Immigration and the British dream

Does solidarity break down with multiculturalism? And if so, how can we respond? Rumy Hasan reviews The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-war Immigration by David Goodhart.

Rumy Hasan
8 October 2013

How can we build solidarity in multicultural Britain?/wikimedia

The issue of immigration has become of supreme importance throughout the world. There appears to be a universal desire on the parts of governments, on the one hand, to curb levels of legal immigration whilst, on the other, to show zero tolerance for illegal (‘undocumented’) immigration. The recent election victory of Tony Abbot in Australia was in good measure due to his Liberal Party’s very hard stance on controlling the borders, specifically to keep out boatloads of asylum seekers.

Similarly, in the US, Republicans have raised the issue of millions of illegal Latino (mainly Mexican) migrants to the highest priority and, by so doing, cemented their popularity in the southern states. In crisis-ridden Greece, the rapid influx of large numbers of illegal migrants has been put down as a core reason for the rise of the violent, neo-Nazi, Golden Dawn Party. Countries as disparate as Malaysia and Tanzania have been forcibly removing illegal immigrants.

In Britain too, immigration has become a defining issue for all political parties: in a 2007 Ipsos-MORI poll, for example, 64% said that immigration should be much tougher and a further 12% said it should be stopped altogether, while 68% agreed that there were already too many immigrants in Britain. A recent opinion poll showed that 64 per cent of Britons said immigration was more of a “problem” than an opportunity for the country and this is reflected in the rise of the anti-immigration, anti-EU, United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). David Goodhart’s new book provides a robust analysis of post-war immigration to Britain to seek out the factors which have contributed to this deep unease. He provides his key theses at the outset:

“[P]ublic opinion is broadly right about the immigration story. Britain has had too much of it, too quickly, especially in recent years, and much of it, especially for the least well off, has not produced self-evident economic benefit. What is clearer still is that it has not been well managed. Britain has never had a culture of integrating newcomers, though most have done it for themselves: in the early post-war decades this laissez-faire approach was overlaid first with racial prejudice and then later by a liberalism that was reluctant to intervene in individual choices. Moreover multiculturalism, particularly in the more separatist form that emerged in the 1980s, has allowed ‘parallel lives’ to grow up in some places and made it harder for ordinary Britons to think of some minorities, and especially Muslims, as part of the same ‘imagined community’ with common experiences and interests.”

Goodhart proceeds to take issue with two sets of theorists of immigration: those espousing economic laissez faire and those who advocate, or are silent about, cultural laissez faire. Curiously, the laissez faire approach to immigration was championed by economic advisers to the Labour government post-1997 (such as Jonathan Portes of the NIESR) as immigration rose by 4 million in the next 15 years (less than a quarter were from the EU) – more than the combined total since World War 2.

Such economic ‘immigrationists’ focus has been on the purported benefits: labour is a factor of production that must be permitted to move freely to wherever there is demand for it, thereby improving global efficiencies and resource allocation. It naturally follows that immigration will help raise economic growth and, conversely, immigration controls can be a barrier to growth. Goodhart provides evidence to show that the overall impact of recent mass immigration to Britain is, in fact, neutral. Migrants certainly gain – the history of migration from developing to developed countries shows that very few return, so that despite all the problems of adjustment, their lives have improved for the better. And naturally, employers who employ migrants also gain (and public services in particular have benefited enormously from migrant workers).

Crucially, however, for the low skilled and unskilled workers, the impact of rapid large scale immigration has been negative from the increased competition in the labour market and attendant downward pressure on wages, so much so that some employers have preferred to recruit foreign workers. This has contributed not only to a persistently high rate of unemployment, but also to increased competition for public services. So it is not too surprising to find widespread hostility to immigration from this section of the working class.

But what has been little examined – and stressed by Goodhart – is the impact of emigration on poorer countries: the argument has invariably been confined to the gains from remittances. There has, however, been little analysis of the damaging effect from the loss of young, hardworking, often skilled workers. The ‘brain drain’ often leads to social pain back home. Thus, for example, emigrating nurses and doctors – the benefits of whose education and training have been lost to their home counties and passed over free of charge to richer countries – inevitably weaken the health service of their home countries, which is not compensated by remittances. This issue was famously raised by Nelson Mandela in his visit to the UK in 1997 when he asked the British government to halt recruitment of nurses from AIDS-afflicted South Africa. All credit to Goodhart for highlighting this important, neglected, issue; which is also the focus of Paul Collier’s new book Exodus: Immigration and Multiculturalism in the 21st Century.

The social, political and cultural impact of mass immigration has been of no concern to the economists for whom labour is simply labour. Historically, the focus of those in favour of immigration has understandably been on immigrants themselves, that is, on the difficulties and struggles of settlers – often from the former colonies – in new lands and societies far from home.

Ipso facto, little, if any, attention has been paid to the non-economic impact of mass immigration on the established white population. It transpires that this neglect of the views of the latter – importantly, this is a democratic deficit – is a prime cause for the increasing angst around the subject which has somewhat belatedly been addressed by all the major political parties.

Goodhart gives an example of the London suburb of Merton which has, in recent years, become ‘super diverse’, that is, attracted an array of sizeable migrant communities from around the world, including that of Ahmadi Muslims. The latter group, after a long battle over planning permission, has built a giant mosque (though the opposition was nowhere near as hostile to that of the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ in New York in 2010); in similar vein, a large traditional pub has been replaced by a Sunni Islamic centre.

Goodhart points out that ‘the Ahmadis are model immigrants in many ways. They preach an ecumenical form of Islam and are grateful to be given refuge in this country. But to many locals that’s not the point. As one man described as White Heritage Elder Male in the jargon of race relations said: “We’ve lost this place to other cultures ... it’s not English anymore”’. Such sentiments – or indeed the concerns of the long-established majority white population in general – have certainly not been given an airing especially by those of a soi disant liberal/progressive bent.

The reason why little interest has been taken of the social and cultural impact of minorities is because of Britain, by default, evolving into a ‘multicultural society’. Goodhart deems the progressive anti-racist stance of those supporting immigrants in the 1970s as constituting ‘liberal multiculturalism’. This is mistaken as the struggles by the first generation of migrants were for equality in all aspects of society (just as in America, the clarion call of the civil rights movement was for equality and against racism).

In fact, what multiculturalism is really about – its apotheosis has been in Canada, enshrined by its 1988 Multiculturalism Act – and which, as Goodhart proceeds to elaborate upon, is cultural and religious laissez faire underpinned by cultural relativism, whereby immigrants are allowed to lead lives pretty much akin to those obtaining in their places of origin. That being so, some groups have demanded separate rights, resources, institutions, and exemptions to the law. Moreover, there appears to have been an increase in ‘choice’ on the part of some minorities to live in separate enclaves (de facto ghettos) – hence the phenomenon of ‘parallel lives’.

Not just Merton but London itself has become ‘super diverse’ as the established white population has fallen from 60% in 2001 to just 45% in 2011 (a stark statistic that has doubtless made the political establishment sit up and take note). So London is now truly a ‘global’ city with people from all corners of the globe residing in it and its multi-ethnic nature as a result of immigration was warmly highlighted in Danny Boyle’s widely acclaimed opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games.

The ceremony was indeed marvellous, not least in its positive portrayal of ethnic minorities. That said, its minority focus was almost entirely on the Caribbean component; it could, for example, have been more truthful by making specific reference to the input of Asians in the section on the glittering tribute to the NHS. Indeed, British Asians (the largest ethnic minority) were pretty much absent from not only the opening and closing ceremonies (being no more than extras in the various sets) but also from the sporting contests – pretty much the entire Team GB compromised of whites, blacks, and those of a black-white parentage – hardly a resounding success of multicultural, multi-ethnic Britain.

Goodhart suggests that London’s ‘success’ as a multi-ethnic city needs to be tempered by the fact that 600,000 white Londoners left the city between 2001 and 2011 – the phenomenon of ‘white flight – but does not delve deeply into the reasons for this. Part of the difficulty is lack of hard data which requires rigorous research. But, one can legitimately surmise, the often rapid changes in many neighbourhoods caused by mass immigration is an important, perhaps decisive, factor. Such a reason might seem inexplicable or even deemed to be racist by those afflicted by what can be termed ‘white liberal post-colonial guilt’ – whereby any criticism of the modus vivendi of ethnic minorities is a taboo, which is in itself racist thinking. But this simply fails to grasp the reality.

In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that broad swathes of the white population are not, putting it somewhat euphemistically, enamoured by an array of peculiar and undesirable cultural and religious characteristics – with their stress on ‘difference’ – of some migrants that have transformed their towns and cities; and so have voted with their feet. Moreover, this has little to do with ‘race’ or ethnicity given that sections of ethnic minorities who wish to integrate and live in a neighbourhood reflecting society at large also vote with their feet.

Goodhart demolishes the oft-held belief that ethnic minorities are an undifferentiated mass forever suffering from discrimination and racism. In fact, there is now a significant variation between Hindus, Sikhs, East African Asians, and Chinese – whose educational and income per capita levels are now, on average, above whites – and Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Caribbeans, and Somalis who languish at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. The well-established segregated mono-cultural, mono-faith neighbourhoods particularly of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in towns and cities across the country provide ample evidence of their low levels of integration, and what I have analysed as high levels of ‘psychic detachment’ from mainstream society.

But the relative prosperity of Hindus, Sikhs, and East African Asians does not necessarily indicate high levels of integration. Indeed, well-to-do ethnic minority professionals and business people residing in mixed neighbourhoods can – and often do – lead highly segregated lives with few points of contact with those not from their own religious-ethnic community and so also display high levels of psychic detachment. Goodhart cites the example of ‘Punjabi Wolves’, Sikh supporters of Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club, as an instance of integration. This is odd; in fact it is a mark of separation – just as if Kashmiri fans of Bradford Football Club formed a ‘Kashmiri Lions’ supporters group. The genuine integrationist route would be for Sikh fans to join the Wolverhampton FC supporters club as a mark of unity.

Goodhart retraces a controversial argument he put forward in 2004 about the impact of high levels of immigration on society – the ‘progressive dilemma’, that is, the conflict between diversity and solidarity. Basically, the more diverse (by ethnicity or religion) a society is, the less the likelihood of solidarity, and this is a contributory factor for the erosion of support for higher levels of general taxation which underpin the welfare state.

The US is an example of a highly diverse society which, as a result, has low levels of solidarity – Robert Putnam’s uncomfortable research suggests that the higher the percentage of immigrants in an area in the US, the lower is the level of trust. This is thought to provide the explanation for the minimal welfare services in America (it remains the one developed country without universal health care): put bluntly, white Americans are reluctant to see their taxes going to welfare programmes to support blacks and Latinos. By the same token, increased diversity from recent mass immigration in Europe is likely to lead to a diminution in solidarity and, accordingly, in support for strong welfare services. There is not yet enough compelling evidence in support of this hypothesis – but even the situation in the US can be open to a different interpretation.

The strong welfare provisions in Western Europe are often associated with the formation of political parties with strong links with trade unions which garnered sufficient support to form governments that pushed through fundamental welfare reforms after the destruction and sacrifice of World War 2. In stark contrast, America has never had such a party let alone a social democratic consensus that became the norm in post-War Western Europe – which is to say that even if America had an entirely white population, there is no guarantee it would have obtained Europe’s level of welfare services; on the contrary, it may still have had rather weaker welfare services akin to those obtaining in ethnically homogenous Japan.

What can boost solidarity in ethnically diverse societies are core commonalities among the established population and migrant settlers. Here Goodhart does offer some suggestions: the stress on English language proficiency for all immigrants is indeed important. Beyond this, however, what is recommended is largely symbolic – citizenship ceremonies in town halls are perhaps an improvement to the purely bureaucratic form-filling of the past but, nonetheless, this is weak in forging commonalities, and of the need to robustly tackling the separatist dynamic now so prevalent.

The lengthy discussion of the various ‘sub-nationalisms’ that have arisen in the devolved nations within the UK is not really germane. The suggestion that Asians are enthusiastically identifying with Scottish nationalism is of limited import. The fact remains that Glaswegian Asian Muslims are far closer to Asian Muslims in Lancashire, Yorkshire, or Birmingham – and indeed with Muslims in Pakistan – than with non-Muslim Scots. Their espousal of Scottish nationalism is in line with being identified as ‘British’ in the rest of the UK. The problems of separateness and high levels of psychic detachment that emanate from their strong religious identity remains – and this has been allowed to nurture throughout Britain. Therefore, the discussion on the implications of Scotland becoming independent is largely irrelevant.

The great lacuna of the book, in how to truly forge a meaningful common citizenship, is the failure to address the core factors for segregation, poor levels of integration and social cohesion, which have led to parallel lives and high levels of psychic detachment. The answer is blindingly obvious (indeed Goodhart singles out Muslims in his key theses given above): the vast bulk of immigrants from outside Europe, be it from former colonies or not, have very strong religious identities. Certainly governments have been all-too-willing to accept these settlers in their own terms – the laissez faire approach. More than that, both the present Coalition government and the previous Labour government have fuelled this by stressing ‘our multi-faith society’. Goodhart acknowledges this by asserting that ‘[r]ather than appealing to Muslims and Sikhs or other minorities as British citizens and trying to draw them into the mainstream political process, local and national politicians came to see them as people whose primary loyalty was to their faith and culture and who could be politically engaged only by their own leaders’.

History, however, shows that faith identities are divisive and militate against integration and social cohesion. The lesson of Northern Ireland is a sobering reminder: for most people in mainland Britain – for whom religion is of little and rapidly vanishing importance – it comprises sectarian identities. The Dutch writer Ian Buruma provided an insightful explanation for the sudden rise of the populist politician Pim Fortuyn in the early 2000s which is highly relevant here: ‘Fortuyn’s venom is drawn more from the fact that he, and millions of others, not just in the Netherlands, but all over Europe, had painfully wrested themselves free from the strictures of their own religions. And here were these newcomers injecting society with religion once again’.

It naturally follows that a sine qua non for engendering a common citizenship is for the reversal of the ‘injection of society with religion’. This means lessening – and ultimately removing – the mark of religious identity and, accordingly, necessitates, in Paul Cliteur’s words, a ‘secular outlook’ and the thoroughgoing secularisation of society. Of paramount importance in this regard is the phasing out of faith schools: there is now mounting evidence to show that minority faith schools in particular are deeply problematic and constitute a transmission belt for the inculcation of sectarian identities infused with obscurantism and dogma that is quite unsuitable for children in a modern 21st century multi-ethnic society.

To sum up, Goodhart’s analysis of the problems is far better than the solutions proffered. As someone espousing liberal, social democratic beliefs, another lacuna is the absence of the ideas of some of the foremost liberal thinkers: no Voltaire and John Stuart Mill on the defence of freedom of criticism and expression; no recourse to John Rawls as to how a liberal society should deal with the illiberal; and no mention of Brian Barry whose Culture and Equality was the first major – and devastating – critique of multiculturalism from a liberal perspective. Setting aside these shortcomings, David Goodhart has written a seminal, courageous, book that is likely to prove enormously influential on key debates on the nature of British society for years to come.

The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-war Immigration by David Goodhart is available now.

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