This book review appeared in Tribune 5 September 2013
The British Dream by David Goodhart. Atlantic Book £20
300 years ago Daniel Defoe wrote his poem ‘The True-Born Englishman’ and described the ‘mongrel race’ which pretended it had a cear cut identity which others should subscribe and conform to.
60 years ago George Orwell described as the ‘new anti-semitism’ the open dislike of Poles – around a quarter of a million of men and their families – who stayed in Britain after 1945.
And anyone of Irish background only has to go back one or two generations to hear tales of the deep anti-Catholic or anti-Irish prejudice in some labour and housing markets.
The search for a ‘British dream’ – an integrative process – that would lessen the difficulties whenever incomers meet existing natives is eternal and can be traced in almost every nation in the world.
David Goodhart is a member of the British elite. He went to Eton, his father was a Tory MP, he worked for the elite Financial Times and he founded and brilliantly edited the elite’s monthly Prospect magazine.
He is a thoroughly decent member of London liberal bourgeois elite. Along with his favourite Prospect contributors, Andrew Adonis and David Willets, Goodhart has applied liberal rational thought to examind many contemporary problems.
He does so in this thoughtful, well researched and reasonably agued book about immigration. Some have got cross with Goodhart because he has said there is a problem. Others like the leading economist Jonathan Portes, has taken apart Goodhart’s statistics but then ended up quoting anecdotal evidence himself.
Goodhart does set up straw men like his denunciation of ‘multiculturalism’ as if ‘monoculturalism’ were possible. He implies that these problems were kept off the politica agenda by the left. I first stood for parliament in 1974 and the issue of non-British born workers and residents was huge then and remains so today.
Anyone who gets their hands dirty doing real door-knocking in real communities will have spent a large part of their political life worrying at the immigration question. Just because it was not much of an Islington dinner table subject does not mean the close-to-voters left has not seen it as a major issue. But it also a major issue for the new British citizens who so suffer from racism and who need a left to speak for them.
He discusses Islamism too superficially. It is about ideology not religion and the failure of British politicians and journalism, including Goodhart’s FT and Prospect, to examine the politics of Islamism between the Rushdie affair and 7 July 2005 is one of the most shameful lapses in our recent political and intellectual life.
Goodhart is right to argue that since the end of the closed frontiers once policed by tyrannical states there have been too many incomers arriving too fast and spreading out to too many corners of Britain all at once. No one notices 400,000 French living in London nor that the biggest contingent of EU workers on the London Olympic site were Irish.
But a handful of Kosovo asylum seekers arrive and a Slovakian food shop opens up in a small town unused to foreigners and a fear sets in easily exploited by the BNP or UKIP.
Goodhart does not offer many convincing answers. He is too liberal to embrace modern Powellism. He blames ministers especially those in 2004 who did not shut the door to Poles and East Europeans. I took part in that decision. We looked at France and Germany where a so called transition period was adopted. It failed to stop the arrival of workers on the illegal labour market. Go to Berlin and Paris and the low wage proletarian jobs are done, as here, by foreign workers. In Britain, tle EU workers paid taxes, NI, rented from Brits, shopped in British shops and spent money in British pubs and clubs.
Blaming the incomers for labour market problems is too easy and bad left politics. A fair living wage, proper apprenticeships, trade unions that organized in the private sector, a ban on permanent agency workers, controls over working time and better education to give young British citizens the skills a modern economy wants are the real ways of securing British jobs for British workers.
But that requires a politics of social fairness and redressing the scales tilted so heavily in favor of capital, big and small, in recent years. Goodhart, a former trade union editor of the FT might have focused more on the failure of Labour ministers to promote worker rights rather than on whether Britain like America, Canada, and every EU member state has seen unprecedented people movement since the end of communism and triumph of global capitalism.
Probably there is a French or Spanish David Goodhart lamenting the arrival of so many Brits in their countries, all demanding health care, the right to do work done by the French, and rarely learning the language of the host nation.
Free movement within the EU is a good thing and Britons have benefitted more than most. Like many Goodhart elides free movement of citizens with cheap labour for exploitative British employers. Like the term ‘immigrant’ which is meaningless now as incomers have travel, satellite, skype and other links back home (all the planes I take to East Europe are as full as those coming here) the categories used in this debate are part of the problem. Goodhart’s book is an honest attempt though I quiver a bit when it is the Daily Mail that makes him into a brave, dissenting hero. But as with many current political problems, better management rather than a final solution may be the best to hope for.
In 1958, John F Kennedy wrote a book called America : A Nation of Immgrants. That is real liberalism and on this subject we need more Kennedies and less posters urging people to shop an immigrant they don’t like.