SATURDAY ESSAY: Why we on the Left made an epic mistake on immigration
I fear that large-scale, poorly managed immigration is endangering this social contract. Britain is a welfare democracy. Existing citizens have rights of national ownership. Extending the idea of equal citizenship to millions of outsiders raises the problem of how to reconcile the special rights of existing citizens with those of new ones.It is a problem we ignore at our peril.
Among Left-leaning ‘Hampstead’ liberals like me, there has long been what you might call a ‘discrimination assumption’ when it comes to the highly charged issue of immigration.
Our instinctive reaction has been that Britain is a relentlessly racist country bent on thwarting the lives of ethnic minorities, that the only decent policy is to throw open our doors to all and that those with doubts about how we run our multi-racial society are guilty of prejudice.
And that view — echoed in Whitehall, Westminster and town halls around the country — has been the prevailing ideology, setting the tone for the immigration debate.
Goodhart is now convinced that public opinion is right and Britain has had too much immigration too quickly
The fault lies with our leaders, not with the people who came for a better life. There has been a huge gap between our ruling elite's views and those of ordinary people on the street
But for some years, this has troubled me and, gradually, I have changed my mind.
Over 18 months of touring the country to talk to people about their lives for a new book, I have discovered minority Britons thriving more than many liberals suppose possible. But I also saw the mess of division and conflict we have got ourselves into in other places.
I am now convinced that public opinion is right and Britain has had too much immigration too quickly.
For 30 years, the Left has blinded itself with sentiment about diversity. But we got it wrong.
I still believe that large-scale immigration has made Britain livelier and more dynamic than it would otherwise have been. I believe, too, that this country is significantly less racist than it once was.
In many places immigration is working as the textbooks say it should with a degree of harmony, with minorities upwardly mobile and creating interesting new hybrid identities in mixed suburbs.
But it has also resulted in too many areas in which ethnic minorities lead almost segregated lives — notably in the northern ‘mill towns’ and other declining industrial regions, which in the Sixties and Seventies attracted one of the most clannish minorities of modern times, rural Kashmiri Pakistanis.
In Leicester and Bradford, almost half of the ethnic population live in what are technically ghettos (defined as areas where minorities form more than two-thirds of the population). Meanwhile, parts of white working-class Britain have been left feeling neither valued nor useful, believing that they have been displaced by newcomers not only in the job market but also in the national story itself.
Those in the race lobby have been slow to recognise that strong collective identities are legitimate for majorities as well as minorities, for white as well as for black people.
For a democratic state to have any meaning, it must ‘belong’ to existing citizens. They must have special rights over non-citizens. Immigration must be managed with their interests in mind. But it has not been.
In many places immigration is working as the textbooks say it should with a degree of harmony, with minorities upwardly mobile and creating interesting new hybrid identities in mixed suburbs
For a democratic state to have any meaning, it must 'belong' to existing citizens. They must have special rights over non-citizens. Immigration must be managed with their interests in mind. But it has not been
The justification for such a large and unpopular change has to be that the economic benefits are significant and measurable. But they are not.
One of the liberal elite’s myths is that we are a ‘mongrel nation’ that has always experienced high inflows of outsiders. But this isn’t true. From 1066 until 1950, immigration was almost non-existent (excluding Ireland) — a quarter of a million at the most, mainly Huguenots and Jews.
Post-World War II immigration has been on a completely different scale from anything that went before. These days, more people arrive on our shores as immigrants in a single year than did so in the entire period from 1066 to 1950, excluding wartime.
Much of this happened by accident. When the 1948 Nationality Act was passed — giving all citizens of the Empire and Commonwealth the right to live and work in Britain — it was not expected that the ordinary people of poor former colonies would arrive in their hundreds of thousands.
Nor was it expected after 1997 that a combination of quite small decisions would lead to 1.5 million East Europeans arriving, about half to settle. But come they did, and a net immigration of around four million foreign-born citizens since 1997 has produced easily the most dramatic demographic revolution in British history.
The whole post-war process of immigration has been badly managed or, rather, not managed at all
Yet there was no general discussion in the New Labour Cabinet of the day about who Britain wanted to let in and in what numbers; no discussion about how the country could absorb them without pressure on public services.
By the time of the next census in 2021, the non-white minority population will have risen to around 20 per cent, a trebling in just 25 years.
By 2066, according to one demographer, white Britons will be in a minority.
This is already the case in some towns and cities, including London, Leicester, Slough and Luton, with Birmingham expected to follow in the near future.
If Britain had a clear and confident sense of its national culture and was good at integrating people, then perhaps this speed of change would be of little concern. But this is not the case.
We are deep into a huge social experiment. To give it a chance of working, we need to heed the ‘slow down’ signs that the electorate is waving. And all the more so given that the low economic growth era we are now in means people’s grievances cannot easily be bought off with rising wages and public spending.
The fact is that the whole post-war process of immigration has been badly managed or, rather, not managed at all.
It is often said that the importation of people from the Indian subcontinent to work in textile mills that were soon to close — ironically, partly thanks to competition from India and Pakistan itself — was a poor piece of social engineering.
But the whole point was that no one really engineered it. It just happened.
And then no one came forward to grasp the consequences or even acknowledge there might be a problem.
The fault lies with our leaders, not with the people who came for a better life. There has been a huge gap between our ruling elite’s views and those of ordinary people on the street. This was brought home to me when dining at an Oxford college and the eminent person next to me, a very senior civil servant, said: ‘When I was at the Treasury, I argued for the most open door possible to immigration [because] I saw it as my job to maximise global welfare not national welfare.’
Immigration has also resulted in too many areas in which ethnic minorities lead almost segregated lives
I was even more surprised when the notion was endorsed by another guest, one of the most powerful television executives in the country. He, too, felt global welfare was paramount and that he had a greater obligation to someone in Burundi than to someone in Birmingham.
Such grand notions run counter to the way most people in this country think or arrange their priorities.
The British political class has never prepared existing citizens for something as game-changing as large-scale immigration, nor has it done a good job at explaining what the point of large-scale immigration was and whose interests it was meant to serve.
Crucially, they failed to control the inflow more overtly in the interests of existing citizens. On the contrary, the idea that immigration should be unambiguously in the interests of existing citizens was blurred from the start.
Then, whenever there were problems with immigrant communities, the tendency was for the host society to be blamed for not being sufficiently accommodating or for being racist, rather than considering the self-inflicted wounds of some minority cultures.
Parts of white working-class Britain believe that they have been displaced by newcomers not only in the job market but also in the national story itself
Thus, the absence of fathers in many African-Caribbean households was excused as a cultural trait that just had to be accepted rather than a dereliction of duty that needed addressing.
Yes, being a newcomer can be hard, even in a liberal society such as Britain’s that today offers undreamed of protections and rights compared with earlier eras. But what has been largely ignored is that mass immigration makes big demands on host communities, too, and a successful strategy must engage the attention, consent and sympathy of the host majority as well.
Democratic common sense demands that politics and law cannot concern themselves only with the problems of minorities. The majority must have a voice, too, in how we manage a multi-racial society.
Like most white British people of my generation, I am happy living in a multi-racial society. I relish the fact that the immigration-related changes of the past few decades have been overwhelmingly accepted and even celebrated by white Britain.
Caribbean and Chinese men and women ‘marry out’ in large numbers, and there are many places where a cross-ethnic common life is the norm, especially among younger people.
But one of the challenges 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 spilling over into racism.
What, for example, do we say to the elderly white people of the Pollards Hill estate in Merton, in South-West London — which I visited on my travels — many of whom feel displaced and disrupted by the arrival of a large Ghanaian population in recent years?
To the local whites, the Ghanaians are not fitting in but imposing their own way of life on the neighbourhood. Similar small battles are taking place in thousands of other housing estates up and down the country.
What has most bedevilled immigration in this country for years now is a twist in the prevailing doctrine of multi-culturalism.
As originally conceived, this was a deliberate and praise-worthy policy of ‘colour-blindness’ — a belief in equal rights and reform of institutions to stamp out prejudice and abuse of power. But it also placed an onus on the newcomer to fit in.
By the time of the next census in 2021, the non-white minority population will have risen to around 20 per cent, a trebling in just 25 years. By 2066, according to one demographer, white Britons will be in a minority
The immigrant has chosen to come to an existing country with its own laws, history, language and so on. Those need to be respected and understood. One cannot be British on one’s own exclusive terms or on a highly selective basis.
That does not mean that pious Muslims must give up their religion and get drunk on Saturday nights.
But it does mean that Muslims must adjust to a society dominated by Christian and secular humanist values, which places a high degree of importance on individual freedom and the rights of women.
And they must accept that their minority rights must co-exist with and sometimes concede to majority rights, especially in the public sphere.
So far, so good.
Unfortunately, the multiculturalism that emerged in the Eighties ditched integration as an objective, put ethnic identity before national citizenship and reinforced a separateness that was already developing in some minority neighbourhoods through simple weight of numbers.
Nick Clegg has this week insisted British society has been shaped by migrant communities, but unveiled tougher action against illegal immigration
‘Parallel lives’ have been allowed to grow up in some places. Too often, the demands of minority leaders have been for a separate slice of power and resources, rather than for the means to create a common life.
The state cannot force people to integrate, but it can remove obstacles and make it easier to join in. Education is crucial here.
But when, in 1984, Bradford headmaster Ray Honeyford, whose school was 90 per cent Muslim, wrote articles criticising Pakistani parents for taking their children on long trips to Pakistan during term-time and attacked the corporal punishment culture of mosque schools, a campaign by Muslim parents and local white activists forced him to resign.
It was a key victory for separatism and a defeat for integration.
After that, separatist multiculturalism sided with the imams against Salman Rushdie after the publication of his book The Satanic Verses and the imposition of a fatwa against him; it encouraged people to wear non-Western dress and to continue speaking an ancestral language at home.
It judged the chauvinistic assumptions of many South Asian households by a different standard to that applied to white Britain. It was happy with South Asians going back to the subcontinent for arranged marriages with non-English speaking spouses, despite the damage to integration this often caused (and the misery for many young women).
Separatist multiculturalism, in its extreme form, even turned a blind eye to practices that were the opposite of the liberalism that inspired it — forced marriage, female genital mutilation, the hounding of gays.
The root problem with separatist multiculturalism is that minority Britons are encouraged to identify first as a member of that minority and only second, if at all, as a citizen. And this has made it harder for ordinary Britons to think of some minorities, and especially Muslims, as part of the same community as them, with common experiences and interests.
The problem with mass immigration is that, without integration, it damages the internal solidarity of a country such as ours.
And if values and lifestyles become more diverse, it becomes more difficult to sustain the legitimacy of the welfare state.
Most of us are no longer asked to risk death for our country, but we are asked to pay around one third of our income into a common national pool and, in return, the state manages large bits of infrastructure for us — such as defence, transport, energy, public services, welfare and so on.
For this to work, the modern citizen is expected to conform to a thicket of rules and regulations. And in order to sustain this level of sharing and co-operation, we need at least some sense of ‘emotional citizenship’, the belief that, despite many different interests, we’re also part of the same team.
I fear that large-scale, poorly managed immigration is endangering this social contract.
Britain is a welfare democracy. Existing citizens have rights of national ownership. Extending the idea of equal citizenship to millions of outsiders raises the problem of how to reconcile the special rights of existing citizens with those of new ones.
It is a problem we ignore at our peril.
- Adapted from The British Dream by David Goodhart, to be published by Atlantic Books on April 1, 2013 at £20. © David Goodhart. To order a copy for £14 (including p&p), call 0844 472 4157.
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