Opinion on my diversity essay divided, in part, on ethnic linesby David Goodhart / April 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
In the February issue of Prospect I wrote an essay touching on some of the most sensitive issues in British public life and then agreed to all 6,000 words of it being reprinted in the Guardian. For a week or so it was the talk of the town. For a small magazine like this that can struggle to get heard, it was a blessing from the gods.
But then, what I had taken to be my speculative exploration of the “progressive dilemma” – the potential conflict between social cohesion and the many kinds of diversity that have flourished in recent decades – was suddenly being denounced across the race divide as an insensitive attack on Britain’s visible minorities: “Nice racism” (wrote Trevor Phillips) “Reactionary neo-con” (Yasmin Alibhai-Brown) “Ignorant scapegoating” (Sukhvinder Stubbs).
This wasn’t quite how I had envisaged my 15 minutes of fame. Would the liberal readers of Prospect cancel their subscriptions? What if the magazine never kicks up such a stink again: will all those Guardian and Independent readers remember me as a “liberal Powellite”?
Another result of my notoriety was a flood of invitations to attend race and immigration seminars. As I was now an “expert” on these matters, I thought I had better turn up to one or two. I also had a thesis to defend from misrepresentation. At the first one, organised by the home office in Greenwich, Bhikhu Parekh talked about the continuing gulf in perceptions between majorities and minorities in Britain and cited the varied reaction to my essay. He was right, the reactions have been dismayingly polarised.
Before publishing it I showed the essay in draft to a representative cross-section of the liberal intelligentsia, mainly but not exclusively white, and got a broadly positive reaction. After publication, most white readers, whether they agreed with the general drift or not, accepted it as a perfectly legitimate argument.
With non-white readers the reactions were more complex. It is not true, as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown claimed in a column attacking me, that: “Not one non-white Briton has defended the Goodhart thesis.” I have received many letters and emails of support from non-whites. Other non-white academics and commentators, such as Shamit Saggar, Kenan Malik and Anshuman Mondal (each of whom has posted a brief reply on the Prospect website), have disagreed in emphasis or detail but in a spirit of mutual exploration of a difficult topic.
Then there is a third group of non-whites who feel personally affronted. They will not engage with the argument in abstract, aggregate terms but see only some atavistic nationalist trying to exclude them – Suhkvinder Stubbs, former head of the Runnymede Trust, and Gary Younge of the Guardian even bristled at my use of the word “we” meaning British citizens. They were reading a piece which said: “diversity is bad, roll it back,” rather than the actual piece which said: “diversity is desirable but let’s make sure that it doesn’t leave cohesion behind.”
These are emotional issues. But some of the responses just seemed indulgent and knee-jerk – as if I was attacking a religious faith, which is perhaps what diversity has become to some people. Nonetheless, I tried to explain to the home office seminar what I thought lay behind the sharpness of reaction of some non-whites. It is that historically, especially for people on the left, there has been a direct link between anti-racism and support for the widest possible open door for migrants into Britain. Anybody, especially a white person, who expresses concern at some of the costs of mass immigration – as I did in one part of the essay – is seen as in some way questioning the status of existing ethnic minority citizens. But this is nonsense – as I tried to say to the rather sceptical Greenwich seminar. If we are to have a sensible debate we must now decouple these two arguments, as most Britons in practice do. This is no longer the 1960s. It is possible to be a committed anti-racist and yet favour a hard-headed debate about the pros and cons of large-scale immigration.
The next speaker at the seminar was one of my accusers, Trevor Phillips, head of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE). Before he spoke, we had a friendly chat in which he claimed that he hadn’t said I was a racist and that he in fact agreed with much of what I had written. This struck me as unserious.
I had a chance to see Trevor in action again a few days later at another seminar on integration and multiculturalism in Whitehall. He started off by saying that immigration is unstoppable and anyway irrelevant to his argument (he said in Greenwich that he did not think that net immigration of 200,000 a year amounted to mass immigration, which in the British context just seems historically wrong).
He then talked about ethnic minority problems – perfectly properly, given his job – for 30 minutes. The only mention of the wider society came when someone pointed out that anxiety about race and immigration had risen from nowhere to second most salient political issue in the opinion polls.
Fortunately the government – unlike most race experts – does seem to grasp that majority reassurance is the single most important policy to get right if you want to win legitimacy for relatively high levels of immigration. That does not require adopting the agenda of the Daily Mail. It does mean trying to reassure people that we can control our borders and so choose who becomes a British citizen (this is hard, but is helped by the falling number of asylum-seekers). It does mean dampening the often irrational anxieties about welfare tourism (this is relatively easily dealt with by ID cards, which should be with us in a couple of years). It does also mean continuing to stress the importance of the integration of newcomers (citizenship ceremonies are a good innovation, and why not a more formal probationary period for citizenship?).
In any case, after hearing Trevor again I decided it was time to retire from the rarefied world of race to try to become an expert on something else.
But, in the light of the mixed reactions to my essay, would I have changed anything if I could write it again? I went back to read it the other day and was reassured to find it both more tentative and much less about race and immigration than the subsequent debate has implied.
Perhaps the one change I would make is to stress even more the non-ethnic diversities of values and lifestyles that greater wealth and geographical mobility have made possible. This is not to say that ethnicity is irrelevant. People preferring their “own” will sometimes, though not always, have an ethnic dimension. But as Eric Kaufmann points out on the letters page, I rather fudged the issue of ethnicity: acknowledging that it may contribute to long-term feelings of solidarity within nation states but also arguing that a strong sense of civic citizenship – built around a core set of social norms – should be sufficient to hold people together even in conditions of high diversity, ethnic and otherwise.
The useful German distinction that I overlooked here is that between the “thick” affinities of people and place contained in the concept of Gemeinschaft (community) and the “thinner” civic commitments of Gesellschaft (society). Too much Gemeinschaft projected into the state and you end up with Hitler. But perhaps with too little Gemeinschaft underpinning our societies you also have problems: of anomie, low trust and a retreat from the public domain.
These are deep waters but a magazine like Prospect must feel free to swim in them – even at the cost of causing some offence. For, as my deputy Alexander Linklater has put it, there are many answers to the question “Who are we?” but the one answer we surely cannot give is: it doesn’t matter.