Nick Cohen (left) and George Walden
Daniel Johnson: George, explain to us how in your view the riots in England in August illuminate the problem of our anti-elitist elite.
George Walden: The riots took place within a culture. Now people are asking themselves quite rightly: how on earth did that come to arrive? David Cameron himself has spoken about a destructive culture and others have said actually the culture of cupidity applies in the City as well as in the scenes on the street. What interests me as the author of The New Elites [Gibson Square, 2006] is the role of what I call the anti-elite elites in producing a culture of anarchism and nihilism. I don't think it's too much to say we have the worst underclass in Europe and we've seen their powers of destruction. But before we can get on to this we need to ask ourselves who are the elites.
When you ask that, no one puts their hand up. What they are not are some sort of aristocratic rump in the House of Lords or people who chunter Latin tags. That is not the modern elite. By elite I mean people with power and influence, not just status or money. The people with the real power and the real influence are in my view the egalitarian elites in politics, the media, business, the arts. De Tocqueville has to come into this — he warned about some of the penalties of democracy: that it could give rise to "an anonymous despotism for which no one would stand responsible". I think by that he meant populism — a sort of despotism of the masses. People with power and authority, and with money and education do have a responsibility for the culture which we have, and their overriding culture of condescending to the masses, using masses in the old sense, is uniquely damaging.
And so it's important to reject the idea of the old elite. The new elite is by no means a stratum of society which even affects to stand for higher values any more in the way it once did.
The whole thing is summed up by Cameron and Tracey Emin, which is a tedious but revealing metaphor. Cameron, who is who he is — not his fault but he's a well-educated guy with money. Tracey Emin is a talentless woman from a poor background. Cameron's gesture of hanging a worthless object made by this woman in No 10 Downing Street is a supreme act of condescension and, in a way, goes to the core of what I'm saying because this type of act is taken much further every day in the media, and television in particular, and in the arts and in politics, i.e. playing down to the lowest cultural levels in Britain. Mostly for money, it has to be said. And this has done huge damage to the culture in general.
DJ: Nick, in your book Waiting for the Etonians [Fourth Estate, 2009] you delivered a devastating critique of what you call liberal England — how it had betrayed its own values and rather, as George has suggested, went after the money, went a bit crazy and then we had the crash. To crudely summarise your thesis, the British people turned back to the old elite as you saw it — the Etonians, the Bullingdon Club — the people who we never thought since the Sixties we would see back. A year or two on, how does it look to you and what do you say to George's thesis?
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