What To Do With the Huddled Masses?

David Goodhart’s The British Dream isn’t a scintillating read, but it is a thoughtful articulation of the UK’s changing attitudes to immigration

Books Immigration
Brixton: Immigration, more than any other subject, enrages people of all colours

“Fucking Africans! Fucking immigrants!” I was surprised to hear this shouted repeatedly the other day as I walked down Brixton Hill. Neo-Nazi on a suicide mission? Institutionally-racist policeman unable to keep it covert any longer? Cockney codger who feels his efforts in the war have come to naught? No, the source was a fiftyish Jamaican, shrieking at the top of his lungs and boxing the air. I didn’t find out the cause of his rage.

Immigration, perhaps more than any other subject — education, employment, healthcare — is the one that most purples faces. David Goodhart has decided to have a go at logging the “successes and failures of post-war immigration”.

I must report that I barely had the energy to write this review, as I had spent the better part of three days trying to get an appointment with my GP — not waiting for an appointment, I stress, but attempting to get through to someone at the surgery so I could make the appointment I’d have to wait a week for — and much of the week stuck on platforms waiting for cancelled or delayed trains, or stranded because one train left early. As one unapologetic employee of Southeastern explained to me, the drivers follow their own clock in the cab, not the one displayed on the platform, the one that passengers use. 

My fantasy is no longer to win the lottery jackpot but to be allowed to kick to death a member of the senior management of Transport for London. As I walk past the Ghanaian, Jamaican and Brazilian flags that bedeck Brixton, I wonder why anyone, unless they come from a godforsaken, truly impoverished rural hovel, would want to immigrate to Britain.

The British Dream is a serious examination of this. Maybe too serious. David Goodhart is the director of the think tank Demos, and even if you didn’t know that you could probably guess it since there is such an academic striving for balance, detail and accuracy that it makes the book footnotey and a little turgid. I think it would have worked better as a straight, svelte polemic, written with the panache of a Norman Stone or a Victor Lewis-Smith.

Immigration is the most combustible of subjects because more than any other social question it’s linked to race, and racism is the most radioactive subject of all. Fear of racism lurks everywhere; racism is such a super-virulent Ebola virus that even the slightest suspicion of it can spring out to destroy you instantly. You have some hope of redemption if you murder someone but not if you drop the word nigger (and you don’t happen to be a black rapper).

Politicians aren’t interested in solving problems, let alone preventing them. Politicians are only interested, grudgingly, in solving crises. So 30 years on, just as Cross-rail has drifted in decades too late, we’re now having the discussion about gate-keeping we should have had in 1980. It took a number of Britons of Pakistani and Somali background blowing themselves up, or trying to, on the Underground, to kick-start debate about immigration and asylum and Britishness. The mere mention of any of these revealed you as a hardened gas-chamber operator, until the 7/7 bombings.

I have to say it’s fun to see a liberal like a Goodhart coughing up phrases which would have been unthinkable anywhere but in a Daily Express editorial ten years ago. Somalis are dole-fiends, the Human Rights Act is a mess, and “young black males do simply commit more crime [Goodhart’s italics]”, although, obviously, it’s not really their fault: he can only go so far.

The book is also bitty, which is hard to avoid when you’re covering so much ground. It’s ten magazine features and half-a-dozen newspaper articles glued together, buried under a topping of statistics. But Goodhart has some good anecdotes and does a great job of demonstrating of how many idiots have been at the helm of our country. In his introduction, he recounts how many in the Labour Party considered Gordon Brown’s “British jobs for British workers” to be “pure racism” and mentions an evening socialising with a senior civil servant (British) who believed that it was his job “to maximize global welfare not national welfare”. 

Goodhart does his best to sum up the various immigrant groups and their fortunes. He’s a little unfair on the Poles, who, he states, aren’t “model immigrants”. I’d argue if there’s one group who have joined in enthusiastically, while also retaining their culture, it’s the Poles. Of course, the racism-hunters would argue that the Poles are white Christians so it’s not difficult for them to fit in, but the Chinese have also done exceptionally well, while retaining their culture and not making a fuss about their non-whiteness. My father, a refugee who was warmly and generously welcomed into this country, says the great thing about Britain is that everyone minds their own business. Let’s hope it stays that way, because tolerance is about the only thing left in this country that works (a few jihadis and Scots excluded).

I can’t say The British Dream is a scintillating, unputdownable read, but Goodhart probably wasn’t aiming at that. It is, however, a thoughtful, meticulous consideration of the subject.