Why the left is wrong about immigration
Mass immigration is damaging to social democracy, argues David Goodhart in his controversial new book – it erodes our national solidarity. What's more, welcoming people from poor countries into rich ones does nothing for global equality
The word "controversial" has evolved over the course of my reading lifetime from meaning "hubba hubba" to meaning "you aren't supposed to like this"
In busy offices up and down the land some of Britain's most idealistic young men and women – working in human rights NGOs and immigration law firms – struggle every day to usher into this society as many people as possible from poor countries.
They are motivated by the admirable belief that all human lives are equally valuable. And like some of the older 1960s liberal baby boomers, who were reacting against the extreme nationalism of the first half of the 20th century, they seem to feel few national attachments. Indeed, they feel no less a commitment to the welfare of someone in Burundi than they do to a fellow citizen in Birmingham. Perhaps they even feel a greater commitment.
Charity used to begin at home. But the best fast-stream civil servants now want to work in DfID, the international development department. Their idealism is focused more on raising up the global poor or worrying about global warming than on sorting out Britain's social care system.
Many people on the left, indeed many Guardian readers, are sympathetic to these global citizen values: they see that the world has become smaller and more interdependent, and feel uneasy about policies that prioritise the interests of British citizens. The progressive assumption seems to be that it is fine to have an attachment to friends and family, and perhaps a neighbourhood or a city – "I'm proud to be a Londoner" – and, of course, to humanity as a whole. But the nation state – especially a once dominant one like Britain (above all its English core) – is considered something old-fashioned and illiberal, an irrational group attachment that smart people have grown out of.
In the 21st Century, the fundamental difference between conservatives and liberals is that the conservatives have concentric loyalties while liberals have leapfrogging loyalties.
... If all human lives are equally valuable, how can we any longer favour our fellow national citizens over the impoverished masses of the global south?
You know, you can always donate your own money to the impoverished masses of the global south. A pound goes a lot further toward feeding the hungry in the Congo than in England.
This "post-nationalism" nags away at the conscience of many liberal-minded people.
But it is a category error. It does not follow from a belief in human equality that we have equal obligations to everyone on the planet. All people are equal but they are not all equal to us. Most people in Britain today accept the idea of human equality, but remain moral particularists and moderate nationalists, believing that we have a hierarchy of obligations starting with our family and rippling out via the nation state to the rest of humanity. Britain spends 25 times more every year on the NHS than on development aid. To most people, even people who think of themselves as internationalists, this represents a perfectly natural reflection of our layered obligations, but to a true universalist it must seem like a crime.
Many people on the left are still transfixed by the historic sins of nationalism. But if people are squeamish about the word "nation" they should use another: citizenship or just society. And the modern law-bound, liberal nation state is hardly a menacing political institution. You join automatically by birth (or by invitation) and an allegiance to the liberal nation state is compatible with being highly critical of the current social order and with support for bodies such as Nato and the EU.
Indeed, the modern nation state is the only institution that can currently offer what liberals, of both right and left, want: government accountability, cross-class and generational solidarity, and a sense of collective identification. As societies become more diverse, we need this glue of a national story more not less. This is ultimately a pragmatic argument. The nation state is not a good in itself, it is just the institutional arrangement that can deliver the democratic, welfare, and psychological outcomes that most people seem to want. It is possible that in the future more global or regional institutions might deliver these things; the EU is one prototype but its current difficulties underline what a slow and stuttering process this is likely to be. (Germany, the least nationalistic of the big European states, was happy to spend about $1tn on unification with east Germany but is very reluctant to spend much smaller sums supporting the southern European economies.)
We have a hard enough time policing corruption in our own country. The Euro Follies show that corruption fighting is that much harder spread across languages and cultures.
Anti-nationalists also underestimate just how much the nation state has liberalised in recent decades. One might say that the great achievement of post-1945 politics, in Europe at least, has been to "feminise" the nation state.
The nation was once about defending or taking territory and about organised violence.
It still is.
But now that Britain's participation in a world war is highly improbable, the focus has switched to the internal sharing of resources within the nation – and the traditionally feminine "hearth and home" issues of protecting the young, old, disabled and poor. Notwithstanding recent trimming, Britain's social security budget has increased 40% in just the last 15 years.
The modern nation state has become far more inclusive in recent generations and is underpinned by unprecedented social provision, free to all insiders – but towards the outside world it has become, or is trying to become, more exclusionary. There is nothing perverse or mean-spirited about this. As the value of national citizenship in Britain has risen, so the bureaucracy of border controls has had to grow.
No one knows for sure how many people would come to live in a rich country like Britain if border controls were abolished. But in many poor parts of the world, in Africa in particular, there has been rapid urbanisation without industrialisation or economic growth or job creation. That has created a large surplus of urban labour well connected enough to know about the possibilities of life in the west and with a miserable enough life to want to get there. Who could say confidently that 5 million or 10 million people would not turn up in the space of a couple of years, especially to a country with the global connections that Britain already has?
A few countries, such as the Philippines, have become part-dependent on exporting people to rich countries and benefit in many ways from the process.
Personally, I think of the Philippines as a major underachiever, with too high of a total fertility rate and lousy government. Emigration to the U.S. provides an outlet that keeps that lets the country not fix itself up. I remember when Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos got kicked out and that was supposed to put the country on the road to reform. Well, that was a generation ago.
But they are the exception. Most poor countries are actively hostile to permanent emigration. And it is hardly surprising. Desperately poor countries cannot afford to lose their most ambitious and expensively educated people.
... Rich countries should be saying: we will help you to grow faster and to hold on to your best people through appropriate trade and aid policies; we will also agree not to lure away your most skilled people, so long as you agree to take back your illegal immigrants (which many countries don't). The coalition government's combination of a lower immigration target and its exemption of the aid programme from cuts is an expression of this idea.