Somewheres and Anywheres

by Peter Wells

Well, I’ve looked at David Goodhart’s book (The Road to Somewhere – The New Tribes Shaping British Politics: 2017) and I’m obviously an Anywhere. [All quotes are from the Kindle edition]. “They tend to do well at school [Well, reasonably], then usually move from home to a residential university in their late teens [Yes] and on to a career in the professions [Teaching] that might take them to London or even abroad [Yes, indeed] for a year or two [or eighteen!]. Such people have portable ‘achieved’ identities, based on educational and career success which makes them generally comfortable and confident with new places and people [Generally!].”

My father was lifted out of the conservative background of his family by several years of residential higher education, had a job which caused us to move every three or four years, and wired the house to broadcast BBC Radio 4 (or its predecessor, the Home Service) to every room. My infant toys included female  as well as male dolls, and, what’s more, one of the females was a little black girl! (Don’t be condescending – we’re talking the late 40s!) The first black person I met was an African student on homestay with us, who shed light for me on the mysteries of Latin grammar (I returned the compliment by teaching Latin to Zimbabweans five years later!). (Sorry! I meant well!)

So I pass Goodhart’s worldview test: “This [sc. Anywhereism] is a worldview for more or less successful individuals [Check, though rather less than more!] who also care about society [Check]. It places a high value on autonomy, mobility and novelty [Check] and a much lower value on group identity, tradition and national social contracts (faith, flag and family) [Check]. Most Anywheres are comfortable with immigration, European integration and the spread of human rights legislation [Check]. They … see themselves as citizens of the world [Check 110%!].”

The privileges opened up to me by this certification were immense. Repeatedly during my career I was able to enter the ‘alien’ environments of foreign countries, in Africa, Asia and the Middle East – not as a tourist but as a resident, worker, colleague, neighbour and friend. Seeing how people of a different culture live, think, laugh, learn, befriend, commute, pay, greet, and grieve, enabled me to put  my own attitudes and presuppositions into perspective. I realised that what had looked to me like a central and obvious norm was just the point of view that I happened to have been brought up with. My wife and I were offered a glimpse of at least five very distinctive ways to live, instead of the sole option that most people are granted. More than anything else, this is what makes working abroad a joy and delight. The elusive quality of a national culture defies stereotyping. Like the flavour of a loved one’s cooking, it is itself. Africans, Arabs, Japanese are not reducible to epithets: they are what they are. A spouse who has had the same experience will know what you mean when you say, “That’s just like Oman / Malawi / Japan, isn’t it.” Our friends have no idea what we are talking about! You can, of course, obtain a similar experience by visiting a different part of your own country, or even someone else’s house, but for the full culture shock you need to change countries!

It is good to meet people who see the world entirely differently from us, and who seem to be (nevertheless!) coping as well as we are with it, in their own way. It is good to live with citizens of other countries for an extended period, cooperating with their bureaucracies, being managed by members of the host community, working alongside other members, managing others, being neighbours. This experience forces us to realise that our way of looking at the world is – not necessarily wrong, but – not the only possible view. And the acceptance that one might be wrong, or at least that one does not necessarily own the monopoly on truth, is, in my view, the first prerequisite of learning.

If the experience of living in different cultures is precious to an individual, it is invaluable to the world at large. For, surely, progress is made by the discovery of new ways of thinking, feeling, playing, or doing things. And intellectual advances seem to occur when a major or minor clash occurs between two ways of life or schools of thought. While these fruitful frictions can occur within communities, they are much more likely to arise at the interfaces between them. To take one example, look what happened when African musical harmonies met Western ones (albeit in tragic circumstances). Jazz!! Rapid and fascinating developments in  food and fashion are visible examples of the constant transfer and fusion of ideas, attitudes and systems between cultures, by which the world can only benefit.

However, in a maximally mobile world, every country would probably tend to become as similar to every other country as international airports already are. The whole globe would be in danger of cultural homogeneity. Whereas, in order for productive interaction to take place, it is essential that the world should be diverse – should contain relatively self-contained communities that differ in important ways from each other. Anywheres must be able to find communities sufficiently different from their own to be interesting and stimulating, exhibiting ideas and customs which contrast sharply with what the Anywheres have seen in their own country. Otherwise the Anywheres will not be able to bring back, as all travellers should, things to interest, amuse and teach the folks back home. And here we encounter a paradox.

In order that the sort of interesting societies that Anywheres prize can exist, and survive with coherence and consistency, the world absolutely needs Somewheres. According to Goodhart, Somewheres are “more socially conservative and communitarian by instinct … They feel uncomfortable about many aspects of cultural and economic change—such as mass immigration, an achievement society in which they struggle to achieve, the reduced status of non-graduate employment and more fluid gender roles … Their worldview is best described by a phrase that many would regard as a contradiction in terms: ‘decent populism’.”

The key word in Goodhart’s definition is ‘decent.’ If democracy means anything, the citizens of a country surely have the right to have some influence over the characteristics their community takes on. (Goodhart is certain that Somewheres far outnumber Anywheres in Western societies.) For example, it seems reasonable (not ‘indecent’) for citizens to demand a slower pace of immigration, or language training / qualifications as a condition of entry, without being vilified as racists. ‘Decent’ does not cover violent, offensive, or discriminatory acts against existing citizens, but Goodhart is aware of the danger that the frustration of the  Somewheres may spill over into unacceptable behaviour. Yet on the whole the intransigence of the Somewheres of the world, even in its less pleasant aspect, may be in some ways beneficial.

The function of the Somewheres is to keep their communities relatively isolated and unaffected by foreign influences. Somewheres resist, often in a somewhat curmudgeonly fashion, all the things that liberals value – foreign languages, ‘ethnic’ food and customs, free movement across borders. Generally speaking, they oppose change in their locality, or at least slow it down. The beneficial result is that Anywheres from elsewhere can experience change when they come to visit. They can gain the enriching experiences that I have described – particularly that crucial moment of vulnerability shortly after arrival, when one is most open to new impressions.

In other words, we need to re-examine our feelings about Somewheres – people we know little about, sadly, as we don’t often meet them to interact with on a personal level. (Check – how many Brexiteers or Trump supporters do you know personally? No? Me neither.) When English-speaking Anywheres visit foreign countries, as teachers, businesspeople, or ‘experts,’ – as I have done – the members of the host community that we interact with meaningfully are rarely Somewheres. They are local Anywheres – ‘native’ people with positive attitudes towards foreigners and towards change, who have signalled their membership of the global Anywhere community by thoughtfully learning English, so that we don’t have to learn their language. They have probably visited our country, or even studied in it, and they will be receptive to the cosmopolitan ideas that we emanate.

They may well take it upon themselves to introduce us to their culture, and even to some genuine Somewheres, such as their parents, who will probably kindly offer us an authentic taste of the local cuisine. It is on occasions such as these that our essential fraternity with the local Anywheres becomes very evident to us, and we realise how much closer we are to them than to the Somewheres in our own country, let alone the Somewheres of theirs. We and the local Anywheres are citizens of the same intellectual country.

For here’s another paradox. Anywheres (as I tried to explain in a previous article) look down on Somewheres (and the Somewheres unsurprisingly don’t like it). “Anywheres tend to see Somewhere conservatism as irrational or as a backlash against the advance of liberal social values” [Goodhart]. Somewheres prefer to associate with like-minded people, are wary of the irruption into their community of people with different lifestyles, customs or jobs, and are comfortable with people with opinions and attitudes like theirs.

As indeed are Anywheres! Confronted with a room full of Somewheres we’re as uneasy as a straight man in a gay bar, or an Afghan refugee in a Cornish chip shop (or the Cornish chip frier in a mosque). Somewheres don’t eat the same food, laugh at the same jokes, go to the same places on holiday, or have the same priorities for their children, as we do, or respond to our allusions, or understand our jobs,. After ten minutes of their company, all we want to do is to get back to the bosom of our ideological family, where we will once more feel at home, with our prejudices unchallenged.

In other words, Anywheres seem to be, despite their self-confident cosmopolitanism, nothing more or less than a different type of Somewheres. We don’t live on farms, or in the street where our grandparents were born, but we live in our own recognisable global village, linked by aeroplanes and the internet, in tastefully decorated homes that look suspiciously similar (appropriately stocked bookshelves backing our Zoom interactions). We do jobs almost as generic as fishing or plumbing, though arguably less useful. And we are as complacently certain of the incontrovertibility of our views as any conservative imam or tub-thumping Brexiteer or Trumpist. I can almost hear some of us saying, ‘Me Dad wer liberal, Ah’ve allus bin liberal, an’ me kids’r gonna be bloody liberal an’ all.’

Goodhart makes no secret of the fact that the aim of his book is to address the political imbalance that he perceives as existing between Anywheres and Somewheres to the advantage of the former (though they are in a minority). “It is time that Anywheres stopped looking down on Somewheres, white or non-white, and learnt to accept the legitimacy of their ‘change is loss’ worldview and even accommodate some of their sentiments and intuitions.” It is (partly) this superciliousness, Goodhart implies, that has led to the reverses liberalism has suffered recently.

Though of course we need not believe or agree with him, as he has revealed himself to be a traitor to the cause. He has taken the road to Somewhere. 

Dare we tiptoe after him for a few metres, to see what it’s like?


But I thought we were supposed to like going to new countries!