Published in October 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
David Willetts last took part in a Prospect roundtable in 1998 a few months after Labour’s crushing victory. In a debate about the future of welfare the then Tory shadow minister coined the term “the progressive dilemma.” This is what he said: “The basis on which you can extract large amounts of money in taxation, and pay it out in benefits, is that most people think that benefit recipients are people like themselves facing difficulties which they too could face. If values become more diverse, lifestyles more differentiated, it is harder to sustain the legitimacy of a universal, risk-pooling welfare state. This is America versus Sweden. You can have a big welfare state like Sweden’s if you are a homogeneous society with strongly shared values. In the US you have a diverse, individualistic society and people feel fewer obligations to fellow citizens. This is the progressive dilemma: progressives want diversity, but thereby undermine the moral consensus on which a large welfare state rests.”
The subsequent ten years appeared to defy those words. In that time Britain experienced its biggest ever immigration wave, and multicultural policies—placing difference before common interests—dug deeper into our communities. Yet at the same time the welfare state became bigger not smaller. So is the dilemma a myth? Perhaps strong bonds of fellow feeling are not, after all, required to sustain the good society. Well, we now stand on the threshold of less generous years (decades?) and the tension that Willetts described could soon become all too real. Now back in the cabinet, he returns to the theme in the latest Prospect roundtable (p46), and offers two answers to the dilemma. One is a stress on institutions rather than abstract “British values”; the other is a revival of intergenerational thinking. The trouble with the latter is that generational justice presupposes a broad sense of affinity towards fellow citizens, past and future, but that is being eroded by the rise of stronger sub-national identities. Meanwhile, the ideology of multiculturalism has over-racialised human relations, stressed separate rather than common needs and encouraged a sense of victimhood among minorities—consider the changes in a town like Oldham over the past 20 years (p36). Our account of the unwelcome consequences of multiculturalism by a group of British black and Asian writers (p31) is thus a timely contribution to strengthening the public realm as storm clouds loom—and by returning to one of Prospect’s big themes also a way of marking our 15th birthday.