Among good Left-liberals in Britain, it’s been conventional wisdom to regard any criticism of immigration or cultural diversity as a product of Daily Mail tabloid hysteria or British Nationalist Party (BNP) propaganda.
Lately, however, it’s been more common to hear concerns about the impact of immigration on social cohesion being expressed by politicians of the Left namely, from within the Labour Party.
Last month, Britain’s Immigration Minister Liam Byrne claimed in a paper for a Centre-Left think tank, Policy Network, that large-scale immigration had ‘deeply unsettled the country,’ placing increasing strain on public services.
Byrne’s bleak assessment was lent support last week by Industry Minister Margaret Hodge. In a column in The Observer, Hodge sparked a row by proposing that native-born British families should get priority for social housing over newly arrived immigrants.
The message from Labour ministers is clear: immigrant arrivals are placing pressures not only on the welfare State, but on the many working-class communities that are absorbing them. And all too often, the growing frustrations and social breakdown initiated by globalisation are being tied up (at least in perception) with the new faces and new languages appearing in these working-class neighbourhoods.
In part, the recent rhetoric from British Labour has been motivated by political self-interest. As demonstrated in local elections last year, Labour has been experiencing an electoral backlash in some working-class areas with votes leaking to a BNP campaigning on the back of xenophobia and insecurity.
But this doesn’t deny what is a genuine concern. As Hodge wrote in The Observer,
Unless we listen, we shall be unable to convince people that we are on their side as they learn to live with new neighbours in the tolerant and strong multiracial society we on the liberal Left desire. This stifled debate means we have missed the opportunity to articulate more clearly the huge benefits to our economy, our culture and the evolving nature of our Britishness that migration brings.
The Australian Left have an important lesson to learn from current British experience. For one thing, Britain’s progressives haven’t shied away from the challenges that immigration presents to a liberal polity.
Three years ago, the editor of the liberal Prospect Magazine, David Goodhart, wrote a much celebrated (and much cited) essay on the conflict between solidarity and diversity. According to Goodhart, without attention to social cohesion, ethnic diversity can undermine the repository of trust and social capital required to sustain the kind of welfare State to which Left-liberals are typically committed.
It’s a point that academics have been making as well. The ANU economist Andrew Leigh, for instance, found last year that social trust tends to be lower in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods, especially in those neighbourhoods where many languages are spoken.
In other words, to suggest that diversity may have some limits is not simply the product of a Right-wing, reactionary, tabloid, scare campaign.
Yet, Australian Left-liberals remain wary of raising the issue of social cohesion, seeing it as a dog-whistle for racism which is only natural, when the symbols of national solidarity have been tainted by racist violence, as they were on the beaches of Cronulla two summers ago.
The mistake of such thinking is that it presumes any appeal to social cohesion and any articulation of national values must involve a politics of xenophobia. As the former ALP President Carmen Lawrence argues in her recent book, Fear and Politics, the debate on Australian values has contributed to a climate of fear: at a time when our political leaders ‘should be calming fears’ they are exploiting them, and ‘inviting us to retreat into our own narrow identities.’
The unintended result has been that the Australian Left have abdicated all talk of solidarity and national values. According to Left-liberal thinking, any reference to Australian values is simply an attempt to reinstate ‘Whiteness’ in the Australian national identity by those uncomfortable with our multicultural realities.
It wasn’t always this way. Nationalism was once something closely associated with the radical anti-British tradition of the Australian Left. How easily we forget that the most radically nationalist of Australia’s post-war prime ministers is not John Howard but Paul Keating, for whom Australian history was something that was done ‘with a capital A,’ and for whom Robert Menzies was never ‘aggressively Australian.’
It’s time, then, for those on the Left to reclaim solidarity and social cohesion as progressive values, rather than slogans of latent racism and a politics of fear. Indeed, Left-liberal aspirations of social justice and equal opportunity can only ever be realised against a background of a sense of common belonging among citizens.
To be sure, the challenge is two-fold: Left-liberals must re-appropriate national values, but must do so without pandering to populism. They must articulate a liberal nationalism sensitive to achieving both a robust sense of identity and social trust, and a judicious accommodation of cultural differences.
It is no easy task to walk this political tightrope but before it can begin, the Left must abandon much like their British brethren are now doing the shibboleth that social cohesion is code for something more sinister.
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