>A frightening Prospect – the new anti-immigration politics of Britain’s progressive left

>Hanging around waiting to meet someone at Stansted airport – surprisingly normal now despite all the recent security alerts – I browse through a copy of Prospect, a readable middle-brow magazine of the liberal-left now so outrageously priced that I no longer buy it. I quickly alight on a short comment piece by Bob Rowthorn entitled ‘Numbers matters’ articulating the line recently taken up by Polly Toynbee (see previous post) that modernizing social democrats can and should oppose immigration because the country is too ethnically and culturally diverse to be able maintain social cohesion and social standards. What is striking in Rowthorn’s short piece is that while it devotes great attention to numbers – the population is likely to rise to around 65-80 million mid-century, mainly due to migration – it glosses over the underlying point we are supposed to simply take as readin a sentence , that more migration = less social cohesion. Rowthorn, ‘a leading left-wing economist’ (in case you were confused) and Cambridge professor expands on the argument in an earlier piece in Prospect, suggesting as did Polly Toynbee, that migrants drive down social standards, that we have hidden unemployed of our own etc.

Reading back through its internet archive, I see that Prospect is replete with such pieces Indeed, it seems to have be the house magazine for the new anti-immigration modernizing left. Liberal-left anti-immigration discourse which seems to be an outgrowth of Euston Manifesto style critiques of multi-culturalism, the ‘defensive anti-racism’ of the old left and UK political Islam and its battering ram concept, ‘Islamophobia’ . Kennan Malik writes well on the rise of political Islam and the apparent failures of the left. This seems to have been kicked off ina set of anti-multi-culturalist, ‘civic’ argument by its editor David Goodhart in 2004. In a lengthy (reprinted in the Guardian), he argues, that in the UK we are too diverse enough/too diverse, lack common values and a common identity and have reached the limits of sustainable diversity. Goodhart also cites the ‘progressive’s dilemma’ pointed out to him by liberal conservative David Willetts: the more diverse a society, the lower its level of solidarity and collective provision, as we (citizens) will only be happy for high taxes and see high social transfers to those we feel are (to borrow the BNP slogan) ‘people like us’.

I was familiar with bits of the Goodhart argument from various causally read pieces of over the past 2-3 years, reading through more carefully, I was nonplussed not so say I am disturbed. Despite the exemplary left- liberal/social democrat pedigrees of those writing, the underlying arguments seem crude, crudely welfare chauvinist. Quite why rising numbers mean the sustainable limit of cultural diversity has been reached now (as opposed to say in 1960s and 1970s or at some future point) is – stock comments about water resources and house building in the South East apart – never adequately explained. The US is has huge rates of migration, huge ethnic diversity and functions well. The Prospect writers are not of the old left, so they should perhaps not be too discomforted by the prospect of a move to US style economics and social policy going with US style diversity. Indeed didn’t Thatcherism already create a liberal economy? And isn’t embracing a competitive economy market forces trademark of the modernizing left? I suppose their answer is that we don’t do the civic patriotism of the US that well, but what in that case have all the endless debates about Britishness been for? Can we take it has read that Britishness has had it and we will have to make do with Englishness? There number of English flags visible across the commuter belt post-World Cup from the train is striking? Why is France, whose civic republican model co-existed with migration debates driven for years by the Front National suddenly a model?

Ultimately, the Prospect/ Rowthorn/Rowthorn/Toynbee arguments seem a morbid set of culturally pessimistic arguments barely indistinguishable from those of the UKIP and Monday Club right. Like them more a wail of frustration that society is already too diverse for comfort and we cannot turn the clock back and create a Swedish style welfare state with Swedish levels of ethnic homogeneity. Not having any real answer to the problems of citizenship, national identity and position of some ethnic and religious minorities it diagnoses – often very acutely – the Prospect stable of writers have continued politically cross dressing in the discarded clothes of the right. The new anti-immigration politics of the left – in which Poles, Romanians, Somalis, and Kurds are all equally part of the problem – is probably also a convenient way for these writers to avoid facing some of more intractable issues around values and identities among existing British citizens. Saying ‘Shut the door’ (or even shutting the door) won’t resolve these one iota.

David Goodhart’s latest response – that of a Blairite ‘Third Way’ ‘progressive nationalism’ – to glue together a ‘cosmopolitan minority’ of liberals and the
nationalistic, collectivist working class grassroots of Labour voters through a concept of national citizenship, putting Britain and Britons first (another old National Front slogan – they do seem to just slip in to summing up Goodhart’s thinking rather easily). Frankly, if I – I guess as part of the ‘cosmopolitan minority’ – was inadvertently part of this ‘progressive coalition’ I would want to leave.

The anti-immigration liberal-left will, I suspect, not establish a clear Third Way, but like George Orwell’s pigs one way or another, end up indistinguishable from those on the conservative right they historically opposed – largely, I think, because of a fixation with national identity, national citizenship and the national state. The concept of national citizenship might be meaningful for say, the Czech Republic, but seems sadly irrelevant for a post-Imperial already multi-cultural (or as the Goodhart would have it ’Balkanized’) UK, even if voters may not have caught up with this yet.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply