In Other Words

Dual Britannia

Prospect, No. 95, February 2004 Words can become grenades, triggering explosions much larger than their authors ever intended. Just consider a thoughtful article on immigration and society that recently ignited a spectacular row in Britain. The essay appeared in Prospect, an elegant magazine directed at those with a sharp appetite for public affairs and cultural ...

Prospect, No. 95, February 2004

Words can become grenades, triggering explosions much larger than their authors ever intended. Just consider a thoughtful article on immigration and society that recently ignited a spectacular row in Britain. The essay appeared in Prospect, an elegant magazine directed at those with a sharp appetite for public affairs and cultural coverage.

Prospect editor David Goodhart, son of a former Conservative Party parliamentarian and supporter of British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s New Labour movement, outlines a relatively simple argument. A tension exists, Goodhart asserts, between two values that progressives cherish: social diversity and the welfare state. On one hand, social diversity is deemed a good thing, and immigration from many different cultures is worthy of celebration. But so is a robust welfare state, an arrangement that demands a strong sense of social solidarity — ties that lead people from all ethnicities and economic strata to think of a common "we" or "us."

Goodhart suggests addressing this dilemma through carefully managed immigration, as proposed by Britain’s Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett, involving increased border patrols and decreased automatic eligibility for state benefits, among other tenets. The author also urges center-left politicians to err on the side of caution regarding immigration. "It is important to reassure the majority that… there is an honest debate about the scale, speed and kind of immigration," he writes. "[A] third way on identity can be distinguished from the coercive assimilationism of the nationalist right, which rejects any element of foreign culture, and from multiculturalism, which rejects a common culture."

These contentions might not seem particularly explosive. Such is the sensitivity of this matter, however, that Goodhart might as well have packaged the magazine’s February issue with sticks of dynamite. Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality — Britain’s official body on race relations — more or less accused Goodhart of upscale racism (though Phillips himself ironically called for an end to "multiculturalism" a few weeks later in a newspaper interview).

Prospect created a special section on its Web site to cope with the response, and certain staff members expressed their hearty disapproval of their editor’s exposition. "David [Goodhart] has misformulated the problem and ended up laying too much stress on ethnic difference," admonished editorial assistant Ayanna Prevatt-Goldstein. "A magazine like Prospect should be doing more to challenge the perception that immigration is the problem rather than appearing to indulge it," she wrote.

Yet Goodhart was right to wade into these waters, even if he should have taken a harpoon with him. He identified an acute policy conundrum that was serious before September 11, 2001, but has become much worse since. The combination of asylum seekers, record immigration levels, and fear of terrorism is potentially lethal for European democracies, and it will be the center left itself that suffers most.

Indeed, this debate is no longer about traditional assumptions of race. The Balkans and conflict-ridden countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq are the main sources of new migration into Britain, and the latest press scare stories warn of the potential influx from Eastern Europe. The discussion is really about how much "different-ness" a society can accept before it lacks sufficient sameness to hold it together.

Will Goodhart’s essay affect long-term immigration policy in Britain? Very likely, especially considering its timeliness. His argument provides a wing of the Labour Party — personified by Blunkett — with sensible ideas long stifled by political correctness. Whatever his critics may assert, Goodhart has not made racism intellectually respectable. Rather, he has dealt with diversity in a manner likely to make public consent to immigration reform intellectually viable. He has, therefore, performed the center left a noble service — not that it seems terribly grateful.

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