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The British dream a dangerous concoction of prejudices

Andy Gregg dissects David Goodhart's toxic mix of myth and dogma on immigration.


ometimes self-styled liberals can do more damage than more overtly racist commentators. They provide complicit, dog-whistle politics to the more strident views espoused by the Tory right and UKIP. After all, we all know where we are with those who express outright racism and xenophobia. Taking their lead, similar views are now being put forward by supposed 'liberal' commentators aligned with 'Blue Labour' predictably dressed up as 'common sense' and 'what everyone is already thinking'.

David Goodhart is just such a figure. His recent book, The British Dream: Successes and Failure of Post-War Immigration falls into this category - a diatribe against recent levels of immigration under New Labour. If these positions were based on irrefutable evidence and clear logical argument there would be little that we on the anti-racist left could do or say about them. However, his approach is riddled with dubious assumptions coupled with selective evidence. His entire argument stems from the highly questionable (but seldom challenged) nostrum that 'more diversity leads automatically to less solidarity'. According to Goodhart, less solidarity leads to a breakdown in trust which in turn leads to suspicion of the welfare state and hostility to welfare benefits.

He argues that there has been far too much immigration into Britain since 1997 - and that this has damaged the prospects for integration, as well as directly threatening the ties of solidarity: the 'moral consensus' that he sees as vital to the welfare state.

The basis of Goodhart's argument is the assertion that welfare states only work well in 'culturally homogeneous' societies. Has British society ever been culturally homogeneous? It is a myth and a fundamentally racialised perspective. Even so, the link is highly questionable.

It is more likely that class differences and the growing prejudice that Owen Jones identifies against working class people as a whole are the main factors leading to the decline in support for the welfare state. The demonization of 'benefit scroungers' (often combined with added racism directed towards black or ethnic minority claimants) is the driving force in the public's loss of support for the welfare state. Such prejudices are buttressed by the Goodhart approach, rather than challenged. It is more likely that issues of race, ethnicity and culture are rolled out in order to avoid a discussion of power, poverty, discrimination and racism.

Most of us, Goodhart asserts, 'prefer our own kind'. This is pure tribalism and it is manifestly untrue. The fastest growing minority ethnic group in the UK are the children of mixed heritage relationships. Indeed, Britain has one of the highest rates of interracial relationships in the western world, and the mixed race group is expected to become the largest such group by 2020.

One of the consequences of Goodhart's 'muscular liberalism' is that the arguments it proposes actively undermine the solutions that it aims to promote. By constantly excoriating recent migration into the UK, these commentators actually stoke up the tensions that cause division - which is then used as evidence of the problem. The cure becomes the cause of the problem.

Goodhart tries an even more bizarre approach, arguing that levels of racism are greatly exaggerated and that 'there is little evidence to suggest that if newspapers reported immigration stories in a more neutral way that opinion would be significantly more favourable'. Characteristically, he fails to offer evidence for these conclusions. Even more astonishingly, he appears to argue that a hostile press actually helps the situation: 'the tabloid press is often blamed for fanning prejudice but its bluntness may also have acted as a psychological safety valve for those who feel unrepresented by the mainly liberal political class'. Those targeted by the Daily Mail and the Daily Express are unlikely to see it this way.

There are two further allied positions that Goodhart and other 'liberal' commentators have developed. The first is the notion that things have changed so much for the better in the UK that we are now living in a largely post-race and post-racism world where the old struggles for equality and against discrimination no longer make sense.

The second is the attempt to drive a wedge between, on the one hand the longer settled Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities (many from the first period of migration the 'Windrush generation' largely from the 'New Commonwealth' and their offspring - who settled here before the late 1990s), and on the other hand recent arrivals including refugees, asylum seekers and EU migrants often from countries that had no history of British colonial subjection.

Goodhart has gone on record in the Evening Standard as welcoming the Government's recent travelling billboard campaign suggesting that illegal migrants turn themselves in: 'indicating to people through these billboards that the Government is not ignoring the problem will reassure many more Londoners than it scares.' But the evidence is that the clamp down has exacerbated tensions and has impacted on all black and minority ethnic communities regardless of their length of settlement in the UK. Doreen Lawrence in the Daily Mail has attested that recent immigration raids have clearly targeted 'people of colour' and rely on 'racial profiling' and it has prompted outrage across local communities.

Goodhart frequently makes the cardinal error of assuming a causal connection when none exists or confuses cause and effect. He refuses to engage with evidence showing that migrants actually make a net contribution to society. They pay more in taxes and take less out in welfare and benefits, rent homes and buy goods which keep businesses running in the meantime. They care for the older generation while using NHS services less than average. Indeed, many EU migrants return to their countries for medical or dental care despite being labelled 'health tourists'.

Increasing attempts to control migration are causing serious damage to UK universities, not to mention the ability of public services to recruit sufficient skilled personnel. Food processing, farming and many other labour intensive industries would be unviable without migrant workers, and this situation is likely to continue.

Recent figures from the Office for Budget Responsibility warned that Britain needs to continue to welcome hundreds of thousands of new migrant workers every year in order to keep public finances stable over the next fifty years. 'Overall migration has a positive impact on the sustainability of public finances' says the OBR, without a hint of qualification.

Recent research by the University of Manchester directly challenges the view that more diversity means less cohesion and solidarity. The key finding of the Manchester research is that it is deprivation, not diversity, which is linked with poor physical and mental health, low social cohesion and race discrimination. The research shows that ethnically diverse areas are actually happier, healthier and less discriminatory. Goodhart makes much of the option of 'white flight' however most of the evidence he puts forward is from the US and is not applicable to the UK.

Diversity is actually associated with higher social cohesion and greater tolerance, not the other way around. The fear of migrants tends to diminish in mixed communities where there is real experience of living together, with all its complications. This chimes with the observation that it is the least diverse areas are those who are most hostile all of which suggests an entirely different approach.

The book also contains the lazy suggestion that there are such things as 'good' and 'bad' migrant communities. The good ones are those he claims have had less problems integrating and who have come from more prosperous backgrounds. The bad ones Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Somali - are constantly mentioned in this context: 'often from rural areas and with generally low levels of education and poor or non-existent English'. They also just happen to be Muslim communities, which panders to yet another stereotype.

He consistently fails to have any analysis of the role of deprivation, poverty and social class. The effects of racism and discrimination are edited out of the picture indeed they are somehow seen as illegitimate attempts by black and minority ethnic communities to claim victimhood.

A book that purports to discuss post-war immigration should surely have something to say about the key concept of institutional racism, the Stephen Lawrence case and the MacPherson Inquiry, which has dominated much of the discourse since the early 1990s. In 340 pages, Goodhart gives these key issues just a couple of sentences. He fails to address the notion of institutional or structural racism but caricatures it as 'a new, more subjective definition of racism', by which he presumably means that the police are now instructed to record an incident as racist if one or more of the participants insists that it is.

The book makes much of an extended description of life in the multicultural London Borough of Merton, where he identifies that poor whites 'are doing the worst of the lot' as the consequence of immigration. For Goodhart, this class of people have largely opted out. In fact, as many commentators (including Jonathan Portes) have pointed out, this not only bears little resemblance to the reality in Merton, but it again confuses cause and effect. As Portes says: 'to put it bluntly, if you're going to be white, British and poor, all the statistical evidence suggests you'd be better off being born in Merton or anywhere else in London, surrounded by immigrants - than in the mostly white areas where education outcomes, in particular, are worse.'

Goodhart's views, leading to the predictable conclusion that migration must be drastically cut by any means necessary, are highly questionable, misleading and thin on evidence. The real danger is that these deficiencies in Goodhart's argument will be ignored by the Labour Party front bench in the rush to embrace a 'common sense' justification: a supposedly left version of the right wing mantra that immigrants are somehow the cause of the many problems Britain currently faces.