Responses to David Goodhart's Demos pamphlet from five commentatorsby Neal Ascherson / June 25, 2006 / Leave a comment
The five articles below are responses to David Goodhart’s pamphlet “Progressive Nationalism: Citizenship and the Left,” published by Demos in May 2006, on which Goodhart’s Prospect essay “National anxieties” is based. To read the complete text of the Demos pamphlet, click here.
Neal Ascherson When David Goodhart wrote his famous “Too Diverse?” essay in Prospect two years ago, he probably had little idea of the impact it would create. But it arrived at exactly the right moment, especially for those who claimed to detest what they thought it stood for.
The media, academia and the party political world, all in their different ways, had been discussing obsessively the questions of immigration, asylum-seekers and “Islamic fundamentalism.” Could British society absorb all this? It was easy to find voices to say that it could or should, or that even to associate these topics was “inappropriate.” But few people could be found to argue convincingly the other way. Then Goodhart’s article suddenly produced the missing member of the cast: a commentator who was not a BNP thug or racist, but who—from an intellectual, even liberal point of view—argued that multiculturalism in Britain was failing.
His position was exaggerated out of recognition. It must have hurt Goodhart to be repeatedly put up in media cockfights as a spokesman against immigration (which he was not), or interviewed as if he were Britain’s answer to Pim Fortuyn (“No More Room for Foreigners”). None the less, he became a familiar figure on the “multiculturalism” conference circuit, endlessly trying to explain that he was concerned with threats to social solidarity, not with lurid scenarios of ethnic swamping and terrorism.
Goodhart’s conversations with his critics, in or out of conference halls, seem to have persuaded him that his views needed to be refined, or at least expressed in a longer, more reasoned way. This pamphlet is the result. It’s seriously and closely argued, and a lot of it is new. The underlying ideas, however, are the same. And I still have the same problems with them.
Crudely, his core proposition goes like this: more and more people from non-European cultures, especially Muslim ones, are entering Britain. The British majority considers, rightly or more often wrongly, that these incomers make little effort to integrate, that they debase wage levels and that they are in general “free riders” on social benefits. These grievances are leading the majority to conclude that the postwar social compact—the welfare state in return for loyalty, work and taxes—has been violated. With public confidence withdrawn, the welfare state will then collapse.
Goodhart’s remedy is to create, by several means, what he calls a new “inclusive, progressive, civic British nationalism.” He proposes “an overt political rhetoric of British national identity and solidarity—it provides a kind of over-arching roof under which the other more particular identities… can shelter.”
So much for the summary. For me, two immediate questions arise. The first one is about Goodhart’s assertion that disgust with immigrants is leading the “indigenous” British public to reject the welfare state. But is it? Where is the evidence that this is happening?
Xenophobic resentment, an old story in this country, can lead to all kinds of unrest from schoolyard bullying to riots. It can lead to furious protests, when hard-pressed families—in Glasgow for instance—ask why Kurds and Bosnians are given apartments when their own relations have been waiting to be rehoused for years. But that is protest against a city housing department, not against the whole benefit system. Heaven knows, there are many worse threats to the survival of the welfare state, financial and ideological. What grounds are there to say that the biggest threat is popular resentment against its supposed abuse by Asian or African immigrants?
My second problem is with the “reinvent Britishness” therapy. This is a song sung in harmony with Gordon Brown’s recent speeches on the subject. “Islamic extremism… has given a fresh impetus to careful thinking about how to foster a renewed sense of Britishness,” Goodhart writes, and a little later: “Reviving the idea of Britishness is easier said than done.”
So why do it? What are we talking about? At one point, Goodhart says very plainly: “Britain is not a nation at all, but a state…” That would be fine if he stuck to it. But the very next paragraph begins: “If British national citizenship is to be made more attractive…” and soon we get the first of many references to “British national identity.” It isn’t pedantry to say that this typically English confusion between nation and state fogs up the whole booklet.
Goodhart could have constructed his argument around a state or around a nation, but not around some shape-shifting chimera which is both at once. One option would have been to make his case for the nation of England, which is anyway the country he is talking about. He himself points out that the sense of “British identity” is in retreat, most strikingly in Scotland but also in England where “a limited revival of interest in Englishness” is under way. If so, then it would have made more sense to build a new sense of “progressive nationalism” around Englishness, which is at least solidly rooted, and growing rather than declining. (It would also have been an act of enlightened courage. Why do English “bourgeois liberals,” the natural carriers of nationalist ideology, leave the shaping of this new English nationalism to fascists, hooligans and idiots? )
The other alternative, which would also have been lucid, would have been to make the state the clear and exclusive subject. How about “reviving the idea of British statehood”? The state, after all, is an institution which does not confer identity but does award citizenship and its privileges, which for the last century at least has been in charge of redistributing wealth in the name of “fairness” if not exactly equality, and which has accepted a responsibility for protecting the weak against the excesses of free-market capitalism owned by the strong.
Here, at least, a diminishing “Britishness” does survive, not in cultures or ethnic identities but in a certain idea of what government is for. Gordon Brown was impressive when—before he began to talk about putting out more flags and instituting a British national day—he said that patriotism should be about pride in the National Health Service. It follows that “reconstructing Britishness” should mean reviving and expanding the role of the social-democratic state, returning to the ideals of fairness supported by government intervention which made the welfare state possible in the first place. But of course the whole current of politics now runs against this. Blairism has carried steadily forward Thatcher’s drive to evacuate the state from social and economic life. If there is a crisis of Britishness, it is because the British state does so much less for its subjects than it did before. It is simply far less present in people’s lives.
Finally, I am not sure what David Goodhart wants to happen next. He is unhappy with the 1990s model of “multiculturalism,” in which minorities were encouraged to entrench and celebrate their distinctiveness without any obligation to share the culture of the majority. Rightly, Goodhart sees that multiculturalism is not a destination but only a waystation on a journey of social change. But what comes after it? He would like to see more “integration,” to create a “felt equality of citizenship.” This would be achieved by many kinds of measure: Goodhart wants citizenship, with full political and welfare rights, to be conditional on a probationary period in which the applicant commits no crimes and passes language and citizenship tests. There should be “rites of passage” (ceremonies when full citizenship is granted or at the registering of a birth), “incentives to mix” (to be enforced by public authorities in housing, schooling, sport and so on) and “disincentives to separate” (for example, “yes to the hijab but no to the burkha in schools [and] public offices… support for David Blunkett’s plea to the south Asian community to find spouses from within their community here, rather than returning to the sub-continent for them…”). Goodhart wants “a single national religious educational curriculum which applies to faith schools too” and a single history curriculum in which “the history of this island should be taught as an over-arching story from the stone age to the swinging sixties… a Whiggish story to be told from Magna Carta to the race discrimination laws or the gradual extension of citizenship rights.”
Goodhart calls this “integration.” To me, it sounds more like assimilation. He is describing a one-way process, in which the minority is persuaded by carrot and stick to adopt the culture of the majority in order to qualify for the rights of citizenship. But this does not recognise the reality of what is already happening on the ground in Britain’s big cities. The next waystation after multiculturalism is not assimilation but hybridity.
The streets of London already show the beginnings of a two-way process in which both majority and minority are changing each other. They are evolving a fresh social synthesis which is neither a bouquet of contrasting cultures nor the adoption of the patterns of the old indigenous majority. Its sources include the spreading human rights culture, the withering away of careers in favour of short-term job opportunities, sex and marriage across old ethnic boundaries, sport and music and simply the “hanging out” habit which has renewed street life. Its take on “Englishness” or state loyalty or civic duty is eclectic, opportunistic, unpredictable.
Hybridity brings new problems. Perhaps the most interesting is that it widens the cultural gap between town and country, between the hybrid cosmopolis and the hinterland of small towns and villages which often remain almost monoethnic—an intensely political question for the future. But hybridity is here to stay. It means, as Tom Nairn has written, “the acceptance of irrevocable mixture as starting point, rather than as a problem.” I feel that David Goodhart’s approach, at a deep level, is a romantic attempt to recall the irrevocable, to unscramble this omelette. Better to eat it and enjoy it.
Neal Ascherson, born in Edinburgh, is a journalist and writer who has worked mostly for the Observer and the Scotsman. His most recent book is Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland (Granta, 2003).
I welcome very strongly many of the themes outlined in David Goodhart’s essay.
In Politics and Progress I wrote about “Civic Republicanism” with considerable support from Nick Pearce, now director of the IPPR. David Goodhart here picks up this theme in relation to modern national sentiment and a view of progressive politics which addresses the crucial issues of identity and belonging.
In this essay he also returns to some of the themes which will be familiar to those who read the original Nationality and Immigration white paper in February 2002, published at the time that the far right were gaining momentum in the Netherlands, France and beyond. It laid out for the first time a nationality and immigration programme, rather than just an asylum programme, and included citizenship and identity as key themes.
The language in turn is very familiar to me, although I had to smile at the term “the home office proposed.” The home office never proposed anything, it was ministers!
What was new to me was the way in which David Goodhart reflects on the concept of the insider/outsider—the defence against the outlander—familiar in the behaviour of all primates. I certainly hadn’t thought of it in these terms before, but it does help to explain, at a different level to our normal debate, the challenges often faced in achieving a welcome for newcomers even when they patently bring economic gains and increased prosperity.
The themes he raises of security and stability are familiar ones. Globalisation and rapid change, reinforced as they were after the 11th of September attack on the United States, require an understanding of the need for certainty, for roots and identity.
He is right to reflect that the progressive left in politics have always been suspicious of any form of homogeneity constructed from national pride. Strange, because the “melting pot” which over the last 150 years has constituted the United States, has held together because of the reinforcement of a sense of national pride and therefore of identity—albeit with civic identity confined to small and sometimes exclusive geographic or social entities.
Given therefore, my own writing on Englishness, and work with Michael Wills and Gordon Brown on Britishness, it is not surprising that I embrace the thrust of the thesis that we should not be afraid of building an alternative to narrow and defensive jingoism (or even what is now being called “economic patriotism”). It is important that by building confidence we hold in common an affinity about what is good in our society—the “glue” which holds together what would otherwise be disparate and dangerously individualistic libertarianism. It also allows us to head off the inevitable reaction to this libertarianism—fodder for the far right.
I think we may be getting into semantics over the issue of whether we can embrace “values” as opposed to “ideals” in this context. We strive for ideals; we understand values, even if they are so amorphous that it is difficult to narrow them down to more tangible and therefore graspable concepts. What some people see as the end of ideology is, in fact, a simple recognition of the complexity of the world we live in, with 24-hour, 7-day week news, satellite, ever greater mobility and economic liberalisation, which brings its own fears.
But we are fortunate in the English language. David Goodhart rightly draws attention to my own challenge to Britain in the autumn of 2002, that a grasp of English by those seeking to integrate or even have a presence here is essential. Providing for us an environment where no one has the need to walk out of European council or conference venues, when one of our own British businessmen speaks in another’s language!
Reciprocity is a critical issue raised in this essay. The early pioneers in the labour and trade union movement understood that “something for something” (a favourite theme of mine) is essential, not only in getting people to be prepared to help each other, but also to reinforce solidarity and a sense of fairness. That is why the development of the welfare state and the move away from the friendly society or the local solution—whilst understandable and necessary in its time, also detached the contributor and the recipient from a common appreciation of the terms on which the “contract” was to be agreed. In other words, if I am prepared to give up some of my money, I want to know that the person receiving it is not simply “deserving” but is actually doing something themselves to use that support or opportunity to gain independence, or at the very least an appreciation of what contribution, if any, they can make in return.
Given the enormous commitment to volunteering and still, a sense of community within Britain, there is real hope that we can develop civil (and civic) society in a way which underpins the transfer of cash, constituting the formal welfare state and, through the tax credits system, anti poverty measures.
This is where (and I was glad that David Goodhart gave it a brief mention) identity cards play a part. Not just in protecting a sense of identity, but actually ensuring that free public services are not abused, that the generous open policy for the right to work in this country—particularly for the new European states in central and eastern Europe—are not abused. Abuse of generosity or openness inevitably leads to reaction.
But what is remarkable, and is briefly alluded to in the essay, is the fact that we have actually made substantial progress in emerging from a bygone era. With the exception of the temporary swing to the right noted above, in the post-11 September period, it is remarkable how well people have coped with subliminal insecurity, the rapidity of economic and social change and the need to adjust to new forms of communication and mobility.
It is not clear, and this is an area for greater exploration, that European institutions have come to terms with the in new global situation or have adjusted in any way to be able to assist people in their own community to handle such rapid change.
I am sure David Goodhart would want to play his part in ensuring that we can now build on the flimsy foundation of greater honesty of the liberal left about how important security and stability is to the task of building openness and reducing fear of difference.
Ensuring that in the modern era issues around identity, sense of belonging and neighbourliness can be seen as a plus not as an oppressive sameness, fearing difference and suspicious of change.
But in doing this, I hope we will also recognise the essential nature of community and neighbourliness, of neighbourhood and of a bottom up approach. We certainly will need leadership in identifying the strands which if weft together, can not only hold society from disintegration, but can actually provide the clothing of the body politic.
For ideas (and ideals) are not enough. People have to know that the institutions, the processes, the day to day experiences of government at every level, are sensitive to their needs, but are also reflective of their fears. Creating mechanisms for delivery, changing the historic pattern of thinking and behaviour is much more difficult than is ever normally acknowledged publicly. So in this debate which I hope will continue vigorously, we need not only to reflect the fact that we have emerged from the immediate post imperial experience but that in forging the future, we identify with, and have answers to offer, to those who seek an identity, wish for reassurance but are proud of our tolerant, outward facing and compassionate nation.
Let us hope that the World Cup offers an opportunity of pride without reaction, and that the build up (as David Goodhart suggests) to the Olympic Games is an opportunity to reinforce a progressive and positive nationalism, which is inclusive, and as in the presentation in winning the Olympic Games demonstrated so vigorously, a celebration of our vibrant and diverse nation!
David Blunkett is MP for Sheffield Brightside. He was education secretary from 1997 to 2001, home secretary from 2001 to 2004 and secretary for work and pensions in 2005. He is the author of “Politics and Progress: Renewing Democracy and Civil Society (Mehurn, 2001).
The debate on “Britishness” and its relationship to progressive politics is only just beginning. A year ago those of us who thought the issue important tended to be met with scepticism and polite disinterest. Since then the debate has taken hold with real vigour. 2006 opened with a major speech by Gordon Brown on Britishness. It looks as though “British identity” will be as central to the agenda of the next prime minister as it has been absent from the interests of the current one.
David Goodhart’s essay is a challenging contribution to this developing debate. It is a marked change in tone from his earlier and controversial writings about diversity. These were suffused with deep pessimism about the prospects for Britain’s multi-racial society, founded on the erroneous idea that a diverse society was necessarily less cohesive. In truth, as he now makes clear, diversity may provide challenges but these are not intractable and may even provide opportunities to the left.
For most progressives, the identity debate is new. The collective process of sorting out the relevant from the irrelevant issues has only just begun. It is common to find sound arguments mixed with more contentious claims and this is true here.
Goodhart’s description of why the left has ignored nationalism knocks down several straw men. (For example, I have never actually met anyone who believed that unlimited immigration was the correct recompense for colonial guilt). And why is arranged marriage given so much attention in so many articles about British identity? Forced marriage is a crime and rightly so. Arranged marriage belongs to a different discussion about the implications of the whole diversity of relationships, cohabitation, high divorce rates and civil partnerships across our society. The implication that there is a “British” way of doing these things is undermined by any quick look at the reality.
But such easy criticisms should not lead people reject Goodhart’s central thesis. National identity is important; the left needs to make it part of its project; and we need to start the debate on how to do it. The debate will be difficult; mistakes will be made and offence will be taken. But it must continue.
For most of my political life, the left has assumed that any strong British identity would be inimical to progressive politics. We certainly didn’t think that our national identity was important to creating a fairer, more just society. And there are still plenty of people who hold that view. Much of the left is more comfortable dealing with the traditional agenda of equality, tackling social exclusion and opposing discrimination. In a very clear example of this a speaker from the Barrow Cadbury Trust told the Fabian conference in January 2006 “sort out disadvantage and identity will look after itself.” This is simply not true.
These comfortable assumptions are now tumbling. It is now clear that questions of identity, separate communities and disadvantage interact in potentially dangerous ways. Tackling disadvantage cannot guarantee success in dealing with the other issues: indeed, without taking on the challenges of identity and separate lives it is unlikely that disadvantage can be tackled successfully either.
Identity politics has not filled the gap left by class politics in quite the way David Goodhart suggests. As he mentions, but does not fully explore, some of the sharpest conflicts take place in and around the poorest communities and the labour markets in which they work. Here the impact of new, lower cost migration hits the established poor (whilst making middle Britain better off). Here the competition for public resources and the social wage is sharpest. But identity politics stands in the way of disadvantaged communities seeing common interests. A society with a weak sense of any cohesive identity will necessarily find it more difficult to organise and the sustain the collective responses that are needed not just to tackle disadvantage, but the welfare state, crime and security issues that dominate today’s political agenda. Instead the door is opened to extremist political and faith organisations and, equally significant, inward-looking and sectional response to common concerns.
In other words, many of the issues that have traditionally been on the agenda for the left and centre cannot be tackled unless we can make progress on our collective national identity.
The process cannot be defined by minorities joining the majority; Britain has changed too much for that. The new British identity needs to tell a story about ourselves that works both for the majority and the minorities. That story will be created every bit as much as it can be discovered from the histories of the various people who make inhabit these islands.
That seems to me to be the real challenge, but is the most difficult part of the exercise and the one that needs most work. David Goodhart’s central proposals for a progressive nationalism seem to rest on two ideas: we should have clearer definitions of who belongs, who does not and what each are entitled to; and we should develop better symbols of Britishness.
I agree with both propositions, but they will be limited in their impact.
It is good to debate the symbols of Britishness—flags, a national day and so on. We must ensure that the institutions that should symbolise Britain (parliament, the armed forces and the police amongst others) actually do represent all the different communities who live here. But without a modern national story it is difficult to understand what the symbols symbolise.
We should be far more sensitive to the impact of new migration on the poorest communities and their indigenous workforce. Sound migration controls need to be matched to better labour market regulation. The welfare state does need to be run on clear principles of rights and responsibilities, protected by proper systems to verify entitlement.
But important as these are, they are no substitute for developing the story of who we now are and who we now want to become. And this will be a diverse, collective effort involving ordinary people, musicians, historians, writers, broadcasters every bit as much as politicians. None of us can take part in this debate without revealing some of our own mistaken assumptions, misjudgements and misunderstanding of each other. That’s why so many people don’t want to have the debate at all. David Goodhart has been prepared to keep the debate going. We should all join in.
John Denham is Labour MP for Southampton Itchen and chair of the home affairs select committee
I know that socialism is a dirty word on the centre-left these days—but if David Goodhart had his way, nationalism would certainly no longer be.
It is one thing for someone on the centre-left to recognise reality—that national feelings still matter to most people to some degree—but it is quite another to argue that the government needs to actively rekindle a sense of nationalism, “progressive” or otherwise. Leaving aside whether this is possible, what would be the aim? Goodhart argues that it is the “best hope for preserving the social democratic virtues embodied in a generous welfare state and a thriving public domain.” In essence, he fears that immigration, greater mobility and increased individualism threaten to undermine support for a universal welfare state, which therefore needs to be shored up by fostering a sense of nationalism that strengthens our feelings of solidarity towards our fellow citizens. Underlying his concerns is a belief that community feeling is inexorably weakening. In both respects, I think he is mistaken.
I can scarcely do justice to such big topics in only a thousand words, but as I argue in my forthcoming book on immigration, the welfare state is not threatened in the way Goodhart thinks it is, nor does continued support for it require, or even necessarily follow from, a strengthening of nationalism. Just look at the generosity of welfare provision in super-diverse Canada or hyper-diverse Toronto—or compare cosmopolitan, social-democratic London with the patriotic Tory shires.
Goodhart is, of course, right that people are often willing to be more generous towards those for whom they feel a sense of solidarity—and that one basis for this might be a common national identity—but the welfare state is based on more than just solidarity, and solidarity can be based on many things other than nationalism. Conversely, nationalistic societies need not be full of brotherly love, while cosmopolitan societies may be more compassionate.
One can feel a strong sense of solidarity for people who live in the same place rather than belong to the same nation. No doubt the shared experience of the July 7 bombings and the ongoing common threat of terrorism have increased Londoners’ concern for each other. Political beliefs are important too: socialists support stronger government action to help others than conservatives do; but, although Americans are generally more patriotic than Britons, this does not translate into support for government welfare programmes.
Moreover, the welfare state need not be based on national citizenship: in the US and Canada it is primarily organised at a state or provincial level, with welfare provision varying widely according to local preferences and with eligibility typically a function of residence or contributions, since state or provincial citizenship does not exist. Thus if the British state were less centralised, one could easily envisage an autonomous London region having a generous welfare state, paid for by those working in London for those living in London and independent of their national citizenship(s).
In any case, solidarity is by no means the sole basis for social provision. The universal welfare state also provides the rich with security against the poor—and provides everyone with security against unemployment, illness and old age. After all, European welfare states stem not only from socialism and compassion, but also from fear: enlightened elites tried to buy off the masses to stave off revolution. Indeed, you may loathe your jobless neighbour but still be willing to pay for unemployment benefits if you fear that he might otherwise rob you—or that you might one day end up out of work yourself. People support the NHS not just out of concern that all should have access to healthcare, but mainly out of self-interest—because they believe a government-funded healthcare system works out cheaper and better for them than a private insurance system would. A society with less solidarity could still support the NHS.
Underlying Goodhart’s nationalist prospectus is the belief that community feeling is weakening. Yet he appears to have a very narrow vision of society that romanticises a particular type of community: national society and old-fashioned working-class communities. He asserts, for instance, that: “It is the core belief of the left against the individualism of free-market liberals, that there is such a thing as society—but in the modern world that always, everywhere, means a specific national society.” This is nonsense on stilts. Everyone is torn between the urge to do their own thing and the need to live with others: individual choice therefore exists largely within a framework of the aggregated individual choices made by others—”society”. In this context, “society” can mean everything from a family to a group of friends, a workplace, a village, an urban neighbourhood, a national society that sets its own laws, or a global sense of humanity that aspires to common norms such as human rights.
So it is simply not true that: “The alternative to a mild progressive nationalism is not internationalism, which will always…