The British Dream by David Goodhart – review

David Edgar is troubled by elements of this challenge to the 'leftwing myths' of postwar immigration

Lots of people get their knuckles rapped in David Goodhart's critical history of postwar immigration, from lazy Somalis and macho African-Caribbeans to inbreeding Pakistanis and standoffish Poles. But the main villains of the piece are people closer to home. In his article on these pages last Saturday, it was idealistic charity workers, 1960s liberal baby boomers and readers of this newspaper. In his book, it's two slightly more sinister figures: an unnamed civil service mandarin and a media mogul, met at an Oxford high table. What they all have in common – for Goodhart – is that they feel as great an obligation to the people of Burundi as to those of Birmingham.

Goodhart's battle against the liberal establishment goes back at least to 2004, when he wrote a piece for Prospect magazine inspired by David Willetts's theory that welfare states only work in culturally homogenous societies ("to put it bluntly", Goodhart wrote, "most of us prefer our own kind"). Two years later, he expanded his ideas about the need to reinforce national identity in a Demos pamphlet called Progressive Nationalism, whose recommendations included banning veiled women from public buildings, probationary citizenship and the reintroduction of a form of National Service. Since the 2010 election, he has identified himself, in his Twitter profile and elsewhere, as a "post‑liberal".

Now Goodhart has expanded his arguments for less immigration and more nationalism into The British Dream. In some ways, its tone is more nuanced than the pieces on which it's based: his lists of "special thanks to" and "thanks also to" include a significant sprinkling of leftwing thinkers and activists. However his primary purpose remains to challenge what he sees as leftwing myths about immigration.

So, contrary to popular belief, immigration on its current British scale is neither inevitable nor common. The first, largely African-Caribbean wave of the late 40s and 50s had "what now seems like extraordinary naive expectations of the mother country". But although Enoch Powell's 1968 Rivers of Blood speech was significant (not least for making it "slightly indecent" to talk about immigration), the rise of the National Front in the 1970s "often plays too large a part" in the story. The Brixton riots of 1981 exposed the failure of liberal, equal-rights multiculturalism, and the 80s and 90s saw the rise of a new, separatist multiculturalism that encouraged self-segregated ghettoes, the most intractable of which are growing more segregated, not less.

The second great wave of immigration (from 1997) was vastly greater than the first, adding 4 million migrants to the population (of whom, less than a quarter were from the EU), and was the result of a conspiracy between New Labour globalisers wanting to suppress wages and multiculturalists seeking to "rub the right's nose in diversity". And although West Indian immigrants were badly treated in the 50s and 60s ("no dogs, no blacks,  no Irish"), racism is no longer the dominant experience of British minorities. The vastly different outcomes of different immigrant groups demonstrate that underperformance is due to cultural factors (like Somali welfare-dependency or Muslim women staying at home) or to "self-inflicted wounds" (African-Caribbean "macho street culture"), and not to "racist Britain blocking the progress of all minorities". On earnings, for instance, "the evidence suggests that the pay gap is small to disappearing for people with the same qualifications".

Many elements of this narrative are questionable. Set against comparable countries, Britain's current immigration level is average: both Germany and France have higher numerical foreign-born populations, and 11 EU countries have immigrant populations which are proportionately higher than ours. It's true that less than half of current immigration comes from the EU, but emigration by non-EU citizens is higher too. As Goodhart acknowledges, more than 70% of current immigrants stay less than five years, because so many of them are students (only half of the headline four million have settled here). Studies of the 2011 census indicate that large cities such as Birmingham and Bradford have seen a decrease in segregation for most ethnic groups; in London, the decrease is particularly notable among Bangladeshis.

The argument that racism is greatly exaggerated doesn't really stand up either. The five-fold increase in the number of racist attacks since the early 90s may be partly due to changing definitions, but the absolute 2011-2012 figure of 47,678 racist incidents in England and Wales, of which 35,816 were recorded by the police as race-hate crimes, is a dramatic figure in itself. Goodhart's argument that press demonisation of immigrants contributes positively to race relations by providing "a psychological safety valve" is clearly self-serving. On pay, a 2008 report to the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that the earnings of Pakistani and Bangladeshi men at the low and middle levels of education were only two thirds of those of similarly qualified white men. On employment, male Chinese graduates are over three-quarters less likely to be employed than their white peers. And while Goodhart acknowledges the results of the so-called "CV tests", revealing that employers are still less likely to employ applicants with ethnic minority names, he justifies the discrepancy on the grounds that such people might prove "a source of tension and embarrassment" in the workplace, as, after all, "people will generally give preference to, and feel more comfortable being around, people they are familiar with". Acting on such attitudes as an employer has, of course, been illegal since the passage of the 1968 Race Relations Act.

Trying to stop the passage of that act was the main target of Powell's notorious speech. In Goodhart's description of a subsequent decade "which has gone into radical and minority folklore", there are a number of small but significant errors: the National Front saved their West Bromwich byelection deposit in 1973 not 1976 (and thus under a Tory not a Labour government), and although the NF never won a council seat, the break-away National party won two, in Blackburn.

But the main absentee is the immigrant community itself. True, Goodhart lists some Asian groups and mentions the 1963 Bristol bus boycott and the 1976 Grunwick picket line (on which he stood). But there is little sense of the role of myriad black and Asian organisations and newspapers in fighting for anti-discrimination legislation and against discriminatory immigration controls, of the influence of the visits of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, of the industrial struggles by black and Asian workers – often against their own unions – at places such as Courtauld's Red Scar mill in Preston, Standard Telephones and Cables in north London, Mansfield Hosiery Mills in Loughborough and Imperial Typewriters in Leicester. Not surprisingly, Goodhart disregards the role of the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism in the electoral collapse of the National Front in 1979; he also ignores the role of minority communities in places such as Southall which stood up against invasion by National Front bootboys, and groups like the Bradford 12, whose 1982 acquittal on charges of making explosive devices established the right of communities to defend themselves against attack.

Of course Goodhart acknowledges the cultural and (in a selective kind of way) the intellectual contribution of Britain's postwar immigrant communities. But recognising the changes that were brought about not in restaurants or at concerts or universities, but in workplaces and on the streets, through campaigns that were initially resisted by large sections of the host community, challenges the notion of a unified, linear national story. Goodhart's insistence that integration cannot be a "two-way street" and that immigrants "must carry the burden of any adaptation that is necessary" raises the question of what is being adapted to. The problem is starkly exposed when he goes on to insist that Muslims in particular "must adjust to a society dominated by Christian and secular humanist values".

Well, there's the rub. The British values that immigrants are being asked to sign up to are often contradictory. In his 2011 Munich speech, David Cameron listed the values to which immigrants should assent (they included freedom of speech and equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality, which is rich coming from a relatively recent supporter of section 28). Since then he has followed his continental counterparts in placing more emphasis on the nation's Christian heritage.

The move from values to culture is one which Goodhart applauds. As he admits, civic Britishness is a "political and institutional identity based on traditions which have disappeared or faded"; accordingly, the distinction between "civic" and "ethnic" national identity needs to be blurred. Insisting that exclusion is a necessary part of a meaningful community, the inclusive bits of his alternative ethnic identity seem a bit anodyne (pubs, the NHS, music, film, sport and "parts of the countryside").

By contrast, the exclusions have hardened up since he drew up similar lists six and eight years ago (not least as he then saw integration as a "two-way process"). An unspecific "two-tier welfare system" for different classes of immigrant is now a two-year qualification period for all benefits (currently, it's just contributory benefits) and a five-year wait for social housing. What had been a proposed new "British Liberty Day" celebrating "the post-1689 Whiggish Liberal culture" has become a "Britain Day", possibly to be held on Remembrance Sunday. What was once a voluntary National Citizenship Service is now compulsory, along with its "arduous military-run fitness programme". Goodhart no longer calls for a ban on the wearing of veils in schools and public offices, but he still thinks that veiled women cause "indirect psychological harm" to those who pass them in the street.

David Goodhart is not exceptional in these views, and some of his ideas – like free English lessons for newcomers – are excellent. But The British Dream raises the question as to whether someone who believes in quite so much exclusion and compulsion is any kind of liberal. Not so much "post", you might say, as "anti".


David Edgar

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Head Hand Heart by David Goodhart review – does getting a degree matter too much?
Do too many people now go to university? And shouldn’t manual work and care work be more valued? A timely but flawed polemic

William Davies

09, Sep, 2020 @6:30 AM

Article image
The Road to Somewhere by David Goodhart – a liberal’s rightwing turn on immigration
Is your tribe the ‘Somewheres’ or the ‘Anywheres’? A book on the faultlines that divide Brexit Britain is timely but misguided

Jonathan Freedland

22, Mar, 2017 @7:30 AM

Article image
Set the Night on Fire by Mike Davis and Jon Wiener review – the real LA in the 1960s
Blue skies, palm trees ... and a dark heart. This long-awaited study gets behind the myths to detail riots and radical action centring on race, class and sex

Ben Ehrenreich

22, Apr, 2020 @6:30 AM

Article image
Tribes by David Lammy review – how to mend our divided society
Episodes of memoir, including DNA tests, a police frisking and a death threat, enliven the Labour MP’s first-rate study of social division

Colin Grant

29, Feb, 2020 @11:58 AM

Article image
Classified: Secrecy and the State in Modern Britain by Christopher Moran – review
What role has elite arrogance played in government secrecy? This book provides a valuable if limited answer, writes Bernard Porter

Bernard Porter

10, Jan, 2013 @3:22 PM

Article image
Modernity Britain: Opening the Box by David Kynaston – review
Richard Davenport-Hines on a gleeful and compassionate account of 1950s Britain that evokes the sumptuous messiness of human experience

Richard Davenport-Hines

15, Jun, 2013 @7:01 AM

Article image
The Undivided Past: History Beyond Our Differences by David Cannadine – review
Should historians stop emphasising divisions in human society, asks David Priestland, or does this play into the hands of global free-marketeers?

David Priestland

11, Apr, 2013 @9:00 AM

Article image
Merchant, Soldier, Sage: A New History of Power by David Priestland – review
Richard J Evans on a thoughtful explanation of our current crisis

Richard J Evans

23, Aug, 2012 @9:40 AM

Article image
The Recovering by Leslie Jamison review – on giving up booze
This much-touted literary love letter to Alcoholics Anonymous is too moral in its argument for the superiority of the sober

Rick Whitaker

27, Apr, 2018 @8:00 AM

Article image
Age of Ambition review – an intimate portrait of China
How do you write about China? Evan Osnos shows us the lives of its citizens – including dissidents Ai Weiwei and Liu Xiaobo, writes Tash Aw

Tash Aw

31, Jul, 2014 @6:30 AM