David Goodhart, in his response to my review of his book The British Dream, raised three major issues. First, he suggested, mass immigration undermines stability and continuity. Second, he claimed that I ignored the fact that immigrants come not as individuals but as members of communities and cultures. And third, he challenged me to set out my concept of integration. I dealt with the question of stability and change in a pervious post. I will write about the meaning of integration in a future post. Here, I want to take up the question of community and culture.

In defending mass immigration, Goodhart suggested, I am forced ‘to adopt a sort of methodological individualism’, to imagine that ‘there are only individuals, floating free of culture, tradition, language, ways of life, who can just slot into modern Britain without changing anything’. This, he added, ‘is the left’s equivalent of  “there is no such thing as society”’.

I have, in fact, long been critical of liberal views of individualism. I have many times made the point that humans are not individuals who become social but social beings whose individuality emerges through the bonds they create with each other. It is, for instance, a key argument in my forthcoming book on the history of moral thought, and central to my discussion of Hobbes, Hegel and Rousseau.

I am, however, equally critical of the communitarian concepts that often underlie anti-immigration rhetoric. There are many ways one can understand the relationship between the individual and the community of which he or she is a part. To reject the Hobbesian view of the isolated individual and to acknowledge the individual as a social being does not mean that one also has to adopt a kind of Burkean view of society and of the ‘continuity of history’. A Burkean, or a communitarian, thinks of a community as constituted through history and bound primarily by its past, ‘an idea of continuity, which extends in time as well as in numbers and in space’, as Burke himself put it. Values, in the Burkean tradition, are defined as much by place and tradition as by reason and necessity. We can, however, acknowledge the social embeddedness of individuals, but think of such embededdness in a different way, in terms not of the constraints of history but of the possibilities of change, in terms not of tradition but of transformation. Movements for social transformation are defined less by a sense of a shared past (though most draw upon history traditions) than by hopes of a common future.

These two ways of thinking of communities and collectives usually co-exist and are often in tension with each other. The idea of a community or of a nation inevitably draws upon a past that has shaped its present. But the existence of movements for social change transforms the meaning of the past, and of the ways in which one thinks of identity. The idea of ‘Britain’ means something very different if it is defined primarily in terms of what we want it to be rather than of what it has been.

Red Clydeside

One of the key shifts over the past three decades has been disenchantment with the idea of social transformation, and the decline of organizations for collective social change. As a result people have begun to view themselves and their social affiliations in a different way. Social solidarity has become increasingly defined not in political terms – as collective action in pursuit of certain political ideals – but in terms of ethnicity or culture. The question people ask themselves are not so much ‘What kind of society do we want to live in?’ as ‘Who are we?’. The first question looks forward for answers and defines them in terms of the commonality of values necessary for establishing the good life.  The second generally looks back and seeks answers – and defines identity – in terms of history and heritage. The politics of ideology, in other words, has given way to the politics of identity.

All this has considerable bearing on the question of immigration and community. I would never suggest, as Goodhart implies I do, that immigrants come to Britain as ‘individuals, floating free of culture, tradition, language, ways of life, who can just slot into modern Britain without changing anything’. But neither would I suggest that those cultures, traditions, languages and ways of life were in any sense fixed. First generation migrants come with cultural baggage. But they do not live inside that baggage. As I put it in my Milton K Wong lecture last year, first generation ‘migrants certainly brought with them a host of traditions and habits and cultural mores from their homelands, of which they were often very proud. But they were rarely concerned with preserving cultural differences, nor thought of it as a political issue.’ What we call minority communities, and much of their culture and ‘traditions’, are as much a product of Britain as of south Asia or the Caribbean.  But as ideas of social transformation changed, so necessarily have ideas of culture and tradition.

The best way to understand immigration to Britain, and of the changing relationship of minority groups to culture, community and tradition, is in terms of three generations: the first generation that came in the fifties and sixties; the second generation that were born or grew up in the seventies and eighties; and the third generation that has come of age since then. (David Goodhart mentions the ‘three generation’ model in his book but does not follow through the consequences.)

The first generation of Muslim immigrants to Britain, who came almost entirely from the Indian subcontinent, were pious in their faith, but wore it lightly. They attended mosque infrequently and rarely fasted at Ramadan; the men often drank, few women wore hijabs, let alone niqabs or burqas. Their faith expressed for them a relationship with God, not a sacrosanct public identity. Islam was not, in their eyes, an all-encompassing philosophy.

The second generation – my generation – was primarily secular. I am of a generation that did not think of itself as ‘Muslim’ or ‘Hindu’ or ‘Sikh’, or even often as ‘Asian’, but rather as ‘black’. Black was for us not an ethnic label but a political badge. The ‘Muslim community’, in the sense of a community that defined itself solely, or even primarily, by faith did not exist when I was growing up. Neither did the Sikh community, or the Hindu community. When a group of young Asians met in a Bradford pub in 1977 to set up what became the Asian Youth Movement, they initially called themselves the ‘Indian Progressive Youth Association’. Not one was of Indian origin; all came from Bangladesh and Pakistan. In part, the name was an acknowledgement of their debt to the Indian Workers’ Association, which had played a pre-eminent role in giving voice to subcontinental workers in Britain, defending their rights and forging links with the labour movement in this country. Equally, the name reveals how insignificant were in the 1970s the markers of ‘identity’ that appear so important today. Young Pakistanis and Bangladeshis were so open-minded about their origins and identity that they were quite willing to call themselves ‘Indian’, notwithstanding even the bloodshed and turmoil of Partition. But while they were happy to be labelled ‘Indian’, it never entered their heads to call themselves ‘Muslim’.

Unlike our parents’ generation, who had largely put up with discrimination, we were fierce in our opposition to racism. But we were equally fierce in our opposition to religion and to the traditions that often marked immigrant communities. Religious organizations were, in my youth, barely visible. The organizations that drove migrant communities were primarily secular, often socialist, such as the Indian Workers’ Association and the Asian Youth Movements. The idea of community was, for us, rooted not in the idea that we must cling to the particular traditions or  practices that our parents had brought with them, but in the belief that a community could only be built by challenging such traditions and practices and through a establishing commonality of values across cultural, ethnic and religious divides.

bradford 12

It is only with the generation that has come of age since the late 1980s, that the question of cultural differences has come to be seen as important.  A generation that, ironically, is far more integrated than the first generation, is also the generation that is most insistent on maintaining its ‘difference’.

Why this shift? In part, the change has been driven by the rise of identity politics and by disenchantment with ideas of social transformation. Movements like the Indian Workers’ Association and the Asian Youth Movement, which had helped develop broader ideas of community and of identity, drew their strength and power from the existence of a wider set of radical social movements – from working class organizations to anti-racist groups – and from the belief in the possibilities of social change that sustained such movements.  As both the movements and the belief eroded, so organizations such as the IWA and the AYMs also began to founder.

This process was exacerbated, indeed institutionalized, by the promotion of what Goodhart calls ‘separatist multiculturalism’. In putting people into cultural and ethnic boxes, and in defining needs and allocating resources according to the boxes into which people were put, multicultural policies helped turn identity politics into public policy. In boxing up people by ethnicity, faith and culture, those policies helped define the very communities and identities that we now regard almost as natural and as having been carried to this country by immigrants. In pandering to conservative leaders within those communities, multicultural policies helped identify certain practices and ways of life as culturally authentic – often the very practices and ways of life that organizations such as the IWA and the AYM had challenged. Already on the back foot because of the broader decline of radical social movements, such groups were further marginalized by multicultural policies.

The consequence of all this was that the meaning of ‘community’ was, for blacks and Asians, significantly different at the end of the eighties than it had been at the beginning. Where once ‘communities’ had been defined as much by actual experiences of blacks and Asians, and by their struggles to overcome racism and discrimination, as by the history and tradition of the places of origin, now they became defined increasingly in Burkean terms, as groups bound primarily by their past, and whose social relationships were to be enforced through authority, often religious authority. Throughout the sixties and seventies, minority struggles were primarily political: opposition to discriminatory immigration controls; the struggle for equality in the workplace; the fight against racist attacks; the issue of police brutality. By the end of the eighties, the struggles had become more often than not cultural or religious, most explosively demonstrated by the confrontation over the publication of The Satanic Verses.


This process, as I suggested in a previous post, was not unique to minority communities. The ‘cultural turn’ has been a feature of the recent history of white working class communities, too, and for much the same reasons.  The erosion of trade union power, the demise of labour movement organizations, the transformation of the Labour Party and the cutting of its links with its old working class constituencies – all these developments have left many in those communities feeling voiceless and detached from the political process. That marginalization has come to be seen increasingly not in political but in cultural terms, as a form of cultural loss:

In part, the very decline of the economic and political power of the working class has undermined the utility of class as an economic and political category; it has undermined, too, the possibilities of challenging the economic and political forces responsible for marginalization. Once ‘working class’ comes to be seen primarily as a cultural category, and the mariginalization of the working class primarily as a cultural issue, then the resolution of the problems facing working class communities come to be seen as much in terms of the reclaiming of culture as of economic and political change.

Or, to put it another way: the breakdown of broader, more political, bonds of solidarity has left the working class clinging to narrower, more Burkean concepts of identity and community – and perceiving immigrants as threats to such identities and communities. This is one of the reasons for the recent successes of UKIP. The irony is that many of the criticisms that David Goodhart rightly makes of  ‘separatist multiculturalism’ can equally be applied to his own conceptions of the nation, of white working class culture and of cultural loss.

The difference between David Goodhart’s view and mine is not that he believes in community and society whereas I adopt ‘a sort of methodological individualism’, cleaving to ‘the left’s equivalent of  “there is no such thing as society”’.  It is, rather, that we possess different conceptions of how a community is constituted. It is true that mass immigration is not compatible with a Burkean notion of community and nation. But, then, I reject such Burkean ideas.  I hold a broader notion of community and identity, one that views social embeddedness, and understands the relationship between the individual and the collective, in terms not of the burden of history but of the possibilities of change. And such a view is perfectly compatible with a defence of mass immigration. Indeed, I would suggest that opposition to mass immigration is at heart opposition to such broader conceptions of community and identity.


The images are, from top down, Multicultural II by Robert Daniels; striking workers in George Square, Glasgow, 1919; a poster in support of the Bradford 12; Garry Clarkson‘s photo the burning of The Satanic Verses in Bradford, 1989.

One comment

  1. At last I begin to understand the process and context of the ‘Death of the Subject’ in relation to working class activity – there is little left of w/c collectivity, thus a loss of the sense of the possibility of a different future that can be made by us collectively – what is to be done?

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