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Covid-19 will be a defining moment in our multicultural story

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March 24, 2020 - 10:30am

No one knows with certainty which trends the coronavirus will accelerate and which it will brake in the long-term. Some clever people are making some informed guesses, but I suppose most people naturally predict that their political prejudices will be proved right, after all.

I don’t know whether this will see a return to the nation-state or the end of global liberalism, as some argue; I oppose globalism where it mixes ruthless capitalism with wilfully naïve “imagine no countries” progressivism (or Marxism-Lennonism, as some wag called it). I don’t know if this tragedy will stop that, although I think we can expect that the west’s trade (and political) links with China will not be the same afterwards.

Personally, I’m not hopping with delight at the decline of liberalism; I see liberalism (in its modern sense) as a mildly annoying side effect of wealth, not its cause; it’s rather like obesity or Type-2 diabetes, but I’d rather live in a society where obesity is a public health issue than one where hunger is.

One thing I can see happening is coronavirus becoming a significant moment of integration in Britain. We are most likely going to see a sharp drop in immigration, for all the wrong reasons; even if flights are still coming in, because the elites are reluctant to stop movement even in the face of a deadly pandemic, it’s going to come.

After two decades of very high immigration, Britain is finally going to have a pause, again for all the wrong reasons. Even if that’s just for a year or two, it means that, for the first time in decades, minority communities are going to be cut off from the old country, and people who find themselves psychologically between the two are going to become even more British. In the US, the great pause between 1924-1965 led to the assimilation of Catholics and Jews who had until then relatively low intermarriage rates with Protestants.

On top of that, this is the first real national crisis that multicultural Britain has gone through together. Until the post-war period Britain was not a nation of immigrants, despite the BBC’s noble attempts to rewrite our past, and the crucial, historical moments that defined our story involved lots of people called Smith, Jones and Brown. This is the first such event, and on top of that the hero of the hour, Chancellor Rishi Sunak, is of East African Asian origin — all of which could make it a significant moment in our multicultural island story.

It may become a culturally significant event for that reason, and when this horror is all over, I look forward to the BBC adaptation of Love in an Age of Coronavirus, with Sunak played by Colin Firth or Idris Elba.

Ed West’s book Tory Boy is published by Constable


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David Goodhart
David Goodhart
4 years ago

Ed, useful observations. I had been thinking about that dimension of the crisis too. It might be a good idea to get Eric Kaufmann to write something about it. I suspect it will be, as you suggest, overall a boon to “we’re all in this together” integration (for both class and ethnic divides) but with some tension in areas where there is already some ethnic division and conflict in some of the milltowns etc I saw on Twitter a British Asian shopkeeper in Derby excoriating his fellow Asian shopkeepers for profiteering from the crisis. Then there is the Chinese dimension too. Will people turn on Chinese communities? Apart from the odd bit of mindless hostility we havent seen that yet and outside of the China towns in London and a few other of the biggest metropolitan centres Chinese people tend not to cluster together in particular neighbourhoods. It seems relatively calm at present but after several weeks of lockdown we are
bound to see some violence and some of it might take an ethnic form. All the evidence shows us that we have never been less hostile to “others” of many kinds but a long lockdown might scramble some peoples’ brains. We should be ready for that. In the meantime, as you suggest, we can celebrate the fact that one of the most widely celebrated leaders at this moment of crisis is from an East African Asian background.

4 years ago

Interesting point, albeit shortsighted.

Firstly, World War Two was a wholly different situation whereby one’s involvement was what mattered, one’s contribution to society, whereas with coronavirus it is one’s social isolation that matters. WW2 drew people together, to the churches, to the streets, to the markets, in a country which still had plenty of social capital left over from the end of WW1 and fairly homogenous population. In our current situation we are being driven apart into isolation, the effects of which we still don’t know, but it is doubtful that it is going to produce huge amounts of social capital in this deeply split country.

Secondly, Ed is disregarding the presence of social media. The reason why immigrants and immigrant descended Britons are able to maintain their connection to their countries of origin is largely due to social media. Being housebound is no barrier to connecting to their roots, if anything it could increase it in these idle times.

As to the drop in immigration, I’m highly sceptical of this point. This country’s social fabric and economic policy has been built on mass-immigration since the 1950s, immigration and diversity are the nation’s largest religious denominations after the NHS. Immigration will go on as before, and likely with a surge as those who couldn’t travel here beforehand are now allowed. I would even guess that politicians will gush with pride at the immigrants that have been serving our NHS (rightly so), which will serve as a precursor to more lenient immigration rules.