The British Dream

The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-war Immigration

by David Goodhart


The Battle of Britishness: Migrant Journeys, 1685 to the Present

by Tony Kushner


It is often said that we must not judge books by their covers, but what should we make of their first sentences? These two enquiries into immigration launch themselves on markedly different tacks. Tony Kushner’s opens with a panoramic assertion: “The history of the world includes remarkable stories of migration in every era.” David Goodhart’s, meanwhile, bustles in for a closer look at a rather more precise subject: “This book is about post-war immigration to Britain, and all the arguments that swirl about it.” It is immediately clear that Kushner’s will be the more sweeping approach, alive with the spirit of adventure that informs migration. And we would not be wrong to guess that Goodhart’s is the more politicised of the two. A bid to “move the debate forward”, it is addressed as much to policy gurus as it is to the general reader.

Kushner, Professor of History at Southampton University, has been one of the most dedicated scholars of this subject for two decades, is au fait with the extant literature, has written widely on it, and is therefore able to combine a consideration of the way the more celebrated episodes — the Huguenots, the slave ships, the Jewish flight across the Baltic and the arrival of the Empire Windrush — have been represented in British cultural history, with an inspection of less familiar events. Thus the famous trials of the kindertransportees are juxtaposed with the tortured journey of the St Louis, which ferried Jewish refugees from Hitler across the Atlantic… and back again. And he tells the little-known tale of the “Volga Germans”, a luckless group of destitute Russians who, after a forlorn round-trip to South America, were stranded in Southampton in 1879. Through stories such as these Kushner presents migration as a mazy adventure — not as an abstract topic, and certainly as something more than a policy issue.

His book (priced, alas, to deter a general reader) is a collage of primary sources — oral history archives (such as Mass-Observation), literature, artworks, political utterances, newspaper headlines, and glances at theatre, film, television and heritage monuments — folded around a governing idea of “twoness”, the double nature of the migrant predicament. This “twoness” has a range of different manifestations. Immigration becomes both an individual saga and an aspect of larger social change; the English Channel is both a bridge and a defensive moat; crossing it is at once a physical journey and (in what we might call its Britain’s Got Talent definition) a quest for personal fulfilment. In examining the tense space and the links between “them” and “us”, the figure of the migrant looks both forward and back — is simultaneously departing and arriving. Immigration itself becomes a Janus faced manoeuvre, swaying between the push and pull of integration and difference.

Above all, Kushner’s book throws light into the gap between how migration is experienced and how it is perceived. By assembling so wide a range of voices and cultural glimpses, it inspects not just how migrant journeys have been represented (or misrepresented), but how they have been remembered (or misremembered). Kushner calls this “memory work”, and while that might not be his happiest phrase, it is an important concept, since it allows him to delve into the way the national self-portrait has been maintained — what it has included and, more to the point, excluded. In this way (and in a final act of “twoness”) his book is an ambitious look at immigration as something that is both distinct from, and very much a part of, Britishness.

Goodhart, with his more modest conceptual framework, devotes himself only to a contemporary policy debate: have “we”, as the cliché puts it, “lost control of our borders”? As the editor of Prospect, the excellent current affairs magazine he founded, he himself ushered many articles on immigration into print, most of which tickled away at what was (and still is, for centre-left thinkers) a conundrum: could the kind of “diversity” promoted by immigration be compatible with the kind of “solidarity” required to sustain a risk-pooling welfare state? It was a timely question, and it seemed that there was no simple answer. The dynamics of “diversity” tend, almost by definition, to tease things apart; they can’t help working against or at least complicating the centralising thrust of a state-run welfare system.

Now retired as editor of Prospect, Goodhart has leaned towards the idea that there is a simple answer after all: fewer immigrants. After all those years as the ringmaster of the conversation, he has produced a summarising anthem of his own. Modern mass migration, he argues, puts too great a strain on the network of wealth redistribution, while multiculturalism — a well intentioned attempt to allow immigrant peoples to preserve their own habits — has ended up segregating the population into hostile and suspicious tribes. To forestall anyone who assumes that he might be poised to declare himself for UKIP, he insists that he is simply seeking to advance centre-left thinking in this area, to nudge it towards a more realistic (and patriotic) view of British life.

At this point I should declare an interest. I have known David Goodhart for many years, applaud the seriousness of purpose he brings to the book, and wish him well. He is, however, scornful of the spineless, cappuccino-swilling multiculturalists and liberals who have supported the principle of immigration, and since I myself have written a book that finds plenty to admire in the way that migrants have enriched British life, I can’t but raise an eyebrow at the haughty way he rejects such views. And when he asserts, for instance, that immigration before 1950 was “almost non-existent”, it is hard not to gasp. He does concede, in the same breath, that yes, some 50,000 Huguenots (one per cent of the population), 200,000 Jews and two million Irish Catholics had settled here by the end of the 19th century. But even if one is minded to agree that the thousands of German (including the royal family, of course), Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Chinese, Indian and African immigrants are statistically insignificant, this is a rather original use of the term “nonexistent”.

Having cleared that out of the way, it should be said that Goodhart is quite justified in worrying away at what, by any standards, is a powerful fact of modern life. What he fears in particular is “the slow disappearance of the rather miraculous, and historically unique, institution of the modern welfare state.” This is an undeniably urgent matter. Is it possible that nationalised welfare, an inspiring social creation and one of Britain’s most celebrated achievements, is under such severe strain that it may soon be simply unaffordable? Some might find it surprising that Goodhart wishes to blame only immigrants for this possibility, when there are so many other factors — the ageing population, advances in medical technology, managerial incompetence, political meddling and national bankruptcy — in play. But no one can deny that it is a high priority issue. The EU’s insistence that member states make their national benefit systems available to all EU citizens does make Britain’s unusually open (universal) scheme vulnerable to exploitation. There is no harm in fretting about what best to do.

And Goodhart has been down the mines, wading through an awful lot of surveys and poll findings. His critique of multiculturalism is well meant and by no means eccentric. It is a paradox of modern Britain that while it becomes less obviously racist, and more egalitarian in many ways, in other ways it is more segregated than ever. Plenty of pundits have been arguing for a while that a programme designed to give migrants a soft landing may to some extent have exceeded its brief by trapping them, unintentionally, into urban ghettoes that hamper their ability to integrate with the rest of British life. Some will say that Goodhart is simply being impatient here, since all the previous migrations listed above — the Huguenot, Irish and Jewish — began by huddling together in squalid slum zones before propelling themselves out into the broader mainstream. But, as the events of recent weeks have shown once more, there is no disputing the fact that the militant strain of jihadist Islam that Britain has been incubating in some of its inner cities is not a pretty sight.

Unlike some works of this sort, Goodhart actually produces a semi-manifesto of what might be done. In the name of a common tongue, he urges the state to put more resources into teaching immigrants English, and less into paying for translation, a counterproductive form of assistance that may even impose dependency in place of actual help. He also urges the creation of a compulsory six months’ non-military national service scheme — on the grounds that it would promote social mixing.

Could the kind of “diversity” promoted by immigration be compatible with the kind of “solidarity” required to sustain a risk pooling welfare state?

This is fair and constructive, even if it is undermined by a social science weakness for abstract terms that clouds an otherwise clear thesis in a fog of -isms and -ists. This Britain is divided between immigrationists, populists, liberal nationalists, separatists, declinists, integrationists, perennialists, cultural relativists, universalists, abstractionists, and — hurrah! — “rainbow coalitionists”. On the back cover the always estimable Frank Field MP calls Goodhart a “latter-day George Orwell,” but Orwell might just have frowned to see his famous preference for the concrete over the abstract so enthusiastically ignored. And wasn’t it Orwell who wrote, in a specific critique of such talk, that the only -ism with a proven track record was pessimism?

These may seem minor or superficial complaints; but there is a deeper awkwardness. Goodhart keeps his argument snug within the confines of the centre-left, think-tank world he knows so well. He has been an important figure in this world, but it is not a huge one. And though he appears to see his argument as a bold heresy, most readers will not find it even marginally controversial. People have been saying there are too many immigrants and calling for the reinstatement of national service for years. Put crudely, he is only echoing what many conservatives have been saying for decades.

Trying to dress up what is more or less an echo of Norman Tebbitt in centre-left costume — as if he wants to filter an orthodox too-many foreigners argument into a rich, progressive home brew — is an interesting notion, but it makes for an unrelaxed work. Goodhart writes as if he were a fearless prophet pointing out inconvenient truths, yet what he urges is not so very different from what a cab driver might say in the time it takes to get to Waterloo.

There is another difficulty. An argument that presses for more “integration” is obliged to outline what it is, exactly, that immigrants are being asked to merge into. This leads to some treacherous and possibly futile discussions about national identity and so forth, discussions in which many good souls have drowned. It is true that the traditional furniture in this area — Last Night of the Proms, Queen’s Speech, Boat Race and Derby Day — is not broad enough to convey the cosmopolitan nature of modern Britain. But Goodhart seems to believe the “national identity” is something that might be scripted by a team of policy advisors and think-tank wonks. That is optimistic. Identity is in large part to do with how we are seen by others — an interpretation, not an old school scarf. And one of the brightest aspects of British identity is that it defies such easy summary. Any cartoon the identity-commissariat came up with would be bound to crash into the most entrenched British habit of all, which is to mock, sneer and grumble about grandiose, centralised initiatives like that.

Immigration is not simply an adjustment in the population tables, butthe actual movement of people” — a stomachchurning and uncertain adventure

It is widely understood that the effects or “impacts” of immigration are not evenly distributed or felt. What is good for people who possess large lawns is less attractive to those whose job it is to push lawnmowers: the competition for jobs is keener at the low end. But Goodhart’s book relies chiefly on numbers, and reasoning from arithmetic always sounds dehumanising and technocratic; it implies, a bit loftily for some tastes, that it is up to “us” to decide how many of “them” we need. The other trouble with numbers is, well, how long is a piece of string? Are there too many immigrants? Hard to say — perhaps there are more than is convenient. But so what? There are too many drug-addicts and rapists as well, and certainly too many people in prison; too many paedophiles, too many millionaire taxdodgers, too many obese people, too many Twitter fans, too many smokers, too many “anti-smoking facilitators”? Do away with these, and there would be plenty of room for the odd immigrant or two.

Tony Kushner’s migrant journeys, grounded in a more humane, less econometric mode of thought, provide an affecting and necessary counterpoint. The play of firsthand voices makes this a vivid and subtle pageant. It is about immigrants, not just immigration; men and women, not just ideas. Immigration is not simply an adjustment in the population tables, but “the actual movement of people” — a stomach-churning and uncertain individual adventure, with dramatic possibilities and very mixed outcomes. His book rises above worrying about whether it is a good or bad thing by comprehensively demonstrating that it can and has been both.

He emphasises arrivals by sea partly because they dramatise Britain’s island nature, but also because ships have had a metaphorical value as arks ever since Noah built the original wildlife-conservation vessel. This is in keeping with a method that also examines the way in which immigration has been represented, and sometimes misrepresented, in Britain’s cultural life. The spectacle of a stowaway tumbling from the wheel well of an aircraft on its descent into Heathrow chimes with the bumpy fall to earth described at the beginning of Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988), one of many novels with a dizzy range of immigrant threads running through it.

It is an approach that makes him alert to irony. In 1937, a Romanian Jew called Bernard Hecht sneaked into England illegally after being “refused leave to land” at Dover. He found employment at a synagogue in London’s East End, was able to settle and bring up a family. Who could have predicted that his son (Michael Howard) would one day lead the Conservative Party into a general election (in 2005) fought on a tabloid-friendly pledge that immigration needed to be sharply reined in? Kushner is also alert to the historic part that racial prejudice has played in many of these stories (right down to the Hertfordshire loyalists who harangued some of the blasted foreigners in their midst, only to discover that their incomprehensible accent hailed all the way from Wiltshire).

The book has an academic top-dressing that suggests it is concerned with issues of “ambivalence” and “ambiguity” in the conceptualisation of migrant stories. This is a buzzword way of saying that the tug between distinctiveness and conformity (the riddle that haunts Goodhart) is one that has been animating all notions of national identity, let alone immigrant variations, for centuries. What it means, in practice, is that Kushner sees migration both as a journey and a struggle, and one of his chief concerns is to indicate that things are rarely as simple as they seem. Even the famous voyage of the Empire Windrush has, he argues, been somewhat mythologised by historians and commentators keen to render it even more emblematic than it actually was. There were other boats arriving from the West Indies both before and after the Windrush, so it was not quite the iconic one-off that it seems. He enjoys pointing out that the ship itself had a chequered career. Originally a German troop carrier, it was seized in the raid on the Tirpitz up a Norwegian fjord, and named after an Oxfordshire trout stream.

Goodhart might well find a detail like that beside the point, but Kushner relishes such nuggets. He even makes room for a few amusing asides, a rare commodity in most discussions of this topic. One German Jew (a businessman) who came to Britain long before World War II was one of the first to be interned when Churchill issued his famous order to “collar the lot”. He was sent first to Surrey, then Canada, and finally to the Isle of Man. When at last he returned to London the first thing he clapped eyes on was a Government sign: “Is your journey really necessary?” Good question.

It might be that, in exploring the individual experience of migrant journeys and weighing the cultural response (in the resonant work of many immigrant musicians and novelists), Kushner skims a bit too lightly over the mundane but important issues of national economic policy that so detain Goodhart. Politics does matter; planning can make a difference. In retrospect we can see that when the textile industries of northern England decided, in the 1950s, to lure in low-cost immigrant workers from rural Pakistan (instead of investing and automating for the future, which was what the global-economy doctor was truly ordering) a whole realm of social challenges were conjured into life. The newcomers found themselves manning the failing industries of a region in decline, while surrounded by perplexed and sometimes angry natives.

Is it too simple to find these two books complementary, since they come at the subject from such different angles? Kushner considers it from the vantage point of migrants, and his book trembles with their hopes, fears, dreams and disappointments. Goodhart writes as if from a windowless back-office at the Treasury, too high-mindedly busy with matters of national balance and stability to be swayed by private concerns. A meeting of the twain might produce a decent compromise. How typically British.

Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration to Britain by Robert Winder is published by Abacus, £12.99.

You might also like

Leave A Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.