On Saturday I posted my review of David Goodhart’s book The British Dream. Here is Goodhart’s response to that review. My thanks to David for a generous reply. I will post something later this week in response to the main challenge he raises about immigration, multiculturalism and integration, and about whether I adopt the left version of ‘there is no such thing as society’. I have also added a comment to this post which deals with some of the other issues he raises. I hope this turns into a fruitful discussion.
I have learnt a lot from Kenan over the years, especially about the failings of a certain strain of multiculturalism. And I cannot complain about much of his recent review of my book The British Dream. But I still think his own position of being in favour of as much immigration as possible – presumably on global justice grounds – while opposing ‘putting people into boxes’ multiculturalism, is plain eccentric.
To imagine how this might work Kenan has to ignore the economics of large scale immigration which even the mainly pro-mass immigration economists regard as negative for people at the bottom end of the labour market. He also has to adopt a sort of methodological individualism – there are only individuals, floating free of culture, tradition, language, ways of life, who can just slot into modern Britain without changing anything. This is the left’s equivalent of ‘there is no such thing as society’.
But Britain is a complex mix of groups and ways of life marked by region, class and ethnicity – with both common and conflicting interests. When immigration happens with large numbers coming in a short space of time, especially if they arrive from very different kinds of societies, it often creates conflict – look at Tower Hamlets in the 1970s. The problems there were not created by the media or by politicians framing the debate in the wrong way.
Although I agree with Kenan that separatist multiculturalism has placed too much stress on the primacy of ethnic identities, that doesn’t mean that ethnic cultures don’t exist. It is precisely because they are a powerful force in people’s lives that we need to worry about how to integrate people into modern, liberal Britain.
Decent societies with high levels of trust between citizens require a degree of stability and continuity. That does not mean everyone has to look the same or pray to the same God. It does mean care has to be taken with the speed of change and a policy of moderate immigration – something like the government’s goal of net immigration of ‘tens of thousands’ – is a necessary but not sufficient part of an integration strategy.
Kenan quotes the famous Roy Hattersley quote about the link between immigration and integration. But the point is that Britain has not had a very good record on integration, or rather some minorities (usually more successful ones) have just got on with it and other minorities (usually less successful ones) have remained conservative and inward-looking. In the early days of post-colonial immigration a racialised ‘communalism’ inherited from empire kept minorities apart from the majority, now in some parts of the country it is a form of ‘each to their own’ multiculturalism.
But I never get any sense from Kenan’s writings in this area what he himself believes about integration. Does he think it happens automatically if an overzealous multiculturalism doesn’t get in the way? And if not what sort of policies might improve it?
Kenan seems to think that the idea that a society or even a neighbourhood might have an absorptive capacity is rather distasteful. But everything is easier when numbers are lower and change is slower. When immigration levels were low in the late 1980s and early 1990s fears about immigration subsided. They rose sharply in the 2000s as the numbers rose despite the fact that racist attitudes were in sharp decline.
A couple of points more directly on Kenan’s review. I really do not believe, as he states, that the whole political elite – unlike ordinary voters – has been uniformly liberal since the 1950s. In the historical section of my book I have long accounts of the initial hostility of Whitehall to non-European immigration, of Powellism, of Jim Callaghan’s decision not to automatically let in the Kenyan Asians in 1968, of Margaret Thatcher’s hostility to immigration. It is true that the liberal/centre left side of the political class has in recent decades been more favourable and mistakenly believed right up until the mid-2000s that being anti-racist meant being favourable to large scale immigration. This view had significant infuence on Labour’s post-1997 liberalisations but I am not so dotty to believe that the whole political class was pro mass immigration.
And a factual thing: it is not true that immigration declined significantly after the 1962 end of the open door to empire and Commonwealth. In fact numbers in the 14 years after the closure were higher than in the 14 years of openness; in rough numbers 2m people came in the post-colonial wave up to the early 90s of which only 500,000 came in the open period.
Like many people who are pro mass immigration Kenan seems oblivious to scale and paints his opponents like me as being hostile to immigration itself; but of course I am not as I repeat endlessly in the book, I am against historically unprecedented annual inflows of 500k or 600k as we have had in recent years. I against partly on social democratic economic grounds because of the extra competition at the bottom end of the labour market – and remember that 20 per cent of low skill jobs in UK are taken by people born outside the country. And partly on communitarian/cultural grounds: too much churn is bad for stability locally (which most people seem to want) and also makes it harder to maintain the idea of a national ‘imagined community’ of people with significant shared interests, which was the great achievement of post-war social democracy.
Even if the government reaches its target of net immigration of around 90,000 a year that translates into a gross inflow of around 250,000 a year – hardly a closed door. If supporting this target makes me ‘obsessed’ by immigration then so be it. And incidentally in a book of eight chapters only three are directly about immigration and two of those are historical.
Kenan likes to stress the similarities between immigration today and in the past but what is most clear is the huge discontinuities: not just in scale but also the fact that unlike in the 19th century or early 20th century today we are a democracy and a welfare state, people have a sense of ownership of their society and have a legitimate say over who joins it.
Finally, what Kenan says about the transformation of working class life and culture by de-industrialisation is true enough but that does not mean it cannot also be changed by large scale immigration. The two things have often been associated in the minds of many people and it was indeed the same free market/globalisation principles that both swept away the old industrial villages and swept into the country huge flows of cheap labour. The labour movement was created in part to reduce competition in labour markets and give working class communities a bit more control over their destinies – large scale immigration makes both things harder.