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 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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mightymark
March 28th, 2013
4:03 PM
There certainly are examples of playing down to the lowest cultural levels - and very embarrassing they are, to choose just one relatively harmless effect of this. I am not sure Cameron adopting something by Tracy Emin is an example of that though. Isn't she typical rather, of the taste the cultural elite than of the underclass - most of whom would probably see it for the rubbish it is better than the elite would?

Louise
March 11th, 2013
8:03 AM
'we have the worst underclass in Europe and we've seen their powers of destruction.' No you haven't. And you probably never will. No group of people would tolerate the kind of unpleasantness that is being dished out to them by the likes of the rather strange looking fellows in the illustration accompanying this article and willingly sacrifice themselves as cannon fodder again. 'Most squaddies come from council estates' David Starkey, CBE, FSA But not for much longer.

Bob Hunt
March 2nd, 2013
1:03 AM
Dear Sir, I am very interested in the fact that no British bank went under in the twenties or thirties. How was this possible?

RHJ King
October 29th, 2012
2:10 AM
I'll grant that there were a few interesting points made over these ten pages, but am quite surprised how the conversation fizzled into the ether with an unchallenged bit of silliness. Regardless of how much Nick Cohen would like to think that the "model has fallen apart", there is no avoiding the fact that for decades one 'elite' or another has had a wrench in the gears of the free market system. The western social democratic model in all its guises throughout the world is floundering and has neither the skills nor the belief system to support a stable economy, let alone one that is faltering. The notion that trade unions and bureaucrats aren't to blame can also be questioned. If the recent riots are not a direct cultural descendent of the labour unrest of the 70's, what is it? And, please, just look at the size and cost of the modern bureaucracy and the debt they insist on accruing. What we require is the impossible: among other things- less government (particularly left of center so called conservatives), a revamped educational system that will teach self reliance, and some old fashioned hard work. What we will get is more of the same 'ghastly demotivating' statism.

John
December 29th, 2011
4:12 PM
"It is impossible for serious people to believe in God any more, or at least the God of the Bible, the God of the Koran, the God of the Torah. You just can't do it." Nick this is the silliest comment you have made in this interview. It is obvious that serious people do believe in God and precisely in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Who could be more serious than Benedict XVI, John Paul II, Jonathon Sacks, Jacques Delors, Angela Merket, etc., etc. I would say that not believing in God is extremely frivolous and adolescent. Most public atheists, if they were once had faith, lost it in their teens. But this means that they are locked into an adolescent syndrome with regard to what is the most serious question that can be asked: does God exist? They fail to grow spiritually even if they become brilliant scientists, writers, mathematicians, etc.

Moesy
December 24th, 2011
9:12 PM
Iv been checking for a few weeks now and I can't believe no-one has bothered commenting on this! George Walden's, New Elites, is a philosophical classic and once read, you will see the sh'it were in in an entirely different, and even original, way. New Elites peels away the lazy cobwebs we operate in and opens a new angle to explore. A bit like Orwell and Huxley, but for today. So it's a damn shame that I am the only person bothering to comment. Now that's intelligence for you! Now what time is The X Factor playing?

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