Reviewed: The British Dream - Successes and Failures of Post-War Immigration by David Goodhart

Comings and goings.

The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-War Immigration
David Goodhart
Atlantic Books, 416pp, £20

For a brief period from late 2008 and all through 2009, some on the left believed that the economic crisis and near collapse of the financial system would rally people to its banner. They were quickly disillusioned and had to ask why no political benefit had accrued to the left from bank recapitalisation and the crisis of capitalism.

A simple suggestion might be that our economic problems pre-date these events. For example, after 1997, immigration policy was a major driver of government macroeconomic strategy and the search for labour-market flexibility. Whatever its economic virtues, this was a policy that, in the eyes of many, helped to turn the Labour Party toxic. Geoffrey Evans and Kat Chzhen of Nuffield College, Oxford calculate that Labour may have lost the 2010 election not because of its handling of the economy but because of perceived failures on immigration.

Yet how do we confront this when the politics of immigration trigger defensive reactions on much of the left? Questioning high inflows of people or raising economic and cultural concerns are too often dismissed as xenophobia and bigotry. David Goodhart was one of the first to raise just such questions and he paid for it. Following the publication in 2004 of Goodhart’s 6,000-word essay for Prospect magazine entitled “Too Diverse?”, the then chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips, said that “the xenophobes should come clean” and declared Goodhart’s essay to be the stuff of “liberal Powellites”.

Goodhart kept going, however. His 2006 pamphlet, Progressive Nationalism: Citizenship and the Left, pushed further. How do we reconcile our sense of solidarity with our diversity, he asked. How do we overcome tensions between insiders and outsiders that drain support for a shared welfare pool? Goodhart called this our “progressive dilemma”.

Many thought he played too fast and loose, and found him publicity-hungry, overeager to play the iconoclast. Surely any balanced discussion of the welfare state had to acknowledge that its existence and resilience is itself the product of mass immigration? Further, in Goodhart’s framing, the migrant often appeared as the taker, the problem. Yet there is strong evidence that migrants are net contributors to our country. He also lacked an adequate political economy of empire and its labourpower requirements. So he rightly took some heavy criticism. Yet, in the name of tolerance, parts of the left practised intolerance. By closing down the argument they allowed the right to shape the tone and language of the immigration debate, particularly in England. Meanwhile, having earlier in the decade sidelined the Parekh commission on the future of multi-ethnic Britain, New Labour tacked towards popular concerns about immigration and played people’s concerns right back at them.

After a fairly generous lag, a new debate has begun in the Labour Party. The publication of Goodhart’s book The British Dream follows two major speeches late last year by Ed Miliband and a more recent one by the shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper. Both acknowledged the part immigration has played in generating economic insecurity and in shoring up the preference of business for short-termism and cheap labour over innovation and skills training. And they both acknowledged the cultural change and sense of loss that have left many people feeling alienated and resentful. So, to the extent that he raises these issues, Goodhart finds himself occupying the centre ground. We now speak more openly and with less anxiety about race, class, demographics and nation.

The British Dream develops familiar themes. “In the space of less than 60 years,” Goodhart writes, “a rather homogenous country at the heart of a multiracial empire became a multiracial country, now without an empire.” How did this happen and what are the consequences? Three sections follow. The first attacks the remote cosmopolitanism of much of the left and emphasises the importance of physical place and national boundary in an era of globalisation. The second is an empirical analysis of inflows and a tour of debates around multiculturalism, while the third section focuses on the tensions and dilemmas of national identity.

Historians will look back on the past few decades and identify immigration as perhaps the major change to our country. There have been two big phases of immigration. The post-colonial phase lasted from 1948 until the early 1990s. It brought to Britain around two million people from the Caribbean, India, Pakistan and Africa. By the end of this period the number of ethnic-minority Britons stood at four million. The second phase, which coincided with a huge shift in the global movement of people, started in the late 1990s. Net immigration of non-British citizens has added another four million to the population in just 15 years.

The 2011 census for England and Wales put the proportion of the population who are not white-British at just under 20 per cent. This includes eight million of those whom Goodhart terms “visible minorities”, by which he means non-whites, and three million who are white and include those from eastern Europe, Australia, Ireland and Germany. According to Goodhart, future trends suggest that by the time of the next census in 2021 the “visible minority population” (including people of mixed ethnic backgrounds) of England and Wales will have risen from 14 per cent to roughly 20 per cent.

Predictions of population trends, birth and death rates and the growth of our various ethnic populations are contested. But whatever one’s response to such statistics – and some maintain that the mere mention of numbers and projections is tainted with racism – they point to an unprecedented change in our country. It is, Goodhart writes, “a demographic revolution” and one that he argues has happened by accident. It is transforming the cultures and common life of Britain.

Immigration raises questions about the character of England and the English, in particular. Who are we in this post-devolution, post-industrial era? Is the shrill politics of loss and resentment inevitable? These are questions that will continue to energise a politics of culture and belonging and shape the political settlement that is emerging in the wake of the economic crisis, just as they shaped the political settlement that emerged from the crisis of the mid-1970s. That led to the success of the New Right, the victory of Margaret Thatcher and the dominance of the neoliberal model of capitalism.

Though little acknowledged, Enoch Powell’s anti-immigration politics of culture and belonging laid the groundwork for the economic revolution of Thatcherism. His 1968 “rivers of blood” speech attacked government policy on immigration and broke ranks with the political elite. Powell “put a match to a tinderbox” and the result was an “explosion of bigotry, prejudice, alarm and fear”. His racialised politics found ready support among a settled population fearful that their way of life was under threat. Powell had identified and exploited the growing gulf between the people and a liberalminded ruling elite. He accused it of being an “enemy within” bent upon the destruction of the country. It was the first major assault on the postwar consensus.

The response of both the Labour and Conservative leaderships was to dismiss Powell as a demagogue and racist. Few recognised that new political fault lines were opening up, nor did they grasp that Powell had embarked on what was, in Tom Nairn’s phrase, “a preliminary groundbreaking exercise” for a new political order. However, not even Nairn could have foreseen the radicalism of Margaret Thatcher’s economic revolution. “Race” and immigration would play a major role in the new battle for England.

Concern about immigration is felt by all British ethnic groups. Anxiety about being isolated among people of a different culture through no choice of one’s own is understandable. Living in a neighbourhood of constantly changing strangers can be intolerable. People live in places and seek stability and familiarity for their family and children. Home is basic to a secure society. It provides a sense of belonging and identity. People’s loyalties and fidelities are local, ordinary and particular; they are not universal, abstract and general. We live within our relationships and these are foremost in value and importance for us. To fear their loss or disruption to them is only human.

Immigration is as much about those who have lived in these islands for generations as it is about those newly arrived. As Ed Miliband has said, we have to create together a common life around the shared language of English and a willingness to work and obey the laws of the country. It is out of these social bonds that shared ideas of the common good can be built. When people are secure in their culture and identity, they are open to others.

Labour’s “one-nation” politics is less about a society of many cultures and more about creating a common life that allows us to find unity in our differences. It is about a patriotism in which all British citizens are equal in their rights, their obligations and in the opportunities that are open to them. The task of rebuilding Britain will require a democratic politics of culture and belonging as much as a new political economy; a connected society as much as a new economic model of wealth creation.

I was fearful of reading this book. I feared that Goodhart, while claiming he is “not setting out to be provocative”, might seek to turn up the dial in order to gain a certain notoriety and traction for his work. Instead, however, I found greater nuance and texture than before.

There are still some difficulties. I don’t understand why he doesn’t acknowledge that hardline economic liberals, just as much as the most abstract cosmopolitans, reject any notion of national boundaries and loyalties. Goodhart is also too ready to accept the government’s claims about reducing “net migration”, which lumps all immigration together and does nothing about the problem of “churn” that he says he wants to avoid. He misses a trick, too, in not locating hostility to patriotism within a longer arc and linking it to the collapse of Gladstonian Liberalism as patriotic fervour bled into the ballot box in 1900. J A Hobson’s The Psychology of Jingoism (1901) looked for explanations in the essential irrationality of the sentiment, and conditioned much left thinking about patriotism through the last century as a consequence. Goodhart fails to respect genuine concerns on the left regarding the racial absolutism of much patriotic politics.

Nevertheless, The British Dream is an important contribution to any durable “one nation” politics. The country is heading for some pretty turbulent times and the left must contest these spaces, not vacate them to the right and the politics of loss and demonisation. Goodhart has occupied them longer than many and his work is evolving into something of real substance. I hope the book will be widely read.

Jon Cruddas, MP for Dagenham and Rainham, is co-ordinating the Labour Party’s policy review

Britons celebrate during last year's Jubilee. Photograph: Getty Images

Jon Cruddas is Labour's policy review coordinator and MP for Dagenham

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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How Native American culture fought back against the colonisers

The British Museum's new exhibition reveals the resilience of First Nations culture.

In the Great Court of the British Museum stand two enormous cedar totem poles, acquired in the early years of the 20th century from the north-west coast of North America. One was made by the Haida peoples and the other by the Nisga’a, two of the nations that make up the many-layered society stretching through Alaska, British Columbia and Washington State in the lands which, today, are called the United States and Canada. These peoples, whose history dates back at least 9,000 years, have been remarkably resilient in withstanding European and Russian incursion from the 18th century onward. Besides the Haida and Nisga’a, there are the Tlingit and Kwakwaka’wakw, the Tsimshian, the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah groups.

Now, for the first time, the British Museum is bringing together objects from these cultures in an exhibition that showcases one of the world’s most recognisable artistic traditions, and demonstrates how cultural identity can endure even in the most terrible circumstances. First Nation rights and identity are still very much under threat, as protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota show.

The exhibition takes its title from the legendary Thunderbird, who uses his strength and power to hunt whales – a skill he is said to have given to some of these communities. His legend persists into the present day. The Thunderbird can be seen here on a club collected by Captain Cook in the 18th century, and on a 1983 print made by the contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw artist Tony Hunt.

The objects on display are set in cases painted with a pale green wash to evoke the colour of fresh cedar bark. Some – such as the totem poles in the Great Court – evoke the power and majesty of these societies, while others are domestic items that combine beauty and usefulness in equal measure. In the first category are two potlatch “coppers”, shield-shaped plaques about a metre in height, made from what was an exotic and valuable metal. The potlatch is a ceremony, often days long, of feasting, dancing and giving of gifts. Such copper plaques, patterned with spruce gum in the sinuous “formline” design, which is as distinctive to the north-west coast as intricate knotting is to the Celtic tradition, were a significant part of the ceremony.

Equally intricately worked is a basket made of cedar twigs and cedar bark, used to catch fish. The bark on the basket is wrapped in an alternating sequence around the twigs: a technique that brings not only beauty but strength to what is, in effect, a delicate net. From these two objects alone, one can begin to grasp the sophistication of life on the Pacific north-west coast. The people of these cultures built highly complex and rich societies, all without the benefit of agriculture – evidence of the bounty of the bays and islands. In this lush geography, artists and craftsmen made works that are a source of wonder today: look for the joins at the corners of the elaborately decorated Haida box on display and you won’t find any. The chests are made from a single plank of red cedar, which is steamed until pliable; the two ends are then pegged together. They can be used for the storage of clothing, also as drums, or for cooking – or even for burial. They are a good symbol for the adaptability of the cultures of the north-west coast.

The new exhibition is laid out over a single room. One side of the room spans the earliest stone tools and historic weapons made in the region, up to objects from the time of Captain James Cook’s arrival in the 1770s; the other features art and regalia from the museum’s collections, including contemporary work and examples from the modern era. The latter addresses what might plainly be called cultural genocide: the often willed destruction of First Nation populations, in both Canada and the United States, by disease; by the residential school system, under which children were taken away from their families to be “educated” out of their culture and beliefs; and by the attempted eradication of languages and religious practices.

One of these banned practices was the potlatch itself, outlawed in Canada from 1880 until 1951 – long enough for a culture to vanish. Yet it survived, the curator Jago Cooper told me, as a result of “people going into museums and studying, or grabbing a grandparent and asking questions. People were incredibly industrious when it came to restoring their culture.” The show opens with a video of a vibrant potlatch.

There is evidence of that restoration and revival in the regalia worn by Chief Alver Tait in 2003 when the Nisga’a totem pole was first raised in the British Museum after decades of storage. He and his wife, Lillian, performed a spirit dance “to bring life back to the ancestors in the totem pole because they had been resting for so long”.

Much of the material here has been seen less frequently than it might be. In Missing Continents at the British Museum, a BBC Radio 4 programme made last year (and still available on iPlayer), the artist Antony Gormley, a former British Museum trustee, argued that the cultures of Africa, Oceania and the Americas are overshadowed there by those of Europe and Mesopotamia, which take the lion’s share of permanent displays at the institution.

Temporary shows such as “Where the Thunderbird Lives” allow a glimpse of the museum’s hidden holdings, some of them simply too fragile to be seen very often, or for very long. At least one of the objects, a gorgeous yellow cedar cloak, collected in the last years of the 18th century on George Vancouver’s North Pacific voyage and painted with an oystercatcher and two skate figure images, is a “once in a lifetime” object – it can’t be exposed to light for long, so now’s your chance to see it. We don’t know who made it. Some of the others, such as the “welcome figure”, carved with open arms, can’t even be attributed to a specific culture. That is, of course, true of many items in the museum’s vast collection: we don’t know who made the Sutton Hoo Helmet, or carved the Rosetta Stone.

The past cannot be changed: it can, however, be acknowledged, as this exhibition gracefully does – for in the work of the contemporary artists here, one sees, in diverse ways, the continuation of their ancestors’ traditions. What looks like a traditional Tlingit spruce root twinned basket is made of glass, by the contemporary Tlingit artist Preston Singletary; a copper pendant echoes the great potlatch coppers but the image printed on its face shows a detail from a US$5 bill (this was made by the Tlingit artist Alison Bremner). Ownership of culture and definitions of culture are questions more hotly debated than ever before. “Where the Thunderbird Lives” is a thoughtful – and beautiful – addition to that debate. 

“Where the Thunderbird Lives: Cultural Resilience on the North-west Coast of North America” opens on 23 February and is at the British Museum, London WC1, until 27 August. Details: britishmuseum.org

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit