Frightened by foreign bodies

Published in The Observer (14th April, 2013)

The British Dream by David Goodhart (Atlantic); The Diversity Illusion by Ed West (Gibson Square)

A couple of years ago I wrote an article arguing against the government’s immigration cap using the example of foreign-born carers for my disabled daughter to highlight the sort of workers being excluded from Britain. It was far from the most controversial piece I have written on this subject; at the time, agencies and families such as mine were already finding it harder to recruit staff for such jobs.

So it was surprising to find this piece used in David Goodhart’s introduction to The British Dream as one of the foundations for his case that liberal “immigrationists” are undermining the bonds that hold Britain together. Not because he had taken my column as a minor prop for his polemic, but because – whether by accident or design – he twisted my words so absurdly.

According to Goodhart, I implied “such people” as carers from overseas were on a higher moral plane to British citizens. Yet I did no such thing, nor would I given my belief in a basic human equality. When I emailed him to point this out, he replied: “I didn’t actually say you believed those care workers to be on a higher moral plane, I said it was implied in what you said.” He refused to explain how he drew such an inference.

This disingenuous approach is all too common in Goodhart’s disappointing book on immigration and diversity, which is strewn with similar straw-man arguments such as the idea that Britain’s civil servants care more about people in Burundi than those living in Birmingham. Its gestation began life nine years ago, with a 6,000-word piece in Prospect, the monthly magazine he edited at the time. The article created great controversy given his pose as a man of the left – unsurprisingly, with statements such as: “To put it bluntly – most of us prefer our own kind.”

This remains the core of his argument – that human beings favour their own sort and are suspicious of outsiders, so mass immigration fragments society, strains the welfare state and loosens the ties of the nation. He makes a few fair although far from original points, about the weakening of communal links and the way our nervous multiculturalism ignored Islamic extremism and overlooked intolerable practices. But essentially The British Dream is just the stale suspicion of foreigners dressed up in intellectual clothing and given a slight twist to the left.

He admits that what he calls the progressive dilemma – the conflict between diversity and national solidarity, best expressed in the welfare state – was “a conveniently controversial idea for the editor of a small political magazine”. It was inspired by the Tory politician David Willetts. He has repeated it for the best part of a decade, refusing to buckle in the face of evidence showing that, if anything, immigrants are the salvation of our system, given that they tend to be young, put more into the state coffers than they take out, and boost the economy.

Goodhart picks on the usual soft targets, such as recently arrived Somalis; perhaps he should visit Somaliland before saying “their particular brand of Islam” and “notorious” clan systems are not suited to modern democracy. Indeed, this insular book shows surprising ignorance of overseas development, with its claims that migration damages poor countries despite so many recent studies to the contrary, while also disgracefully downplaying the impact of racism.

The author points to the London borough of Merton as a good place to take the pulse of multiracial Britain, indicating it is riven with enclaves. He alleges local people – anonymously, of course – complain that Ghanaians are “noisy and messy” while they misuse public funds. Yet he admits many African-Caribbeans have set up home with white people – surely the ultimate test of integration and one in which Britain as a nation scores comparatively highly. And 84% of people there told an official survey that people of different backgrounds get on well.

Merton is supposedly dominated by a mosque that replaced a milk bottling plant – “icon of an earlier, more homogenised age” in Goodhart’s loaded words. In fact, a local blogger has pointed out there was a decade-long gap during which the building became a drug den; the Ahmadi Muslims rejuvenated the area, now holding regular communal clean-up days, blood donation drives and fundraisers for royal charities.

For all the optimism of the title, this books drips with misplaced pessimism. By the conclusion, its author is still alleging his opponents see immigrants as morally superior people, placing their interests above those of existing citizens. Yet so contorted are his arguments he ends up happily seeking restrictions on Britons bringing in family members, higher costs of care for old people and religious quotas in schools, together with an ill-defined “integration index” for the nation.

In a similar vein is Ed West’s The Diversity Illusion, which at least has the benefit of being a more brazen and breezily written polemic. It is, however, even more flawed, both in its often-daft analysis and sweeping approach to facts. To pluck a few at random, the author insists that most Tory voters still agree with Enoch Powell, millions of Britons would question the right to contraception, and young Muslims are radicalised by dealing with white liberal academics.

West’s arguments are repeatedly undermined by reality. For instance, he points to three London boroughs to prove that diversity undermines education; in fact, London schools have improved so rapidly in the past 10 years – a period of unprecedented immigration – that even children in the capital’s poorest boroughs now do better than the average pupil elsewhere in the country. And to say that aside from food, little innovation has arisen from immigration shows only wilful blindness to both cultural and economic reality. Sadly, such is the myopic vision of misanthropes who live in fear of their country.

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