Why we can’t ignore the challenges of immigration
Credit: Jack Taylor / Getty   

Is ethnic diversity a threat to the West? The original title of an UnHerd debate in which I recently took part was obviously contestable, but in itself the statement seemed innocuous to me. How naïve. Ferocious objections were raised the moment it was announced, on the grounds that the question suggests people of colour represent a danger to Britain and other developed nations in Europe and the Americas. It would not be the first time such anxieties have flared.

But the (mainly white) academics who thought that they were doing victims of racism a favour by shutting down the debate, might have paused to consider how this question can be read from the other side of the colour line. I know that they tell themselves that they are saving people of colour from the depredations of the likes of Tommy Robinson. It’s convenient for liberals to invest all racial evil in such bogey men; it avoids them having to interrogate their own contribution to racial injustice.

Tragically, it won’t be the people who play these political games who pay the price of their self-indulgence. Many of us not protected by the carapace of white identity see this question from a very different standpoint.

For a start I, for one, don’t feel that I need salvation by white Messiahs; and I don’t need them to tell my neighbours that I really am rather nice in spite of my being black. The truth is, I’d rather like people of colour to be seen as a threat to the established order. I know that on the Left it’s regarded as really quite wicked and divisive to assert that race may be a more significant social cleavage than wealth or income; to suggest, in short, that culture and ethnicity may trump class. But people of colour have been here before many times.

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Forty years ago, a man called Roy Sawh was convicted under the first Race Relations Act for incitement to racial hatred. Sawh, a Guyanese born anti-colonial activist, joked in his weekly address at Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner that he had heard that the mother country was going down the pan – and he had “come to pull the chain”. Conventional politicians – on the Left and Right – were not amused.

Like Sawh, I grew up in Guyana. I believe that one of the great benefits of diversity to any society is that it can add resilience, but often, it is the newcomers who trigger radical change for the better. And many of us would welcome change in societies which, for the most part, have brought us four centuries of  slavery, colonialism and chronic racial injustice. So, had I had the chance to respond to the original question on the night, my answer would have been “Yes. And a good thing too.”

In fact, the title of the debate was changed. The initial, hysterical, reaction to news of the event threatened to make rational conversation impossible. A letter from dozens of university lecturers and students accused all the participants of accepting a “white supremacist” framing.

Ridiculous as this suggestion was, the debate’s organisers, the academics Matthew Goodwin and Eric Kaufmann, along with its sponsors, UnHerd and The Academy of Ideas, demonstrated a maturity conspicuously missing from their ivory tower critics, and adjusted the language, though not the central point of discussion. The question became: Immigration and Diversity Politics: A Challenge to Liberal Democracy? Naturally, the armchair radicals found that they had too much else to do to turn up to the evening; that claret at high table doesn’t sip itself.

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So, for the benefit of those who didn’t show up, I backed the amended proposition. I am pro-immigration, as you might expect; my Guyanese family has – mostly – prospered in the UK and the USA. The experience of those who have lived in diverse societies such as America or Canada is that a mix of cultures and traditions can give an enormous boost to creativity and innovation in a society – if managed effectively. But if poorly managed, that mix offers friction and lethal civil strife. Guyana’s experience is of the latter, and of  attendant decades of poverty. My fear is that our complacency will produce more of both in the UK.

Developed societies already face huge disruption, driven by demographic change, technological change and epochal transformation in the global order, given the rise of China and India as economic powers. We can now add to that mix unprecedented levels of migration across the globe. More of us are meeting more different kinds of people than at any time in human history. And alongside the promise of diversity comes the threat of social dis-integration.

Research on both sides of the Atlantic shows that the great splits in Western societies are becoming less and less to do with economics and more and more arising from cultural difference. Brexit was driven more by deep divisions over multiculturalism and feminism than by class conflict. Trump owes his election to the emergence of a self-consciously white nationalist movement that has roots far deeper and wider than the alt-Right.

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The complacent liberal viewpoint is that such divisions are essentially transient; embodied in the banality of the slogan that “there is more that unites us than divides us”. No doubt most people in the ethnic and cultural majority, used to imposing their norms on others, genuinely believe this to be true. The politeness of immigrants can lead others to believe that their adoption of majority behaviours in public means that the newcomers have abandoned belief in their own traditions; some people mistakenly think this is what integration means.

But the truth is that there are sincerely held differences in multicultural societies that we need to acknowledge. Not all traditions share the same view about the place of women in society; there is a reason why Muslim women are significantly less economically active than any other demographic. White people in London, New York, Oxford, Cambridge and Los Angeles have a progressive and tolerant attitude towards homosexuality – but a visit to any of the burgeoning immigrant-supported megachurches in the UK will make it evident that these attitudes aren’t shared by their black or Asian neighbours, who are turbo-charging the revival of fundamentalist Christian faith in our cities.

Our Conway Hall audience laughed heartily at an African woman who stood up to argue that liberal democracy – less than two centuries old, as Matthew Goodwin reminded us – might turn out not to be that great an experiment after all. Her experience was that it hasn’t stopped war, protected the environment or even solved the global refugee crisis.

Maybe those amused by her naivete ought to take a another look at Russia, Turkey, Brazil, and post-Arab Spring Egypt, where it appears that much of the population agrees with her. Their electorates have chosen – by apparently democratic means – autocratic, socially conservative strongmen for their leaders. Might not many of those who come from these parts of the world want to show us that their way is better than our way?

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But the growing chasms in our societies do not just lie between the settled and the newly arrived. There are also ever-widening ones between those who have been here long beyond living memory. The elite view is that our citizens enjoy lives that are more secure, more affluent, healthier and happier than most other nations, and far better than those of our parents and grandparents. They would be correct – on average. But for all too many Britons, the average isn’t what life feels like right now.

Many in the left-behind regions of the Midlands, and the North know that the promise of globalisation that puts a spring in the step of highly-educated city dwellers sounds more like a death rattle in their towns and villages. To the latter, a more diverse ethnic and cultural mix doesn’t mean a vibrant future; it means competition from the cleverest, most determined and most ambitious souls from other societies. It’s a match-up they are going to lose and they know it.

Even those in the prosperous urban regions aren’t protected. Many scoff at the idea of white decline as mapped in Eric Kaufmann’s magisterial study Whiteshift. They do so at our peril, if not their own; they forget what Britain was like half a century ago. When I was born in postwar London, a white boy born next door on the same day could be certain of one thing: my colour would mean that I would never be a serious competitor for him – not for a university place, not for a job, not for a home. Head to head, the statistics dictated that he would always win – and the law would permit his victory.

However, during my lifetime, the law and public sentiment have both changed radically to reduce that advantage; there’s no certainty that belonging to the ethnic majority will offer an automatic edge. From my neighbour’s point of view, that’s bad news. It’s not surprising then, that we are experiencing a profound change in the political landscape; for many people of all backgrounds, the predictor of their life chances that is rising most rapidly in salience is not geography or socio-economic status – but race and cultural background. High-minded lectures about the benefits of immigration ring pretty hollow if the job that you thought you were born to inherit from your uncle is now being filled by a cheerful, trilingual, overqualified eastern European or a tech savvy South Asian woman.

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As a result, our class-based political architecture looks more and more outdated. It is not an accident that Brexit has revealed fundamental divisions within the UK’s major political parties. Nor should it be a surprise that the political centre all over Europe is imploding. The Macronistes, for example, are bewildered by their inability to meet the demands of an angry populace, which is no longer willing to be bought off by tinkering with tax. Even Britain’s Corbynistas are struggling to work out why their opportunistic pledges of nationalisation strike only a tinny resonance with an electorate manifestly disillusioned by conventional politics.

They still don’t get it.

Alarmingly, there are some who do. The most successful contemporary politician in Western democracies – Donald Trump – has sniffed the wind and moved before his opponents. Behind the snarling bombast and the blizzard of tweets that preoccupy his opponents and the media, the President has quietly refashioned one of America’s two great political forces, the Republican Party. It is now, whatever it claims to be, a culturally specific, white nationalist party. We are seeing a similar change across Europe, with the emergence of nativism in Austria, Italy, France, Germany, and astonishingly even the last redoubt of social democracy – Sweden.

Until recently, I had thought that Britain was near immune to such realignment. The British nativists have yet to find a persuasive figurehead. But history has a habit of creating its own icons. The lamentable performance of conventional politics in our own protracted exit from the European Union has, above anything else demonstrated the feeble condition of our political and media classes. We too look ripe for takeover by dark forces.

Unless our elites are ready to confront the genuine challenges being posed by ethnic diversity, no matter how desperately we strum the chords to Kumbaya, nothing will protect us from the wave of political change that is sweeping the West. No one is picking up our tune any longer. And the people who can afford to treat this threat as an entertaining academic spat should remember that for people like me, this is a matter of life and death.