Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Goodhart, Powellism and immigration

I have to admit to sympathy for some of David Goodhart's thoughts on diversity. I agree that we need to make common cause with our neighbours if we are to sustain a welfare state in which all have a stake, and I agree that we risk the bases for common cause if we elevate the totem of diversity to a celebration of essential difference rather than commonality.

I think that this is a valuable thesis, and one that needs careful consideration, so I was disappointed, back in 2004, to see the debate Goodhart started descend into an unholy slanging match between those who used his arguments as a convenient stick to beat the multiculturalism, and those for whom multiculturalism became a convenient stick to beat those who you could exclude from debate by labelling them racist. What could have been an illuminating and valuable debate became a childish spat between diametrically opposed contestants, egged on by a partisan and irresponsible media. Any value in the debate was, sadly, as good as lost.

Goodhart is nothing if not persistent, and has waded back into the debate, carefully crafting an argument but using language designed to provoke a reaction.

"Labour has", he tells us, "shed its naive universalism and accepted the harsh-sounding but obvious truth that for citizenship to be meaningful, it must exclude as well as include."

The response was predictable. Compass's Jonathan Rutherford directly compared Goodhart to Enoch Powell. If you ignore Rutherford's ludicrous rhetorical comparison he does raise some important criticisms of Goodhart's argument. Goodhart is too easily co-opted by those who wish to ensure that debates around immigration, citizenship and Britishness are framed in divisive, reactionary or racist tones.

That this happens is down to the central failing of Goodhart's thesis. Goodhart is right (and Rutherford underplays) the shared culture that overcome economic and social tensions to be able to support the growth of welfare provision in the 19th and 20th centuries. He is right to identify that this was largely national in character, and that globalisation, mass immigration do militate against the conditions which sustained welfare states. He fails, though, to effectively articulate what are the elements of a shared culture, a shared identity, which can provide the commonality that underpins successful, cohesive societies, and the welfare states that support them.

Where Goodhart fails to suggest a way ahead. Without offering viable means to sustain common culture and a consequent sense of a common wealth he risks accusations of conservatism and also playing into the hands of racists. Of course, it is not incumbent upon Goodhart to offer these alternatives - he is not a politician. But he does need to acknowledge this element within his thinking lest he cedes ground to those he is wrongly accused of being the acceptable face of.

For my part, I do think that different cultures can co-exist within nation states and that these societies can support shared values and state welfare institutions. Most human cultures ethics and morals aren't that far apart really, but we do need , as Goodhart notes, to guard against fractured societies of mutually incomprehensible groups where notions of common interest become difficult to sustain. The Left may not like it, but the nation state has proved, and will prove, a powerful way in which the common interest can be secured. It can be progressive too.

The challenge is to frame national identity and citizenship which diverse groups and communities can share and which take account of the world we inhabit now, which are not internationally belligerent, and which are as far as possible embedded in international agreements relating to universal human rights.

Britishness is ripe for transformation into such a project. There are huge risks in Britain fracturing into its constituent parts and leaving us all diminished. That Goodhart fails to look forward and to consider what Britishness might mean ensures that he cannot provide a solution to the valid problems he outlines. It also ensures that he gives succour to those with whom progressives disagree, and he gives ammunition to those who wish to reduce this valuable debate to the level of the lowest common denominator.

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