Speaking as a member of the liberal metropolitan elite…

David Mitchell
I Googled “liberal elite” on our website, and this image came up. It’s completely irrelevant to the piece. Sorry, David

A few months ago, in our sister publication The Spectator, Hugo Rifkind wrote a piece asking: why do journalists think they’re not part of the ruling elite? He looked at his own life, and totted up the details, and came to the conclusion that he must be pretty elite himself:

Columnist for The Spectator, leader writer for the Times, the public school- and Oxbridge-educated son of a Conservative former Cabinet minister; hmm, hard to fight it. There have been five prime ministers in my lifetime, and I’ve met three of them and been in the same room as the other two. So let’s be objective about this. What I think about it is neither here nor there.

I was glad he wrote it, because the phrase “(X) elite” gets thrown around an awful lot these days – it’s the “chatterati” de nos jours – and it often strikes me as odd that the people using the term are defining it so they themselves are outside it.

So cards on the table: I’m a member of the metropolitan elite. I must be. I live in London, I write for a national newspaper, I am the son of two doctors and am the great-grandson of a Nobel prizewinner and the great-great nephew of John Maynard Keynes. I can posture as a man of the people as much as I like, with my I-support-Liverpool and I-went-to-the-local-comp, but if I’m not actually in the one per cent, I’m probably not far outside it. Any reasonable definition of the phrase “metropolitan elite” must include me. Consider my privilege checked.

I was thinking that this morning, after I saw that a group of scientists and writers and comedians and so on have written to the Telegraph criticising David Cameron for his pronouncement on this “Christian nation”. M’colleague Toby Young responded, saying that “The liberal metropolitan elite despise Christianity because it poses a challenge to their moral authority“.

Admittedly, the people he refers to are, it’s true, members of the “liberal metropolitan elite”. Polly Toynbee, AC Grayling, Philip Pullman, Terry Pratchett, Jim Al-Khalili, the president of the British Humanist Society; these people are certainly liberal and certainly elite (though not necessarily metropolitan). But it seems odd for Toby to use the phrase disparagingly, since he lives in London, his best-selling book was made into a film starring Jeff Bridges and Kirsten Dunst, he has written extensively for most of the country’s major newspapers and magazines, he is the son of a baron, and his name is properly prefaced by the term “The Honourable”. He may or may not be liberal, but he’s certainly metropolitan and, I would say, a member of the elite. There is no shame in that; I am too. But it is a strange choice of epithet.

I suppose the real question, though, is not whether or not Toby is a member of the LME, as we’ll probably have to start abbreviating it soon. The question is: is he right? Does Christianity pose a challenge to the moral authority of the LMEs? As Toby puts it:

Any traditional form of morality – anything that suggests there might be a higher source of authority than them when it comes to matters of right and wrong  – is a direct challenge to their status.

This is a strange claim, in a country where 26 bishops have seats in the House of Lords – a claim that a bunch of (admittedly well-off, educated, famous, “elite”) liberals are the moral authority and that Christianity is in some way a “challenge” to it. Without wanting to put words in the mouths of the signatories, I would imagine that they would see themselves as challenging Christianity’s moral authority – saying that, for instance, a morality taken from a book should at least be challenged against our own judgments of what is right and wrong, and that a morality based on a promise of heavenly reward and a threat of punishment by damnation is not morality at all, but bribery and coercion.

More than that, I note among the signatories one Prof Jonathan Glover, the great ethical philosopher, student of AJ Ayer and my old MA tutor. He would, I am sure, be the last person to claim to himself any sort of “moral authority”; his career has been spent attempting to work out from where moral authority can be derived, and what rules we ought to live by. But he would never claim that philosophers, or for that matter scientists or Australian musical comedians, get to tell people how to live. Attempting to uncover moral truths is not the same as laying down the law.

And that is the difference between the ethical philosophy espoused by the “liberal metropolitan elite” of the letter and the religious morality Toby defends. One is an attempt to base our moral life on universal principles which we can uncover through working from a few common assumptions and an understanding of human nature; the other is a fixed set of codes, some of which are no doubt profound and eternal, but others of which are arbitrary, frozen accidents. The argument over whether there is such a thing as a universal, or at least universally human, set of moral codes is one that has exercised philosophers for millennia. But if there is, the final answer will not be found in the Bible.

The point, then, is not that Christianity is a threat to the moral authority of the metropolitan elite. The point is that these particular members of the metropolitan elite – unlike Toby, himself the metropolitan elite, and many other equally metropolitan, equally elite people – reject the authority of Christianity, as do many not-metropolitan, not-elite people. This is an argument about ideas; it is not an argument about who’s the edgiest outsider. And if it were, both Toby and I would lose it.

More on Christianity

• Hang on, where is Richard Dawkins?
• Christianity isn’t just about being nice to people
• Is David Cameron really a Christian?



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