:: Article

Saying the sayable

By Max Dunbar.

The British Dream, David Goodhart, Atlantic Books 2013

Every polemicist needs a consensus to kick against. There is a habit in public discourse of prefacing an assertion with ‘You’re not supposed to say this, but -‘ not because there is a genuine risk in expressing such views, but to add a frisson of danger and generate interest in arguments that are, in and of themselves, not that strong or interesting. So in the introduction to his critique of postwar immigration, the Demos boss David Goodhart writes that ‘unlike most members of my political tribe of north London liberals I have come to believe that public opinion is broadly right about the immigration story’ and complains that, when he has raised such concerns in the past, he was denounced as a ‘liberal racist’. It is an accepted convention that ‘we’re not allowed to talk about immigration’, even though the issue has dominated newspaper and parliamentary debate since the late 1990s.

This book has been hyped as big news because it is a critique from the left. But there is already an established leftwing critique of immigration. The Blue Labour movement, Frank Field, Trevor Phillips, much of the trade union left and countless CLPs have been on it for years. The argument goes like this. The dear departed Margaret Thatcher shattered white working class communities. To counter her aggressive individualism we need to build the community back up and place more value on group loyalty. Immigration undermines this because it dumps large influxes of foreigners on local communities, causing confusion and resentment. The capitalist bosses love immigration because all those Polish brickies and Somalian strawberry pickers let them undercut local wages and conditions. Liberals don’t see this because they are in hock to the equalities industry and have forgotten that class is more important than race. Worse, mainstream liberalism has become too materialistic and detached from ordinary people. You urban cosmopolitans don’t understand the working class soul. Immigration lost Labour the 2010 election because people felt they weren’t being listened to and that their legitimate concerns about immigration were dismissed too readily as racism.

Although I think Goodhart’s argument is basically flawed, I should say that in much of the finer detail he makes good points. He is strong on migration from rural Pakistan, which has led to entire towns being run by ethnic Mirpuri or Bengali cabals. In Bradford communitarian politics has got so bad that its voters elected George Galloway as a breath of fresh air. And Goodhart is right that Labour’s management of mass immigration was poor. Labour wanted the economic benefits from immigration, they wanted the ethnic bloc votes but they also wanted to crack down on immigration and keep hold of their white working class base. The result was a kind of institutional schizophrenia.

And multiculturalism can cover a multitude of sins. Over the last ten years, liberals have been reluctant to challenge cultural practices that are genuinely evil – forced marriages, female genital mutilation, sharia courts, prescription of dress, movement and socialising. When the BBC drama Casualty announced that it was going to feature an FGM storyline, this was news because mainstream society just hasn’t yet been able to confront these things. Labour refused to criminalise forced marriage because, as an internal review had it, ‘black and ethnic minority communities may feel targeted.’ Family law solicitor Chris McCurley commented that ‘I cannot think of another criminal offence that has been considered and rejected on the basis that the perpetrators may feel ‘got at’.’

However, immigration dominates British conversation to such an extent that it tends to be seen as the root cause for any negative change. In a response to Goodhart, Kenan Malik writes: ‘Feminism, consumerism, increased social mobility, the growth of youth culture, the explosion of mass culture, the acceptance of free market economic policies, the destruction of trade unions, the decimation of manufacturing industries, the rise of the finance and service sectors, greater individual freedom, the atomisation of society, the decline of traditional institutions such as the Church – all have helped transform Britain, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.  But it is immigrants who primarily have become symbolic of change, and of change for the worse.’ The victims of Islamic fundamentalism are mainly Asian – the suicide rate for Asian women is three times the national average – and I would argue that it is the perverse value we place on community and tradition, rather than immigration, that has let down so many marginalised individuals and outsiders within Asian communities.

But then, the immigration debate is a roulette wheel with a house spin on every number. If the immigrant gets a job, he is stealing jobs from British workers. If not, he is taking advantage of our bloated welfare state. If the immigrant wants to stay in the UK for the rest of his life, he is asking too much: but if he stays for only a few years before moving on, he is a mere ‘guest worker’ who has not made a proper connection. If immigrants cluster together in small enclaves, they are setting up ghettoes and refusing to integrate. If immigrants move into a white area, they are taking over and changing the area so that ‘it doesn’t feel English anymore’. It is completely circular, and Goodhart does not seem to recognise this.

Take his position on work. It is a long standing contention of anti immigration rhetoric that foreigners are taking working class jobs, and Goodhart laments that employers too often rely on foreign labour over homegrown talent: ‘to have millions of long-standing residents sitting at home on benefit while poor foreigners come in and take the jobs that they should be doing makes no sense for the country as a whole; it creates a kind of ‘Saudi Arabianisation’ of the labour market.’ But it is not the immigrant’s fault that we have written off entire generations of British people, that we can’t be bothered to educate our own or adequately prepare them for the workplace, that we have condemned generations of young people to low expectations and no life chances. If you can’t or won’t take advantage of the opportunities that are out there, someone else will. Maybe that’s not fair – but that’s how the world works.

Another complaint from Goodhart is that immigration acts as a brain drain on poor countries: ‘Malawi, for example, lost more than half of its nursing staff to emigration over recent years, leaving just 336 nurses to serve a population of 12 million… some rich countries, including Britain, have been importing doctors and nurses on a morally questionable scale.’ Unfortunate. Maybe if Malawi’s corrupt, human rights abusing government would share the wealth a little more, it would be able to keep more of its doctors. Again, the market does its thing. More bizarre is Goodhart’s position on humanitarian migration. ‘There is a strong case for tightening the legal framework for asylum,’ he argues. ‘When the UN Refugee Convention was established in 1951 the Soviet gulags were a reality and the Nazi genocide a recent memory. It was drawn up on the assumption that a small trickle of refugees might escape such totalitarian states and make their way to the west.’ The extraordinary implication here is that the Convention should be reformed because war and dictatorship aren’t really a problem any more. This will be big news to the victims of the Taliban, Assad’s ongoing slaughter and the Islamist invasion of Mali. I almost said North Korea, but Kim Jong-Un’s slave state doesn’t produce many refugees because the regime prevents ‘brain drain’ by shooting anyone who tries to leave.

The references above are taken from Goodhart’s introduction, the most striking and well written part of the book. The book degenerates after that, because Goodhart won’t answer the question: ‘What would you actually do?’ Critics of immigration are often reluctant to recommend policy changes, because they object to immigration on not just an economic but also a cultural basis. They can argue for zero net immigration, but any attempt to reverse the cultural changes since the Windrush docked would have to involve the deportation of BME second or third generation immigrants, the dismantling of communities, the demolition of mosques – basically, policies close to fascism. You may think I am exaggerating, but when the opponents of migration do come up with actual recommendations, they’re fairly sinister – for example, the Tory MP Julian Brazier’s argument for the rendition of asylum seekers to Kenyan detention camps.

So instead of clear demands, we get 381 pages of wonk. Goodhart told the Daily Mail that he had spent ’18 months of touring the country to talk to people about their lives for a new book’ but there are few quotes from either locals or immigrants in The British Dream, instead you get the impression that he has spent the entire eighteen months in his office, crunching numbers. He is compared to Orwell on the back cover, but he has not taken to heart Orwell’s instruction that ‘good prose is like a windowpane’. When you write paragraphs like ‘Values, meaning different and sometimes conflicting notions of how to live a good life, are in a way the problem, not the solution. It is shared experience and mutual interests, and the way these can be fostered by public institutions and public rituals, that are a better means for overcoming difference and creating a more transcendent in-group loyalty, a sense of fellow citizen solidarity, in a diverse era’ – you have already lost the argument. There are many interesting points, but no coherence.

Goodhart has coined the phrase ‘immigrationists’ to describe Philippe Legrain, Oliver Kamm and others who have more moderate views on immigration. And I admit that this is a debate that ‘immigrationists’ like myself lost a long time ago. The consensus is that immigration is a problem and nothing’s going to change that consensus. Labour brought in six Acts of Parliament related to immigration, and created a UK Border Agency which has become so bloated and overreaching that it hassles classical musicians coming to this country and has established compliance arms in universities which hassle lecturers to report anyone that the Agency deems ‘illegal’. The consensus against immigration is so entrenched that we have a Prime Minister running around telling Europeans not to come to this country because the weather’s bad and we don’t have any jobs. To the concern of business leaders, Cameron brought in a migration cap aspiration and restrictions on the family and student routes. Because of this, immigration has gone down. But notice that the public and media outrage about immigration has not reduced: quite the reverse.

My point here is that we are not dealing with rational demands, but a inchoate mess of curdled resentments. I agree with Goodhart that Britain is not a racist country compared to decades ago, in fact most people are smart and tolerant, but the country is still somehow being run for the benefit of the angry provincial with a chip on his shoulder the size of the Malawian national debt. We are chasing short term votes at the expense of what’s right and what works. And we give the impression that as a country we have nothing to say to the rest of the world except ‘Fuck off. We’re full.’

If that is the British dream, it’s time to wake up.

Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, April 17th, 2013.