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

Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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