On Saturday I reviewed David Goodhart’s book The British Dream which explores, in the words of its subtitle, the ‘successes and failures of post-war immigration’. Goodhart, I suggested, ‘touches on some of the critical issues that we face today’. But ‘his insistence on seeing contemporary problems primarily through the lens of immigration only obscures those issues and makes it more difficult to formulate adequate responses’.

Goodhart responded to that review, suggesting that my attempt to marry a critique of multiculturalism to a defence of mass immigration was ‘plain eccentric’. There were three key points to his argument. First, he  suggested, ‘decent societies with high levels of trust between citizens require a degree of stability and continuity’. Too much immigration undermines such stability and continuity. Hence ‘the government’s goal of net immigration of “tens of thousands”’ was ‘a necessary but not sufficient part of an integration strategy’.

Second, I am only able to defend mass immigration, Goodhart insisted, by adopting ‘a sort of methodological individualism’, the idea that ‘there are only individuals, floating free of culture, tradition, language, ways of life, who can just slot into modern Britain without changing anything’. This, for Goodhart, is ‘the left’s equivalent of  “there is no such thing as society”’.

Finally, Goodhart asked, what does integration mean for me?

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?

I will deal with each of these three issues in turn. To keep posts to a reasonable length, I will respond today simply to the first issue – the question of stability and continuity – and return to the other questions over the next couple of weeks.


Stability and continuity are not good in themselves, any more that change is a good in itself. Nor is there a particular degree of stability that is good, any more than there is a particular magnitude of change that is welcome. The answers depend very much on context.

Similarly with immigration. There is, in the abstract, no optimum level of immigration. Goodhart supports Coalition plans to reduce net immigration to ‘tens of thousands’. Beyond that, he suggests, the changes that immigration brings are too corrosive of stability and continuity. But why? Where is the evidence that an annual net influx of 50,0000 maintains stability and continuity but that a net influx of 100,000 or 200,000 or 500,000 produces change that is unacceptable? And how would Goodhart answer those who argue that 50,000 is unacceptable, and there should be net influx of just 5,000? Or that there should be a freeze, as UKIP suggests? There appears to be no more and no less logic or evidence  for one figure than for another. I am not suggesting that ‘the idea that a society or even a neighbourhood might have an absorptive capacity is rather distasteful’, or that there may not be a figure beyond which net immigration becomes problematic. What I am suggesting is that critics of immigration have not shown that to be the case, and that the numbers of immigrants deemed acceptable appear to be arbitrary.

Throughout the twentieth century, virtually every wave of immigration was met with the claim that the influx was too large, too culturally distinct, too corrosive of stability and continuity. Come the next, larger wave of immigration, and the previous wave now came to be seen as acceptable in terms of what the nation could absorb but the new wave was not. At every point, in other words, what is regarded as a reasonable figure for net immigration is calculated relative not to some abstract absorptive capacity, but to the actual numbers coming in.  A ‘reasonable’ figure is always less than the current influx.

One reason that the debate about immigration revolves around arbitrary numbers is that immigration has become a symbolic issue. Immigration must always be less than what it is now because what it is now is symbolic of unacceptable change.

Consider, for instance, one of the key issues that Goodhart raises, that of the ‘left behind’ white working class. The white working class, he argues, has lost its culture, its communities, its sense of identity, its bonds of solidarity, and its place in the national story. For many whites, Goodhart writes in The British Dream, ‘large-scale immigration has, indeed, been experienced as a loss, either directly because they lived in a neighbourhood that was rapidly changed by it or indirectly because their working class culture and institutions seemed to be pushed aside by the same market forces that then ushered in the newcomers’. [p257]


The transformation of working class life, the erosion of the sense of working class identity, the breaking of bonds of solidarity, the marginalization of labour as a political voice – all are real phenomena, but all have roots in economic and political changes. In the 1950s manual workers accounted for 70 per cent of the male workforce. Four out of ten workers were employed in manufacturing; a million worked in mining. 9.5 million people (40 per cent of employees) belonged to trade unions. All this incubated a sense of identity, rooted communities to a history and tradition, and bound them in a web of solidarity. The Labour Party still had strong links to the working class. The postwar consensus – the cross-party acceptance of Keynesianism, a ‘mixed economy’ and the welfare state – allowed trade union leaders to influence government policy.

All that is no more. The postwar consensus has been shattered, Britain’s manufacturing base has all but disappeared, trade unions have been neutered, the Labour party has largely cut its roots with its working class base, and the very idea of class-based politics derided. All this has helped cut the bonds of solidarity and identity that once shaped working class communities, leaving many feeling voiceless and detached from the political process.

Goodhart acknowledges much of this. ‘Social and economic change would have swept away the old working class ways even if there had been zero immigration’, he observes. Nevertheless, he adds, ‘looking over their shoulder it is easy to imagine how an unprejudiced man or woman from what was a thriving working class community in the 1960s might reasonably feel that the next fifty years have been kinder to the rising immigrant population than to the declining white working class one.’ [p247]

Whether, and how much, the past fifty years have been ‘kinder’ to migrants is open to debate. Some groups have done relatively well. Others still face hostility and discrimination, are politically marginalized, have high levels of unemployment, and low levels of educational attainment.  But let us take the argument at face value. What are the consequences? Given that Goodhart acknowledges that ‘the old working class ways’ would ‘have been swept away… even if there had been zero immigration’, so he accepts that immigration cannot be responsible for that loss. Rather immigration has come to be a means through which many perceive their loss. Immigrants have, in other words, become symbolic of that loss and of the change. The forces of globalization, or the internal wranglings of the Labour Party, are difficult to conceptualise. Your Bangladeshi or Jamaican neighbour is easy to see. Turning immigrants into symbols of change and loss has allowed people to transform the meaning of that transformation and the story of how it has come about.

A good example of this that I have noted before is the story that David Goodhart tells about the building of a mosque in Merton, south London. The ‘mega mosque’, Goodhart writes, ‘replaced an Express Dairies bottling plant which provided a few hundred jobs for local people and lots of milk bottles — an icon of an earlier, more homogenised age’. There was, in fact, a local blogger pointed out, a seven-year gap between the dairy closing in 1992 and building work beginning on the mosque in 1999. In those seven years the abandoned dairy was, according to local accounts, turned into a crack den. Economic forces closed down an unprofitable dairy, with the loss of several hundred jobs and the potential dislocation of a long-standing community. In building a mosque, Muslims transformed an abandoned, crime-infested site, and created new jobs, both in the construction and in the running of the mosque. Critics of immigration want, however, to see the mosque as symbolic not of the rescue of a site from abandonment and crime, but of the original closure of the dairy and of the transformation of Merton’s old way of life.


This kind of retelling has happened again and again; the consequence is that the very story of social change has itself become retold. The working class is today marginalized because of economic and political changes. But that marginalization has come to be seen primarily as a cultural loss. In part, the very decline of the economic and political power of the working class has undermined the utility of class as an economic and political category; it has undermined, too, the possibilities of challenging the economic and political forces responsible for marginalization. Once ‘working class’ comes to be seen primarily as a cultural category, and the mariginalization of the working class primarily as a cultural issue, then the resolution of the problems facing working class communities come to be seen as much in terms of the reclaiming of culture as of economic and political change.

The reframing of the story of social change, and the creation of the sense that immigrants are responsible for loss, has been entrenched by the policies enacted to manage diversity. What Goodhart calls ‘separatist multiculturalism’ – the putting of people into cultural and ethnic boxes, the defining of individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, the use of those boxes to shape public policy, the view of Britain as a ‘community or communities’ – has undoubtedly created a well of resentment, and a perception that the cultural needs of minority communities are catered for, while those of whites are ignored. ‘Separatist multiculturalism’ is, in fact, a product of the same ‘cultural turn’ that recast economic and political changes as issues of cultural loss. Multicultural policies have treated minority communities as homogenous wholes, defined primarily by faith and culture, ignoring class, gender, generational and other differences within those communities, and hence their real needs. They have also helped create, or exacerbate, conflict between communities, pitting one against the other in a struggle for resources, political influence and a place on the multicultural map. The real benefits of such policies have accrued not so much minority communities as to the so-called community leaders.

We can respond to all of this in one of two ways.  One is to assuage the sense of loss felt within many working class communities by arguing for lower immigration, even though we recognize that such immigration was not responsible for the loss in the first place. The other is to contest the idea that immigration was responsible for the marginalization of working class communities, and thereby turn attention to the real reasons, economic and political, for that marginalization. We can challenge the ‘cultural turn’ as it applies both to white working class and to minority communities. I believe in the second approach; which is why I see nothing ‘eccentric’ about defending mass immigration while opposing multiculturalism.


  1. Excellent and penetrating analysis, thank you. It is always such a relief when someone argues a point so carefully and intellegently your analysis with respect to the ‘working class’ and the effects of immigration is particularly interesting. Personally I think levels of immigration and particularly the levels of asylum seekers accepted in the UK should be set internationally – probably at an EU level to avoid the effects of the sorts of prejudice and faulty reasoning that you have so well exposed. See also my article on UK cruelty towards asylum seekers here:
    which makes this point (you can also reach it via my blog). Thanks again.

  2. Synonymous

    “The numbers of immigrants deemed acceptable appear to be arbitrary.”

    David Goodhart seems to take a fairly pragmatic stance on numbers. When net migration was modest (“tens of thousands”) in the mid 90s, the issue scarcely featured on the IPSOS MORI political tracker. But by 2006, after it had increased dramatically under Labour, it was usually the top public concern.

    More generally, migration is the main driver, both directly and indirectly, of demographic change in most developed countries. It is also the one component of population change that a democratic society can affect through policy. Governments can’t generally do much about fertility and only a little more about mortality. But they can choose to be more or less selective about the types and numbers of immigrants that they accept, and these choices will have a major long-term impact on the size and composition of a national population.

    • You may want to call it ‘pragmatic’ rather than arbitrary, but it amounts to the same thing. As for ‘demographic change’, we have already had a long and fruitless debate about this on another post. You think the idea of a ‘core ethnie’ is essential. I think it is nonsense. There is no point in rehashing that debate.

  3. Synonymous

    – “You may want to call it ‘pragmatic’ rather than arbitrary, but it amounts to the same thing.”

    There is no scientific calculus that we can apply to determine the optimal level of net migration that will maximise social welfare for all. The point is that an option has to be selected that will be acceptable to most of the people, most of the time. This applies to many other areas of policy too: why, for example, is the national minimum wage £6.19 rather than say £6 or £6.50? It may be arbitrary, but we’re faced with the need to make practical policy decisions in a messy and uncertain world.

    – “As for ‘demographic change’, we have already had a long and fruitless debate about this on another post. You think the idea of a ‘core ethnie’ is essential. I think it is nonsense. There is no point in rehashing that debate.”

    Even if you believe that the changing composition of the population is unimportant, you at least have to acknowledge the issues created by scale. Continuous very high levels of net migration will eventually lead to a population of 70, 80, even 90m plus. Do you think that this is an appealing prospect to most voters? Do you think that we can accommodate this much higher population without any changes in policy or any social & environmental trade-offs?

    We are already (sadly) building only about half the number of new houses each year that we need to keep up with existing growth in the number of households. Neither national or local government seems able or willing to make the kinds of changes that would enable us to meet British-born young people’s housing needs, leave alone house a much higher population generated by immigration.

    • Whilst I agree with some of what you say Synonymous – in particular that policy decisions have to be made using some criteria, even if it isnt scientific calculus, I dont agree with the basis on which you go on to make that analysis. This is because you are making an implicit assumption that levels of immigration should be set on the basis of what is best for the British people. Personally I think this is too narrow. Surely a more moral stance is to make the decision on the basis of what is best for humanity. British people have done nothing to earn the priveledge of living in Britain. They are here because they were lucky enough to be born here – but I dont believe that that gives them ultimate rights around excluding others from coming here. There is a higher order of morality than our narrow nationalism. Having said that there is also the problem that if we threw the borders open there would be widespread civil unrest as a result and that could lead to a very difficult situation for all. So the extreme of no borders (my preference for an ultimate solution) probably wouldnt be sensible in the near future (it grates me to admit this!). There has to be a middle way – but my point is that this shouldnt be confined to just what the current british people want – that would set it far to tight – but should be resolved taking a broader perspective than national interest.

  4. Synonymous

    “You are making an implicit assumption that levels of immigration should be set on the basis of what is best for the British people. Personally I think this is too narrow. Surely a more moral stance is to make the decision on the basis of what is best for humanity.”

    Wyon, I have a couple of problems with this statement. First, we live in a democracy, and surely in a democracy the preferences of voters (who, according to the polls, overwhelmingly support a reduction in immigration) should have some influence on public policy.

    The right to vote usually derives from citizenship, which brings me to my second point: we live in a nation state, where the nation is the main focus of solidarity. Citizens of a modern nation pool their resources through taxation and then receive benefits according to eligibility and need. In the UK, about 95 per cent of government spending is on domestic programmes. If the British state owed the same obligations to every human being on the planet as it does to its own citizens, then we should be spending as much if not more on overseas aid as we do on pensions or the NHS.

    A tiny minority of internationalists might support such a policy but clearly it would look ridiculous to most voters. Maybe this is an example of ‘narrow nationalism’, but I’m sure the majority of people around the world believe that their government should give precedence to the interests and welfare of its own citizens.

    • You are right of course that the vast majority of voters would reject such a policy. Voters are fundamentally selfish (me too!), as are governments. This may be a pragmatic reason for avoiding change but my point is that it isnt a moral one. As one of the ‘tiny majority of internationalists’ I would welcome the day when we spent more on overseas aid than pensioners and the NHS – such an evolution would be far more effective in reducing overall human suffering…
      I’d like to make two other supporting arguments in favour of freeing up national boundaries.
      1. In contrast to dictatorships democracies are based on free consent. Citizens voluntarily give their consent to the deliberations of the state on their behalf because they recognise that this is the most pragmatically effective form of governance. But for their consent to be completely free they need to be able to leave the state if they feel they disagree fundamentally enough with the government where they are. However we cannot reasonably expect our citizens to be allowed to live in other countries if we dont at the same time allow the citizens of other countries the right to live here. Neither such things are currently possible (all countries now have restricted border entry). As such the authority of ‘democracies’ is compromised – since its citizens arent fundamenatally free. True they can choose between a range of competing parties – which is undubtedly better than pure dictatorship – but they cannot choose a different range.
      2. Imagine everyone in the world is given a fresh start. We are looking down on the earth and we know the distribution of resources, climate, etc prior to being placed at random somewhere on the earth. We also have to decide prior to being placed on the earth what rules there should be around travelling around the earth. Wouldnt everyone fear being placed in a country without resources or a hostile climate? As such I think we would all agree that completely free movement around the planet should be allowed.
      Of course you can argue that we live in the world as it is now and not an ideal world – so we have to be pragmatic around what is possible from where we are. I agree with this. But I also think that we need to be clear what we should be heading for. And this is where it is important to think through the morality of our current position and what might resolve this.

Comments are closed.