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Return of the Nativist

Bryan Fanning

The Road to Somewhere: The New Tribes Shaping British Politics, by David Goodhart, Penguin, 304 pp, £6.99, ISBN: 978-0141986975

There are perhaps two kinds of people ‑ those who, for illustrative purposes, maintain that there are two kinds of people and those who insist that it must always be much more complex than that. David Goodhart’s State of Britain polemic divides its population into two archetypical categories, the Anywheres and the Somewheres. The former are well-educated liberals who are broadly comfortable with twenty-first century social change, including globalisation and large-scale immigration. Somewheres, on the other hand, feel threatened by rapid change and by the consequences of social and economic liberalism.

Goodhart first gained notoriety in 2004 with the publication of an essay called “Too Diverse?” As he recalled in The Road to Somewhere, it led to him being accused of “nice racism” and “liberal Powellism”. He “became convinced that the left had got on the wrong side of the argument on mass immigration (too enthusiastic), and integration of minorities and national identity (too indifferent)”. In a March 2017 article in the Financial Times Goodhart elaborated on the evolution of his political views:

As a left-wing student I became the founding editor of the centre-left magazine Prospect. It was there that I first tentatively dissented from the liberal consensus on immigration and multiculturalism. In 2004 I wrote an essay about the tension between diversity and solidarity, based on what I  thought was the uncontroversial assumption that people are readier to share with people with whom they have something in common. Instead I met the intolerance of the modern left for the first time. Subsequently, I’ve grown used to being accused of racism, even by own children.

Goodhart is fond of recounting moments of epiphany in justifying his ideological journey. His Financial Times piece, “Why I left my London liberal tribe” described a recent one. Chatting to some friends in a bar he said that he could understand the discomfort that Nigel Farage had recently expressed about not hearing a single English-speaker on a train in London. Someone present, presumably an appalled liberal, loudly slammed their glass down and ostentatiously walked out.

Yet, in “Too Diverse?” Goodhart credited a 1998 encounter with the Conservative politician David Willetts with initially setting him on his road to Damascus. Willets argued that people were willing to pay high taxes to pay for public services only if they believed that the recipients were people like them. He argued that as British society became more diverse the moral consensus on which welfare state reciprocity depended had come to be undermined. Support for immigration worked to weaken support for the welfare state because, ultimately, citizens were not willing to share their entitlements with non-citizens.

Many of the arguments about immigration made by Goodhart and by politicians like Willets have gained considerable ground within the British mainstream since 2004, the year in which Britain, like Ireland, opened its borders to migrants from new EU member states. In various articles Goodhart made the case (to the New Labour government) that discriminating against migrants would bolster support for the British welfare state amongst citizens. The rationale for doing so was, he argued, sociobiological. It was natural to feel solidarity with one’s family and community. Generally human beings did not empathise with strangers or with people who were culturally different from themselves. People were sometimes drawn to ideologies and religions that professed universalist values. However, human nature, as Goodhart claimed this to be, rendered such solidarities unfeasible. As he put it in “Too Diverse?”:

Evolutionary psychology stresses both the universality of most human traits and – through the notion of kin selection and reciprocal altruism – the instinct to favour our own. Social psychologists also argue that the tendency to perceive in-groups and out-groups, however ephemeral, is innate ... we feel more comfortable with and readier to share with and sacrifice for, those with whom we have shared histories and similar values. To put it bluntly – most of us prefer our own kind.

Goodhart argued that we care a lot less about strangers than people we perceive as just like us. In British newspapers the deaths of two Britons abroad will get the same space as that of two hundred Spaniards or two thousand Somalis. Even people who supported foreign aid spent amounts on their children’s birthday parties that they knew would save the life of a child in the third world. Many of us would agree, he argued, that the needs of desperate outsiders were often greater than of our own kin. But we would object if our own parent or child received inferior treatment because of resources consumed by non-citizens. Goodhart suggested, with some passing references to sociobiology, that such human traits were hardwired, were unchangeable by experience and were found in all cultures. He argued that political responses to immigration therefore should fall in line with what he variously depicted as scientific truths and natural human tendencies. He made similar assertions in a February 2008 article published in The Observer:

The justification for giving priority to the interests of fellow citizens boils down to the pragmatic claim about the value of the nation-state. Without fellow-citizen favouritism, the nation-state ceases to have much meaning. And most of the things liberals desire – democracy, redistribution, welfare states, human rights – only work when one can assume the shared norms and solidarities of national communities.

The article’s title‚”The baby-boomers finally see sense on immigration” referred to Labour government decisions to limit the rights to welfare of non-citizen immigrants and proposals in a government green paper that newcomers incur additional taxes to “pay their way” in order to “win an emotional argument about immigration”. Goodhart applauded this governmental shift to a rhetoric that would have been unthinkable ten years earlier, one that he did his bit to foment and one that has intensified since then within British politics. In The Road to Somewhere Goodhart remains an enthusiastic advocate of nativism, which he describes as common-sense solidarity with fellow citizens. This is, however, a nativism that differs from the kinds associated with white nationalism or, up to a point, from old-school ethno-nationalism. Goodhart’s apparent aim is to promote a kind of social cohesion among Britain’s ethnically diverse citizens by uniting these against new immigrants. 

Goodhart’s Anywheres comprise, in his estimate, the most educated and highest income twenty-five per cent of the British population. Most live in urban areas and many have relocated during their lives from the places where they grew up in order to attend university and pursue careers. Social liberalism and market liberalism are not one and the same but both have, Goodhart argues, partly merged in the past quarter century following the conversion of the centre-left to more market-friendly economics. The Anywhere category includes what he calls Global Villagers. These “extreme Anywheres”, Goodhart tells us, are the people Theresa May described as the “Citizens of Nowhere” in her speech to the Conservative Party conference in October 2016. They are secular and mobile and often (though not always) highly successful and are likely to belong to internationalised networks, perhaps living in more than one country. They are to be found at the top end of business and academia (“in fact at all levels of academia”). Their views, according to Goodhart, have a disproportionate influence on the climate of opinion and help to tug more mainstream Anywheres towards even greater openness to globalisation and immigration.

Goodhart’s extreme Anywhere archetype is a disco remix of the notion of rootless cosmopolitans, a pejorative term once used to refer to Jews, who in their allegiances and economic interests were deemed to be enemies of the nation. “It used to be the case,” Goodhart declares, “that the educated and affluent were more nationalistic than the masses because they had a larger stake in the country. The ordinary people had to be literally ‘press-ganged’ into defending the nation. Now the opposite is true. The richer and better educated you are, the more global your attachments are likely to be.” The main problem identified in The Road to Somewhere is the influence of unpatriotic liberals who, Goodhart argues, fundamentally misunderstand British society and undermine its cohesiveness.

The Road to Somewhere cites a 2012 book by Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, to justify its arguments in much the same way that sociobiology was invoked to lend a veneer of intellectual authority to Goodhart’s earlier works. According to Haidt, according to Goodhart, liberals are very sensitive to issues of harm and suffering (appealing to human capacity for sympathy and nurturing) and also concerns about fairness and injustice (related to human capacities for reciprocity). All human cultures are sensitive to both of these but most also respond emotionally to three other things, loyalty to groups, authority and the sacred. As put by Haidt, “[i]t’s as though conservatives can hear five octaves of music, but liberals respond to just two, within which they have become particularly discerning.”

British Somewheres, Goodhart argues, are tuned to at least four of Haidt’s five octaves, being socially conservative and communitarian by instinct but not as religious as Americans. They are “most likely to be in the bottom three quartiles of income and social class and have not, in the main, experienced higher education. They tend to be older and come from the more rooted middle and lower sections of society, from small towns and suburbia – where nearly 40 per cent of the population lives – in the former industrial and maritime areas.” In world view “they do not generally welcome change and older Somewheres are nostalgic for a lost Britain; they place a high value on security and familiarity. They feel uncomfortable about many aspects of cultural and economic change, such as mass immigration, ‘an achievement society in which they struggle to achieve’, the reduced status of non-graduate employment and, he claims, more fluid gender roles.

The Road to Somewhere repeatedly insists that British supporters of anti-immigrant and anti-EU populism are mostly temperate and that their revolution against the status quo –the Brexit referendum outcome – is the product of a “decent populism”. British Somewheres, he claims are “moderately nationalistic and, if English, quite likely to identify as such”. At the same time he suggests that they have much in common with Trump supporters in the United States “who feel adrift or in some way unrecognised in our post-modern societies”. Goodhart maintains that similar dislocating changes have occurred in Britain and in the United States: “Skilled industrial employment which once provided a kind of social and economic ballast to our society has largely been swept away. An economic system which once had a place for those of middling and even lower abilities, now favours the cognitive elites and the educationally endowed – in other words the Anywheres.”

The answer, Goodhart proposes, is to lessen the emphasis on university education (which he blames for producing Britain’s Anywheres) and put more focus on apprenticeships aimed at skilling Somewheres to do jobs that are often filled by immigrants. He urges post-Brexit Britain to discriminate against immigrants in public sector employment, which presumably includes the NHS, where there is a strong dependence on immigrant doctors and nurses.

The last few chapters leave immigrants alone and worry instead about the damage to British social cohesion wrought by liberal ideas of gender equality. These chapters maintain that liberals have undermined social cohesion by encouraging the decline of traditional families and that British Anywheres have rejected (or should or will) come to reject liberal feminisms that promote ideas of freedom which can only be realised by the well-paid and well-educated. Women have made inroads into paid employment, with highly-educated women increasingly outperforming men in education and in the workplace. But this occurred, Goodhart laments, at considerable cost to society. He contends that liberal ideas of gender equality benefit Anywheres more than Somewheres and that “while upper income Anywheres preached equal status for all forms of childrearing they generally continued to practice relatively orthodox family forms themselves”. He laments that many women no longer contribute to social cohesion as homemakers engaged in traditional “female altruism”.

Goodhart sets up a narrative about gender and families that, placed alongside his claims that liberal elites are to blame for problems caused by immigration, amounts to nothing so much as the worldview expressed in the Daily Mail. There once was an England where men went out to well-enough paid jobs and women stayed at home, where children lived with both parents and all was well. Then came the feminists, and the immigrants.

On a number of occasions Goodhart has fancifully compared himself to George Orwell. Both went to Eton. Both, as he put it, became “insider-outsiders” who challenged and were rejected by the groups into which they were born. Although Goodhart has long presented himself as an apostate liberal it seems that his recent political journey has had much to do with the shift of power from New Labour to the Conservative Party in 2011 and that The Road to Somewhere seeks to surf the zeitgeist of Donald Trump’s electoral victory in the United States and of the Brexit referendum vote in the UK. And insofar as Goodhart is the son of Sir Philip Goodhart, a former Conservative MP, his nativist epiphany (or serial epiphanies) could be portrayed as a sort of homecoming to the patriarchal conservative tribe into which he was born. Except of course that some Conservative Party politicians supported membership of the EU and opposed Brexit. The Road to Nowhere repeatedly describes UKIP as a moderate nationalist political party and Nigel Farage as a fountain of common sense.

After finishing The Road to Somewhere, I read Haidt’s excellent The Righeous Mind, which Goodhart misrepresents as lending support to his arguments. Haidt draws on psychological research on how people perceive morality in different social contexts to argue for the kind of pluralistic liberalism advocated by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin. He sees psychology as a descriptive science, not one that demonstrates how people ought to think or act. He uses the term nativism to denote deterministic beliefs that nature trumps nurture: “If you pick nature, then you’re a nativist. You believe that moral knowledge is native to our minds. It comes preloaded, perhaps in our God-inscribed hearts (as the Bible says) or in our evolved moral emotions (as Darwin argued).” But nobody, Haidt would argue, is biologically hardwired to think or vote one way or another on a social issue. He lambasts the kind of sociobiological presumptions about human nature used by Goodhart as skyhooks in essays like “Too Diverse?”

As an academic interested in Irish responses to immigration I was drawn to Goodhart’s writings because these suggested how nativism might come to influence such responses. The enlargement of the EU in 2004 coincided with a referendum on citizenship in which almost 80 per cent of those who voted endorsed a proposal to remove an existing constitutional right to Irish citizenship from the Irish-born children of immigrants. These might be claimed by Goodhart as Ireland’s Somewheres. During the referendum debate Irish citizens were generally referred in the media as “nationals” and immigrants as “non-nationals”. Irish society appeared to be fully equipped with the kinds of us and them cognitive distinctions he has sought to promote in Britain.

My take on this, in a book called New Guests of the Irish Nation published in 2009, was that nationalism needed to be taken seriously but that the kinds of bounded national communities promoted by Goodhart were malleable political and institutional inventions that could be reinvented. The challenge as I see it in the Irish case is how best to foster future social cohesion though more inclusive conceptions of Irishness ‑ by turning immigrants into Irish citizens (which has begun to happen), and perhaps, over time, by slightly shifting the centre of gravity of Irish identity, as well as through social policies that leave nobody behind. Nations, as Benedict Anderson put it, are imagined communities and they have come to be reimagined over time.

As I began to write this piece in the immediate aftermath of the August 2017 terrorist atrocity in Barcelona, Irish newspapers featured articles with headlines such as “Irish family still in hospital as holiday became nightmare on Las Ramblas”. Goodhart has cited equivalent examples to demonstrate how bounded communities are inevitable. Yet, Norman Potot and his wife, Pearl Fernandez Potot, were immigrants from the Philippines who had just recently become Irish citizens. As far as the Irish media were concerned they were Irish because they held Irish passports. As far as Irish diplomats and government ministers were concerned they were entitled to assistance from their government.  

By and large since 2004 Irish political parties have not succumbed to anti-immigrant populism. Even during the post-2008 austerity period there was little or no hostility to immigrants within Irish politics. The reasons for this, I think, include a keen sense of the dangers, based on long experiences of sectarian conflict, of whipping up nationalist fervour. What became the Republic of Ireland had its equivalent to a hard Brexit a century ago and went through a period of cultural and economic isolationism. However, Ireland continued to haemorrhage its Somewheres through emigration during the half century that followed independence from Britain. Social cohesion, it became clear, could not be built solely on nationalist pieties. Since then, a half-century of anti-protectionist economic development ‑ a form of economic nation-building which opened Ireland to the European Union, globalisation and large-scale immigration ‑ has reduced emigration levels from what they might otherwise have been and greatly increased prosperity. Ireland’s future came to be seen to depend on bridges rather than walls.

1/2/2018

Bryan Fanning is professor of Migration and Social Policy at University College Dublin and the author of Migration and the Making of Ireland.

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