The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-War Immigration, by David Goodhart, Atlantic, RRP£20, 416 pages
“An influx of coloured people domiciled here”, a group of Labour MPs wrote to Clement Attlee in 1948 when the prime minister was considering filling Britain’s postwar labour needs with colonial immigrants, “is likely to impair the harmony, strength and cohesion of our public and social life, and to cause discord and unhappiness among all concerned.” The legislators were right and wrong. In the decades since, mass immigration has often brought the disharmony and discord they warned of. But most modern Britons would be appalled to hear these problems chalked up to simple racial animosity. A confusion results. Fear of getting called a racist stifles debate about managing immigration, which remains among Britain’s direst policy failures.
Over the past decade, David Goodhart, founder of Prospect magazine and now director of the think-tank Demos, has undertaken a delicate task. He has tried to break the taboos surrounding immigration while defending the progress that Britain has made in fighting racism. You could call him a constructive pessimist.
A self-described “public-schoolboy leftist”, Goodhart is in visceral sympathy with large parts of what is called the multicultural agenda. He nonetheless thinks Britain has had too much immigration, too quickly; that its economic benefits have been oversold; that it has demoralised the white working class; and, worst of all, that it undermines the “contract between generations”, threatening the consensus on which the welfare state rests. It can thus provoke the very conflicts that tut-tutting progressives aim to avoid. In his forthright and punctilious book The British Dream, Goodhart calls on Britain’s leaders to stop casting as racism every well-meant complaint about immigration, and “to heed the ‘slow down’ signs that the electorate is waving”.
Britain has undergone a demographic revolution, Goodhart shows. More immigrants now come each year than arrived in all the nine centuries between 1066 and 1950. Most of the postwar influx dates only from the last decade and a half. It began as soon as Tony Blair came to power. Net immigration nearly tripled, from 48,000 in 1997 to 140,000 the following year, and kept rising. “In 30 years’ time,” Goodhart writes, “New Labour’s immigration policy will almost certainly be seen as its primary legacy.”
Less than a quarter of the 4m post-1997 newcomers come from the European Union. Most are from Africa and Asia. England and Wales now have 8m “visible minorities”. No region of the country is less than 7 per cent non-white. London, Slough, Leicester and Luton are “majority-minority”. Immigration from distant cultures is not always a problem, but there is evidence that it is a problem in Britain. Half of Pakistani spouses and 92 per cent of all imams come from abroad. In Bradford, 43 per cent of people speak a language other than English at home. The biggest surprise of the 2011 census was that the “white British” population of London had fallen to 45 per cent. We had some idea how many people were coming. But nobody reckoned on 600,000 whites moving away in the decade after 2001. However one explains that, it is hard to read as a sign of a country forging a new common identity.
Britain is a special case, Goodhart explains. Its multiculturalism draws not just on leftist anti-racism – as it does everywhere – but also on habits of imperial administration that survived the collapse of the British empire. Those who ran the empire had too few personnel to rule with anything but a light touch, making minimal cultural demands on subject peoples. Today’s governing elites, like yesterday’s imperial ones, “stand impartially above and integrate different elements of the population”, as sociologist Geoff Dench puts it. That is not to say that they are always competent. Home secretary Roy Jenkins’s pronouncements on “cultural diversity” in May 1966 began a tradition, Goodhart writes, of “grand liberal statements made by people who know little about what is happening on the ground”.
Immigrant ethnic groups in Britain have a lot of freedom relative to minorities in other countries. Not all of them respond well to it. Goodhart draws up a “league table” of social and economic outcomes that places Chinese, Hindus and east African Asians of all religions at the top, and Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Somalis, West Indians and underclass whites at the bottom. He is blunt, calling Kashmiris and Bangladeshis “as successful and well organised politically as they are unsuccessful economically”. A highlight is his description of how Pakistanis’ Biraderi clan system interacts with British democracy, creating the “possibility that minority voters will automatically vote for ‘their’ ethnic candidate”. Discussing recent Somali immigration, Goodhart complains that “no lessons seem to have been learnt from the Bangladeshi experience”.
But how could they have been? The main lesson learnt over the decades of Britain’s multicultural experiment was made obvious in 2010 in Rochdale, when a live microphone picked up Gordon Brown’s candid reaction to voter Gillian Duffy’s questions about immigration. It is that scepticism will be taken for bigotry. Far safer to keep one’s mouth shut.
So no one can be sure what Britons really think. Goodhart ventures a guess, but he is of two minds. On one hand, he believes that “racists are dying out” and that “dogmatic, zero-tolerance anti-racism” has therefore become unnecessary and counterproductive. On the other hand, he makes the change in attitudes among white Britons sound less like an enlightenment and more like a demoralisation. A big challenge, he writes, “is how to allow older and poorer white people a safe space in which to express a sense of loss, and homesickness for the past, without this mood becoming destructively pessimistic or spilling over into racism”.
Goodhart believes, like social scientists Robert Putnam and Alberto Alesina and Britain’s universities minister David Willetts, that there is a limit to how much diversity a welfare state can tolerate. When people hear the word solidarity today, he warns, they may “think only of faceless bureaucrats trying to tax them on behalf of people they no longer feel any connection with”. There is a risk in saying such things about immigration. One closes Goodhart’s book, though, believing there is a bigger risk in not saying them.
Christopher Caldwell is an FT columnist and the author of ‘Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West’ (Penguin)