UK Politics

Diversity and Solidarity

David Goodhart’s essay on the themes of diversity and solidarity has prompted some debate and I have few thoughts I’d like to add:

Firstly, I don’t think Goodhart provides enough evidence for his central argument that the increasing (ethnic and otherwise) diversity of Britain makes it harder to sustain the level of social solidarity needed for continued support of a welfare state.

His main point is that the welfare state is a product of relatively homogenous European nations and that in the more ethnically diverse US it didn’t take root. He suggests that with the UK heading in the direction of US levels of ethnic diversity there is a danger that we may find ourselves in the same position.

This reads to me that if Britain, like the US, finds itself in the situation where the majority of the poor are non-whites, the white majority will not want to sustain a welfare system to benefit the “others”. Or in other words hostility to immigrants eventually will become a threat to the notion of universal public provision.

The problem is that while this difference may (or may not) adequately explain why the US did not develop into a European-style social democracy, it doesn’t necessarily follow that already existing welfare states cannot survive in an era of greater diversity.

But there is certainly plenty of evidence already of some sort of linkage between race and welfare in the minds of some. In the Lancashire community I grew up in it was widely assumed that immigrants were ‘on the fiddle’ when it came to housing benefit and unemployment benefit and that in some way they received preferential treatment from the Health Service. The development Goodhart fears, that there will become a corrosive sense of “we” are providing for “them”, was and still is widespread.

But the crucial question is – is there any indication that this has led to a weakening in support for the welfare provisions themselves? I think not. Such attitudes may be reflected in the support for far-right parties, a rising in racial tension and hostility to some local councils but I don’t see much evidence of a direct link to opposition to a welfare state.

One crucial point Goodhart ignores is that there is a real opposition which is not based on racial terms but refers to class. Is there not a significant body of reactionary opinion that too much (middle class) money is spent on “white trash”? Indeed could it not be that the more socially acceptable hatred of the poor is a greater threat to social solidarity?

Nonetheless I think the broader agenda Goodhart addresses certainly is worth serious consideration perhaps not out of fear of declining support for a welfare state but as a strategy for combatting the racism in the first place.

I have argued before that the liberal multicultural approach to immigrant communities, encapsulated in the slogan ‘celebrate diversity’, has failed and that by encouraging ‘difference’ rather than making a real effort at integration and unity, liberal anti-racists, for all their good intentions have inadvertently encouraged racism.

Goodhart does offer some suggestions as to an alternative although they are not particularly new or radical having already been floated by David Blunkett.

Immigrants from the same place are bound to want to congregate together, but policy should try to prevent that consolidating into segregation across all the main areas of life: residence, school, workplace, church. In any case, the laissez faire approach of the postwar period in which ethnic minority citizens were not encouraged to join the common culture (although many did) should be buried. Citizenship ceremonies, language lessons and the mentoring of new citizens should help to create a British version of the old US melting pot. This 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.

Although I’d probably use the term ‘common values’ rather than ‘common culture’ Goodhart (and Blunkett) are broadly right about this.

Given that the overwhelming majority of immigrants are employed in working class jobs and live in working class communities I have never understood why the left hasn’t been at the forefront of those arguing for greater integration, rejecting the politics of seperatism and in particular the hideous practice of automatically turning religious leaders into ‘community leaders’.

After all, we socialists are supposed to be against ‘divide and rule’ aren’t we? And since when did we accept vicars and priests as the unelected leaders of the ‘Christian community’?

A Pakistani I worked with politically years ago was always making this point to me and mocked what he called “The Steel Band and Samosa” approach to anti-racism. It is the kind of polite approach one would take to a guest rather than an effort to encourage a common citizenship. It leads nowhere.

Of course defining what the common values are is somewhat more difficult. What are the ‘Citizenship cermonies’ to consist of? An oath of allegiance might be one idea, but to what? To the Union Jack? to the Queen? To Westminster? How many of us would want to partake in that sort of ceremony?

Could immigrants be asked, as they are in some countries, to take a test of their knowledge of the constitution or to recite the words of our hideous national anthem?

Some might use such difficulties as an excuse not to introduce a more active approach to integration – that would be a mistake. Instead the answer is to not focus integration upon a submission to the state or on an ill-defined and non-agreed notion of ‘national culture’ but upon the values and life of real communities.

In other words – is not the best way to strengthen social solidarity to actually practice it?

Update: Bobbie at PolitX has produced a very sharp and critical dissection of Goodhart’s piece.

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