A ‘Liberal Racist’? Me? I Felt Like a Heretic

A decade ago I tentatively questioned the benefits of mass immigration and got slated for it. But things have moved on

One of my great-great-grandfathers was a founder of the American-Jewish Lehman banking dynasty, one of my grandfathers was master of an Oxford college, my father was a Tory MP, I went to Eton.

If you come from that kind of background and identify yourself as on the Left, as I do, some shadow of bad faith unavoidably falls across your political journey. After all the Left itself has always placed great stress on “material interests” and “lived experience” as the basis for belief and political action.

If those two factors are removed from the equation what are you left with? Guilt, idealism, book learning or the quirks of adolescent psychology? 

Many years ago I read Hugh Thomas’s biography of John Strachey, a minister in the Attlee government, which claimed he became a Communist in the 1930s because he didn’t get into the Eton cricket first XI. I realised with some sense of embarrassment that I, too, had become a late adolescent Marxist for similar reasons.

It was not the only reason: the confusion of going to such a self-consciously ruling-class school at a time when it seemed to have lost its legitimacy and wanting to attract the attention of a rather absent father (though I was not aware of that psychological cliché at the time), were probably partial explanations too.

Coincidentally, it was reading John Strachey’s Contemporary Capitalism and then even more revisionist works like Tony Crosland’s Future of Socialism that led me to the more solid foundations of social democracy after my brief flirtation with the comforting certainties of Marxism.

For a time those certainties not only offered an insecure young man usefully strong opinions about everything, they also provided me with a substitute family of the ideologically like-minded at a time when I had broken with my real family’s beliefs and traditions. 

But my career as a serious leftist at university did not last long. My own self-consciousness about the absurdity of being an Etonian Che Guevara was combined with an uneasy realisation that too many of my comrades were also well-heeled public school or suburban grammar school types for whom Leninist bossing around of the masses came a bit too easily. 

But even as I settled down as a more mainstream member of the Guardian-reading middle-class liberal Left (and joined the Labour party) in my mid-twenties, I think I carried with me a sense of viewing those tribal beliefs somewhat from the outside, and a lasting curiosity too about why political people have come to believe the things they do. For David Hume is surely right: reason is the slave of the emotions. At least for those of us who are free to choose our political commitments, without having them forced upon us by circumstance, it is the emotional impulse that seeks out the facts and arguments, not the other way round.

The reason I am dwelling rather indulgently on my own past is that in the light of the publication of my recent book The British Dream (about the successes and failures of postwar immigration) Standpoint has asked me to write about my apparent “breaking” with the Left. 

I don’t think I have broken with the Left, but I like to think that self-consciousness about the roots of my own beliefs has given me an especially sensitive nose for the cant of the righteous, especially those who dwell in privileged bubbles of the highly educated. If you are a walking contradiction perhaps you are more aware of it in others, whatever their background. 

Far from being an attack on the Left, my book is an attempt to reinforce one pole of the centre-left argument about immigration and multiculturalism. To express it in a slogan, I am pro-immigrant but against mass immigration. I believe in human equality and the unity of the human race, but I am sceptical about the economic benefits of large-scale immigration for the bottom half of British society, and worry about too much rapid change leading to segregation of communities and a withering of the kind of fellow-feeling needed to sustain welfare states.

There is nothing remarkable about those views and there are now plenty of others on the centre-Left who share them — Jon Cruddas gave my book a favourable review in the New Statesman — though official Labour remains somewhat uncertain of its position on this territory.

But how did I come to write a book about these issues? I had barely given immigration a thought until well into my forties — though as a journalist of leftish sympathies I was reflexively in favour of as much of it as possible and vaguely aware of having two immigrant grandfathers (both American). Like many metropolitan liberals I had very little direct experience of immigration yet I came to see it as beyond the normal trade-offs and interest calculations of political life. It was simple: good people were in favour of it, and bad, bigoted people were against it.  

Alongside this belief was a twitchy ambivalence about my own country, no doubt reflecting a twitchy ambivalence about myself. Left-wing and liberal intellectual scepticism about the national was particularly strong in England because of its dominant imperial past. And in the 1970s and 1980s the country was often said to be going through an identity crisis — end of empire, conflict in Northern Ireland, immigration, industrial conflict and decline — some of which perhaps rubbed off on my younger self. 

Britain did not in the 1970s develop a post-imperial language of national citizenship and identity. Many on the Right felt ambivalent about fully extending citizenship to non-natives (who were just starting to arrive in significant numbers), and too many young lefties like me thought that welcoming the newcomers meant discarding the nation and its traditions. A more coherent “middle way” between universalism and a tribal nationalism is what we have been reaching for ever since (and perhaps finally found in Danny Boyle’s seminal Olympic opening ceremony).

But back then Left intellectual sophistication was haughtily lined up against the “false consciousness” of the ordinary and the national. Even those who did not completely reject the idea of a national interest on class grounds believed the nation state was too big for most of the local things that matter and too small for most of the big international things that matter, like climate change. 

This was campus common sense in the 1970s and 1980s, especially if you were English. I certainly considered any expression of attachment to my country — with the exception of the England cricket and football teams — as vulgar and dumb. We laughed along with the Monty Python mockery of Edwardian stoicism and at the embattled campus Tories who still believed in the flag. Boundaries and borders were for the small-minded and the provincial and, of course, for the working-class people who cleared up behind us (though we leftists preferred not to dwell on that). 

I now, of course, believe this disdain for the national was immature and premature as well as loftily dismissive of majority opinion. How did I come to change my mind about that and about large-scale immigration?

No doubt becoming a more grounded person and mixing with a wider spread of people knocked some of the undergraduate ideological gaucheness out of me as I entered my thirties. But what I like to think really changed my mind was good ideas, or openness to better ideas than I had been carrying around. And it was one of those good, simple ideas that inspired the most important political moment in my life since failing to play in the Eton v Harrow match. 

In February 2004 I published a 6,000-word essay entitled “Too Diverse?” in Prospect magazine (which I then edited) about what I called the “progressive dilemma” — the conflict between diversity and social solidarity, two of the great principles of the Left. The essay was reprinted in the Guardian at the prompting of Will Hutton and raised a storm of often angry argument. I was accused of being a “liberal racist” and paid my penance on the race and immigration conference circuit for part of the next few years, where I tried to articulate — often with difficulty — why it is possible to worry about the effects of “difference” without being a racist.

It was David Willetts, the leading Tory, who had first drawn my attention to the “progressive dilemma”. Speaking at a Prospect debate on the welfare state in 1998, he noted that if values and lifestyles become too diverse it becomes more difficult to sustain common norms and hence the legitimacy of a risk-pooling welfare state. “This is America versus Sweden. You can have a Swedish welfare state provided you are a homogeneous society with intensely shared values. In the US you have a very diverse, individualistic society where people feel fewer obligations to fellow citizens. Progressives want diversity but they thereby undermine part of the moral consensus on which a large welfare state rests.”

That is to say, people are readier to share and co-operate with people whom they trust or with whom they believe they have significant attributes, and interests, in common. That “in-group” can be, and is, extended to include people of very different racial, ethnic or class background. But it does not happen automatically or immediately: consider the long history of class conflict and co-operation in Britain that led to the 1945 settlement. 

Willetts’s dilemma seemed to me a true and powerful idea. I remember thinking when I first heard it: why is this issue not discussed more, particularly on the Left? My own attempt to give it greater salience was that rather abstract, tentative essay “Too Diverse?”. I had no idea it would provoke such a response. When it did so, I felt briefly like a religious heretic.

I cannot claim that I was shunned by the Islington dinner party circuit. I was, however, widely attacked in print and routinely accused of racism, mainly by people who didn’t know me. This quite often led to personal confrontations at meetings or seminars, sometimes with people of ethnic minority background. That was obviously uncomfortable but I was confident enough in the irrationality of the racism allegation to hold my ground.

Like anyone who is white and privileged, I was vulnerable to the claim that I could not know, could not experience, the negative consequence of any attempt to weigh the costs as well as benefits of large-scale immigration and rapid increases in ethnic diversity. My response was that people should not take it so personally and that surely we should be able to talk about big social changes relating to ethnicity in the way that we do about social class.

This often provoked further anger. I’m sure I could have handled it better and it took me a while to find the right tone and language. The blast I received was in part an expression of the deep scars of race and racism but also of a quasi-religious faith in diversity.

Being a spiky controversialist had not been part of my self-image before the “Too Diverse?” storm and I certainly did not feel “brave” as some sympathisers, including some on the Left, declared me to be. But it was certainly no disadvantage to the editor of a small political magazine to have the reputation as a liberal contrarian and I soon found myself warming to the idea. 

Having experienced the tribal irrationality of part of leftist Britain on the issue of diversity I found myself extending my critique to other aspects of the argument: the nature of community, the role of national identities in liberal societies and more. 

I found that the space I came to occupy surprisingly empty. What was that space? It was still a kind of liberalism (or post-liberalism as I would now call it), social democratic in economics but somewhat conservative in culture; reformist towards the continuing wounds of race and class but sympathetic to the rooted communitarianism of middle Britain, and regarding a special attachment to fellow citizens not as a prejudice but as an asset in a more mobile and individualistic society.

The other idea that broke through my inchoate left-liberal instincts was even simpler than the progressive dilemma. It is this: embracing the idea of human equality does not mean we owe the same allegiance to everyone. 

The benchmark of modern political decency is contained in the “universalist shift” of the mid-20th century (encapsulated in the UN Declaration of Human Rights) — the belief in human equality, in the moral equality of all human beings, the assumption that all lives are of equal value regardless of race or gender or wealth. This simple and beautiful idea is, of course, accepted across the political spectrum, but it is embraced with special enthusiasm on the Left which rightly monitors the extent to which governments, organisations or individuals fall short of applying the idea. (That is what the protests of the 1960s were partly about, young people angrily contrasting the official promise of equality with the reality of hierarchy.)   

But some on the Left, especially what one might call the “global villageist” Left, apply this universalist idea of equality without reference to real people and communities. They conflate the idea of human equality with the daft idea that we have the same obligations to all human beings. In fact, as Burkean conservatives, and now modern scientists, recognise, for most people commitments and allegiances ripple out from friends and family to neighbourhoods, towns and nations. This does not mean we should not care about the global poor. But we have a hierarchy of obligations that means we spend 30 times more every year on the NHS than we do on development aid. Is that wrong?

There are a few “global villageists” in academia and the NGOs who are pure universalists, at least in theory, and there is a rather larger de-territorialised elite of business people, highly paid professionals and celebrities who feel little connection to any particular country — what the Americans call the “Wall Street and Woodstock” class. They are exceptions and have little direct influence on policy-making, though there is a “universalism lite” that is often a default position of highly educated people, including many economists. 

In the years after “Too Diverse?” I delved deeper into the debate and had much more exposure to what I considered the weakness of left-liberal arguments. They were both internally inconsistent-wanting as much “sameness” as possible on class and as much difference as possible on race-and also too dismissive of public opinion and the progress made in reducing racism and to turning nationalism into something more benign, that is about specialness but not superiority. 

I more or less consciously began to develop a counter-litany of my own. Liberals, I argued, place too much stress on only what is chosen by individuals. This creates an ambivalence about community, which is something to be celebrated but also escaped from through geographical or social mobility. And when thinking about immigration they too often assume a society without any pre-existing attachments or sense of community. But immigration, at least on a significant scale, is hard for both incomer and receiver, especially when multi-generational poverty is being imported. People are not blank sheets, societies are not random collections of individuals, and objection to the arrival of a large number of outsiders in a community is not necessarily racist.

When middle-class social scientists like Michael Young in the 1950s and 1960s discovered what a high attachment people in working-class communities had to stability and continuity it was considered something to celebrate by left-wing sociologists. When people objected to that continuity being disrupted by the churn of mass immigration they were denounced.  

And, since becoming sensitised to this issue, I too often hear old-fashioned class snobbery from elite, even left-wing professionals with their mobile “achieved” identities towards the little people with their greater attachment to place and group. Recently, for example, a well-known liberal newspaper columnist told me how pleased he was that the boring lower-middle-class suburb he was raised in had been disrupted by big demographic change against the wishes of the existing population. 

But it was the senior civil service economist who told me straight-faced that it was his job to maximise global welfare, not national welfare, who finally prompted me to begin writing my book in 2009. It is one thing to believe in relatively open economic flows, but quite another to imagine one is living in a post-national world of undergraduate fantasy.

The book partly reflects my thinking since “Too Diverse?”, but is also the result of the many visits I made over a two-year period to the areas of high minority settlement in Britain to try to attempt a rough audit on the successes and failures of the great immigration experiment. This was an ambitious, even hubristic goal but surely a worthwhile one. 

The debate has certainly shifted in a more realistic direction since 2004. The reception of my book has been calm and reasonable compared with the screams of pain that greeted my essay. I have had a mix of favourable and unfavourable reviews, from both Left and Right, almost always on the basis of what the reviewers’ pre-existing beliefs on the subject were. In the almost ten years between the essay and the book, two things in particular have helped to mature the debate. First, it has become far easier to separate arguments about racial justice from the economic and cultural arguments surrounding large-scale immigration. Second, it has become possible to talk more openly about the very different outcomes for Britain’s main minority groups in terms of their own internal cultures rather than the blanket racism of British society.

I hope I have contributed in a small way to the greater openness of discussion about some of these matters. And I hope the debate can become even less taboo-ridden; racism has been in sharp decline in recent decades but there remains plenty of fear and anxiety associated with race and how swiftly the country is changing. Many people worry that a more open debate that also encompasses the failures and mistakes of recent times only gives succour to extremists. I disagree.

The leftish liberalism of my youth wasn’t always completely wrong. It just got things out of balance and could not grasp that desirable things conflict. For all its failings the Left does have achievements to its name, above all in the long battle against overt racism. And, more than the Right, it should have useful things to say about integration and segregation; after all, it still believes in that thing called “society” that people should join. 

For myself, I hope I can avoid acquiring a vested interest in my own current beliefs and remain open-minded enough to change my mind again if necessary. 

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