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June 14th, 2013

The political left and its discomfort with diversity: David Goodhart represents a longstanding current within Labour

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Blog Admin

June 14th, 2013

The political left and its discomfort with diversity: David Goodhart represents a longstanding current within Labour

2 comments

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Leo LucassenLeo Lucassen points out that it is not only elements of the political right that are intolerant of immigration and multiculturalism, but also the political left as exemplified by David Goodhart. He argues that Goodhart, like other leftwing immigration critiques, has a rather static and homogeneous conception of national cultures and an unsubstantiated conviction that cosmopolitan elites have betrayed their natural constituency, the native white workers who are left to bear the burden of diversity.

In April this year David Goodhart published his book The British Dream: Success and Failures of Post-War Immigration. Although the title might suggest a balanced account of the pro’s and cons of immigration, it is pessimism that dominates the narrative. The author sketches what he calls ‘The progressive dilemma’ between the belief in universalism and multiculturalism on the one hand and the eroding trust, cohesion and solidarity of societies that experience mass immigration on the other. His remedy is simple: less immigration, especially of poor and culturally different immigrants, and more attention to a joint identity and the common historical national identity, even if it is largely a myth.

This very brief summary of the book might be a reason for liberals to denounce it as yet another example of intolerance coming from the (extreme) right. This, however, would fail to do justice to both the content of the book and the ideological background of the author. Goodhart’s clearly comes from the left and is director of the think tank Demos, which was closely aligned with (New) Labour and was founded by Marxism Today editor Martin Jacques. If we want to understand the root of Goodhart’s critique, it is much to convenient to label him as right wing or centrist, as Jenny Bourne did on the website of the Institute of Race Relations recently. By labelling him as a bigot, she makes the traditional mistake of turning ‘left’ and ‘right’ into moral instead of political categories. More interesting is to try to understand where this leftish discomfort with immigration and diversity comes from, how it developed since World War II, and to uncover the similarities and differences with leftish immigration pessimism in other Western European countries.

Although I share part of the critique by Goodhart, especially when it comes to the essentializing effects of part of the multiculturalist (identity) policies and on the use of immigrants to erode worker rights and lower wage levels, his argument that the naive, cosmopolitan and universalist left is to blame for stimulating and allowing two waves of mass immigration (one between the late fourties and late eighties and another since the liberalization of the Eastern European labour market in 2004) fails to convince. A quick look at the historical record teaches that the first wave was the consequence of imperial legacies and decolonization and enabled by conservative governments, while local Labour MP’s, like George Rogers in 1958, defended the white working class aggression against West Indian immigrants by stating that “for years white people have been tolerant. Now their tempers are up”. And where Labour in 1960 opposed the immigration controls it was responsible for the 1968 legislation that aimed to exclude Kenyan Asians.

These and many other cases show that the binary opposition between left and right is not very helpful, if not utterly misleading. And the same goes for diversity. It is tempting, and it is not difficult to find examples, to think that celebrating ethnic difference is typical for the left, but also here reality is much more complicated. Especially in countries like the UK, with a long imperial tradition and a shared idea of a global Commonwealth, defending the empire and its traditions – including cultural differences of its members – is as much cherished by the right as the left. Historians like Randall Hansen (Citizenship and immigration in Post-War Britain) and David Feldman in a most interesting analysis of a dispute in 1967 between the Wolverhampton Transport Committee and a Sikh bus driver (‘Why British like turbans’), have demonstrated the force of ‘conservative pluralism’ in the UK. With respect to the first wave of immigration Goodhart also seems to underestimate the force of the mutual identification between immigrants from the West Indies and South Asia and white Britons, who shared an imperial legacy, the English language and imperial symbols. How otherwise to explain the surprisingly fast rise of the intermarriage rate (now over 50%) between Caribbean migrants and white Britons since the 1950s. People may prefer their own kind, as Goodhart states, what they consider as ‘their kind’ often changes much faster than we realize. The ‘new we’ Goodhart is calling for is already very much in the making.

If we want to understand Goodhart’s pessimistic analysis, it is not very helpful to tarnish him as a racist, xenophobe or right winger in leftish clothes. Goodhart represents a longstanding current within Labour that has been running at least since the dissolving of the Second International (1889-1916) during World War I, when the national perspective of the socialist movement replaced the international solidarity of workers. His 2004 trail blazing article in Prospect (‘Too much Diversity’) and his recent book champion an explicit and self-conscious form of communitarian nationalism, which puts an assumed cultural homogeneity of the people over internal class, regional and religious differences. With this vision Goodhart joins forces with similar leftwing immigration critiques, like the Dutch opinion maker Paul Scheffer, whose career developed very similar to that of Goodhart. He also first published a highly provocative and influential article in the leading Dutch Newspaper (‘The multicultural Drama’, NRC-Handelsblad January 2000) followed by a high profiled book in 2007 (English version 2011: Immigrant nations). I was therefore not surprised when David Goodhart at the recent Dahrendorf Symposium on ‘Freedom and Diversity’ at Saint Antony’s College in Oxford (4-5 May) confided to me that he was a ‘Scheffer fan’. What Scheffer and Goodhart share, and to some extent also the German Social Democrat Thilo Sarrazin (Deutschland schafft sich ab, 2010), is a rather static and homogeneous conception of national cultures and the – largely unsubstantiated – conviction that cosmopolitan elites (especially from the left) have betrayed their natural constituency, the native white workers who are left to bear the burden of diversity.

At the same time there are interesting differences between the current British left wing anti-immigration stance and the Dutch. The latter is much more obsessed with Islam as a serious threat to an open society, linked to a conspicuous libertarian, cultural revolutionist background. When combined with a communitarian vision of the people, it is not difficult to understand that many on the left in the Netherlands consider (Muslim) migrants, especially since the Rushdie affair, as endangering the progressive values such as women’s and gay rights and freedom of speech. Rights that were wrought from the traditional conservative elites in the 1960s and 70s. It was this every mixture that basically formed the political programme of Pim Fortuyn (murdered in 2002), who was mistaken for yet another Jean Marie le Pen or Filip de Winter, but whose political ideals remained deeply rooted in his longtime affiliation with the Dutch Labour party.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.

About the Author

Leo Lucassen is Academic Director of the Institute for History, Leiden University and author of The Immigrant Threat: old and new migrants in Western Europe since 1850 (2005).

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