too diverse?

prospect, march 2004

The debate about immigration and multiculturalism has been bedevilled by a confusion between the diversity of peoples and the diversity of values. Multiculturalists argue that the presence in a society of diversity of peoples precludes the possibility of common values. Little Englanders suggest that such values are possible only within an ethnically homogenous society.

David Goodhart's attempt to negotiate a new path through this swamp is welcome. Yet his argument that beyond a certain level immigration undermines social cohesion and makes the indigenous population less willing to share resources seems also to conflate the diversity of peoples and values. I agree with his concern about the erosion of common values - but not with the claim that underlying such erosion is the greater diversity created by mass immigration.

Historically, postwar black immigrants to Britain were concerned less with preserving their cultural differences than in achieving political equality. The political elite, on the other hand, has been obsessed by the question of cultural difference. In the 1950s policy makers feared that, in the words of a Colonial Office report, 'a large coloured community would weaken... the concept of England or Britain.' By the 1980s, they had come to view cultural difference, not as a threat to national identity, but as an affirmation of it. The very notion of creating common values was now abandoned except at a most minimal level. Partly this was due to the recognition that the old British identity was rooted in a Britain that no longer existed, if it ever had. But mostly it resulted from a lack of a political vision of what a new common culture might look like. Many of the public institutions in which such a culture had been traditionally invested - from church to parliament, from the monarchy to the BBC - had lost their capacity to inspire trust. Nothing replace them. Britishness came to be defined simply as a toleration of difference. Multiculturalism, in other words, did not cause the fraying of a common set of values, but is itself the product of such frayed values.

The answer to the question at the heart of David Goodhart's essay - whether or not, in a diverse society, universalism necessarily conflicts with solidarity - depends on how one defines solidarity. If we define it in narrow particularist or ethnic terms - in other words, if we accept that a diversity of peoples necessarily entails a diversity of values - then by definition the two must conflict. If, however, we define it in political terms - solidarity as collective action in pursuit of a set of political ideals - then a universalist perspective becomes a means of establishing solidarity.

From this perspective, the real problem is not a surfeit of strangers in our midst but the abandonment over the past two decades of ideologically based politics for a politics of identity. The result has been the fragmentation of society as different groups assert their particular identities - and the creation of a well of resentment within white working class communities who feel left out. Shared values and common identities can only emerge through a process of political dialogue and struggle, a process whereby different values are put to the test, and a collective language of citizenship emerges. The narrowing of the political sphere makes such a process much more difficult to pursue. That's why there is today no source of Britishness from which anyone - black or white - can draw inspiration.