Immigrants' effect on the job market stirs up strong feelings

Is the diversity brought through immigration good for the UK?

Books: Two takes on immigration, one angry, the other more thoughtful, question the value of multiculturalism. Is it time for a St George's Day holiday, asks Matthew Taylor.

by Matthew Taylor
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

The British Dream: Successes and failures of post-war immigration


David Goodhart
Atlantic Books, £20.00

 

 

 

The Diversity Illusion: What we got wrong about immigration and how to set it right

 

Ed West
Gibson Square Books, £14.99

 

 

Two hundred metres from my home in south London, there is a street lined with about 30 retail businesses. There are three French restaurants and a French baker. In population terms, London is now reported to be the sixth-largest French city in the world.

But you will read little or nothing about the Gallic invasion in Ed West's polemic and David Goodhart's more measured effort.

In part, this is because no one seems to have anything against these generally well-educated, economically self-sufficient, white-skinned invaders. It's also because it is not clear that immigration per se is actually the focus of either of these books.

For Ed West, the problems he describes, from the impoverishment of the indigenous working classes to the threatening of free speech, are overwhelmingly to do with one kind of immigration; that of non-white people from poor countries.

For Goodhart, the focus is less on immigration than on what he sees as its contribution to a loss of national pride and solidarity.

Despite their different tones, the books cover similar ground and in doing so remind us how much the debate about diversity and immigration has shifted, and not just among the one in four voters who chose UKIP in last month's council elections.

The charge that Labour was complacent about mass immigration and careless of its impact on low-paid workers and localities has been repeatedly admitted by Ed Miliband. That much of what was called multiculturalism in the 1980s and 1990s was muddle-headed and tended to disparage the culture and history of the indigenous population is also widely accepted.

The authors present themselves as brave truth-tellers venturing into a debate that has been suppressed by both social liberals on the left and economic liberals on the right.

In fact, from Enoch Powell to Nigel Farage, both debates about immigration and expressions of hostility towards incomers, from first-wave Afro-Caribbeans to Polish builders and Romanian gangs, have featured repeatedly and noisily in politics and the media over the decades.

While not hiding his own inclinations, Goodhart's book is a balanced summary of the key debates about migration and diversity. His later chapters, including a thoughtful and rather moving essay on national identity, are more sanguine about modern Britain, and his policy proposals, which range from a St George's Day holiday to compulsory community service, are worth taking seriously.

In contrast, West is angry and accusatory, suggesting that anyone who thinks immigration has been good for Britain is akin to a member of a doomsday cult.

At certain points, the clumsiness of his argument suggests that he would like nothing more than to be accused of racism or at least xenophobia. In one paragraph, he links a critique of recent migration policy to black gang violence in London. But most of the people involved in the latter will have been British citizens born and raised in this country.

Which raises another problem with these books: when does an immigrant cease to be an immigrant? If the problem lies in numbers, scale and speed of settlement then we should be very worried about the London French.

If, on the other hand, the concern is something else - values, behaviours, aspirations, issues that may be directed to second or third-generation British citizens, not to mention the white 'underclass' - bundling these together as problems of immigration is not only unhelpful but implies that black people can never be fully British.

More than West, Goodhart recognises the upside of our more diverse nation, but the case could be made with greater enthusiasm.

It is not just the Olympics that showed how immigrants can adopt the values and identity of their new home. Indeed, one of the ways new Britons often show their allegiance to national attitudes is to join the chorus calling for fewer new people to be allowed in.

Also, although both books are packed with statistics, neither author seems to have noticed how the new wave of migration has coincided with the end of what some called the social recession. Whether it's falling teenage pregnancy, drug use and alcohol consumption, less crime or more volunteering, the ever more diverse British population seems to be making wiser, more responsible choices.

If you want a good understanding of debates about diversity and immigration and to make up your own mind, I recommend Goodhart.

If you are already angry about the make-up of modern Britain and the people who let it happen, then Ed West's lively prose will add fuel to your fire.

As for me, I'm off down the road for coq au vin.

Matthew Taylor is chief executive of the RSA

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