The British Dream. By David Goodhart, London: Atlantic Books, 2013. Pp381. HB. £20.
The author of this book is a director of DEMOS, a think tank based in London, and former Editor of Prospect magazine. The topic of this book is immigration, its successes and failures, from the Second World War to the present. This is an ambitious but equally challenging task given the fact that discussion around this topic often leads to nowhere; a dead end, as proponents and opponents end up occupying polarised, uncompromising positions! The author of this book is, of course, aware of the divisive nature of the topic.
He says: “This book is about post-war immigration to Britain and all the arguments that swirl around it: what the country has got right, and what it has got wrong. It is about the immigrants and their descendants, about how they are progressing in schools and workplaces and how well they are integrated into British life…Immigration, race and national identity, and the links between them, are emotional subjects which touch on how people feel about themselves. The conversation has become a more open one in recent years but it is still dogged by many taboos and silences; I want to try to look at matters as they are.” (p xv)
Consisting of eight chapters divided into three parts, and an introduction and a useful bibliography, the author argues that Britain has moved a long way from the shadows of first few decades of post-colonial immigration to a nation that is more open, inclusive and tolerant. He then goes onto state that the liberals should move beyond ‘discrimination presumption’ to a position that entails living in an open society struggling to provide equal opportunities to all its members irrespective of background. “That is not only”, he argues, “closer to the truth, it is also a more useful story to tell young minority Britons than the alternative of a relentlessly racist country thwarting their lives.” (p xv-xvi)
However, whether Britain’s less privileged minority groups would agree with the author’s presumption is questionable.
Even so, the author then goes on to argue, presumably to balance his arguments, that Britain has had too much immigration and too quickly, and that has not been beneficial at all. Accordingly, “…multiculturalism, particularly in the more separatist form that emerged in the 1980s, has allowed ‘parallel lives’ to grow up in some places and made it harder for ordinary Britons to think of some minorities, and especially Muslims, as part of the same ‘imagined community’ with common experiences and interests”. (p xvi)
In his efforts to maintain neutrality and avoid taking a clear position between the two opposing views, the author ended up agreeing and, at the same time, disagreeing with both arguments. This may lead some people to question whether the author has anything new to say on the subject of immigration, integration and multiculturalism after all.
However, a closer reading of this book reveals a position that is far from being impartial and neutral: the author is in favour of a highly selective immigration policy favouring the wealthy and privileged classes, which in hindsight would have totally restricted entry to the less privileged groups, the vast majority of the British Muslims and other (currently) socially unpopular members of our society. I am not sure if such a policy would have led to a much happier outcome than we have at the moment, for balancing efficient immigration with effective integration is not an exact mathematical sum or a work of fine art.
Race, immigration, multiculturalism and national identity are highly complex, varied, unpredictable and, at the same time, interlinked and interdependent issues.
Balancing the demands of policy, politics, popularity and social possibilities requires time, patience, wisdom and fair-mindedness. Here in this country we have got most things right, unlike our European neighbours, but demands for an ideologically predetermined social outcome from certain quarters is most unhelpful, if not highly detrimental. Britain is not a factory of fixed processes and rigid outcomes; lest we forget, we are a nation characterised by huge diversity and that requires flexibility, openness and equality of opportunity to enable people to express themselves fully in a free and fair society; that is the key to a prosperous and progressive Britain.
This is a useful book because it asks some useful questions, and for this reason alone it is worth reading.
Muhammad Khan. M Khan is author of The Muslim 100 (2008) and The Muslim Heritage of Bengal (2013)