How is he not part of the elite??”

A: “Oooh, you’re having a go at Trump! How brave! How edgy! Now, let’s hear you say something against Black Lives Matter, or some transgender activist group! You won’t! Because you know that you’d instantly get cancelled if you did!”

This sounds a lot more realistic, doesn’t it? Not least because this is basically every argument about Prof Matthew Goodwin’s new book Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics right now. But the type of misunderstanding which underlies these two fictitious dialogues is the same.

Well – not quite. There is one minor and one major difference between them. The minor one is that, in the first example, A and B would probably, at some point, figure out that they are just talking past each other. In the second example, this is considerably less likely to happen, because the two would have to be sufficiently aware of what they are doing. And when we talk about “the elite”, we are usually not.

The major difference is that in the first example, A and B do not disagree on the substance. They just disagree on what the word “talented” means. Take out that word, and the dialogue becomes:

A: “Boris Becker really is an exceptional athlete, isn’t he?”

B: “He sure is. But he’s no Einstein.”

A: “Ha ha! No, certainly not.”

The second dialogue, on the other hand, could not be resolved in this way. In that example, A is fully aware that Farage and Trump are rich, and politically well-connected, even if he would not use the word “elite” to describe that fact. But A also believes that there is such a thing as a cultural establishment, which Trump and Farage, for all their money and connections, are very much not part of. B would either dispute that such a thing as a “cultural establishment” even exists, or at least downplay its importance.

And it would be difficult to prove B wrong, because the cultural elite is considerably harder to define than the financial elite or the political elite. Income and wealth can be measured, political power can be ascertained. But how do we measure “cultural power”?

Nonetheless – there are many things that we would struggle to define precisely, but which are no less real for it. When I went to a bookshop again for the first time after the third lockdown, I noticed that there were at least a dozen books about “white privilege”, “structural racism” etc on the display tables – subjects that I was familiar with, but used to think of as “Twitter topics” or “Guardian topics”, not “Waterloo Station bookshop topics”. The Guardian, around the same time, proudly reported that “almost 70 memorials renamed or being taken down since last summers [sic] Black Lives Matter protests”. You could read stories about schools and universities trying to “decolonise” their curriculums on a daily basis. This stuff was suddenly everywhere.

How is that not “cultural power”? How does that not show that Britain has a woke cultural establishment, which has the power to force its obsessions on the whole country? This is a form of power which Boris Johnson, even though he was Prime Minister at the time, and comically overprivileged in every other respect, did not have, and never will have.

There is a cultural elite. That elite is woke; it is eco-alarmist; and it is Marxist or Marxism-adjacent. Its members hate to be called “the elite”. But that is all the more reason for doing it.


Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).

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