The modern left values both solidarity and diversity, but they can conflict. A strong notion of Britishness helps them to cohabit—the left still needs the nationby Jytte Klausen / December 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2000 issue of Prospect Magazine
For the 100 years preceding the 1970s, progressives in Europe and America pursued a politics of solidarity. The left demanded the creation and expansion of the welfare state. Public policy should redistribute income and subsidise, if not deliver directly, essential services such as education and health. The ideal was a society in which the inequalities associated with social class would fade away.
That ideal remains in place, but from the 1970s onwards it has been gradually supplemented by another ideal-the promotion of diversity. Groups that once experienced discrimination would now be accorded recognition. The plethora of languages and cultures created by immigration and the greater tolerance of domestic minority groups, such as gays, would be celebrated in the name of multiculturalism, not trampled in the name of assimilation. Because different groups have different values and understandings of right and wrong, the state would have to be neutral between them. The good society became one in which no person would have to live with a sense of shame because his or her gender, race, sexuality or able-bodied status is different from the majority’s.
Herein lies the progressive dilemma of the 21st century. Solidarity and diversity are both desirable objectives. Unfortunately, they can also conflict. A sense of solidarity creates a readiness to share with strangers, which in turn underpins a thriving welfare state. But it is easier to feel solidarity with those who broadly share your values and way of life. Modern progressives committed to diversity often fail to acknowledge this. They employ an over-abstract and unrealistic notion of affinity, implying that we ought to have the same feelings of generosity or solidarity towards a refugee from the other side of the world as we do towards our next door neighbour.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the early days of the British welfare state, this was not such an issue. People believed that they were paying the social welfare part of their taxes to people who were like themselves and who faced the same risks and problems. For most people, paying tax was a kind of enlightened self-interest. Just 25 years later, Britain had become a much more diverse place. This was not just a matter of ethnic diversity. Rather, big differences in values began to emerge between (and within) the generations. It was also the beginning of the end of a long process of national homogenisation which had begun in the late 18th century and encompassed the creation of empire; the forging of new national institutions in the Victorian period; and the two world wars of the first half of the 20th century. Britishness-encapsulated in institutions like the BBC-was shot through with more particular regional and class identities, but it had become a powerful binding force. By the 1970s, that binding force began to weaken and it has been gradually unravelling ever since. In some instances this is welcome, but the price paid is a diminution in solidarity. It seems plausible to suggest, for example, that this weakening is one factor behind the emergence in the 1970s of popular support for tax resistance-if the ties that bind you to increasingly diverse fellow citizens are loosened, you are likely to be less inclined to share your resources with them.