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Thatcher and Immigration: Can the White Majority be Reassured?

18/04/2013 10:37 BST | Updated 17/06/2013 10:12 BST

Margaret Thatcher's passing tends to divide supporters of free markets from those who back trade unions and a larger welfare state. However, Thatcher also presided over a period of relatively low immigration, when far right movements like the National Front were in abeyance. David Goodhart, author of the thought-provoking new book, The British Dream, is a supporter of the welfare state who nevertheless argues that Thatcher got it right on immigration and endorses her view that the white working-class in diverse areas 'need to be reassured rather than patronised.'

Yet even if net immigration is reduced to 100,000 a year, ethnic change in Britain will remain brisk: minorities are considerably younger and still have somewhat larger families than the white British. If white anxieties are powered by the sense the white British are becoming a minority, then the challenge will not abate and far right support will remain buoyant. No amount of talk about the sunlit uplands of a new Britishness can conceal the fact that being a member of a dwindling ethnic majority is conducive to alienation: just look at the mood of Northern Ireland's Protestant working class in depopulating areas like Belfast's Shankill.

Upwardly mobile whites can identify with their achieved status, but the working class cannot, and therefore remains more committed to English ethnic nationalism. How can one reconcile Britain's growing ethnic minorities with its often-alienated white working class? Is trampling on the white nationalism of the ethnic majority and the multicultural comforts of minorities in the name of integration really the way forward? Perhaps there's an alternative that can better satisfy everyone.

Here a powerful insight in Goodhart's book caught my eye: there are many different ways to be British. I would go further - there are many ways to think about what England is now and what it ought to be tomorrow. Everyone, I argue, sees their nation through a different local, ideological and ethnic lenses. In short, it's time to localise the national identity debate.

If you are a white Briton in a market town, your England will be a green and pleasant land with a white British character. Minorities are at the fringes of this picture, associated with London and other cities. This is not just your perception of your village but of England and Britain, since, as a number of leading historians point out, your lived experience is the prism through which you view the nation as a whole. In rural England, this means you imagine an ethnic geography looking pretty much the same in the future as it does today and has in the past.

Yet if you are a Bangladeshi Briton from Tower Hamlets, your England is a multicultural community of communities, and only becoming more so with new waves of immigration. If you are mixed-race and living in London, your imagined England may well be a melting pot and you may glimpse a future when minorities and majorities have blended to form a new compound.

Broadly speaking, less mobile whites, conservatives and those from homogeneous parts of the country are attached to England through their ethnicity, and perceive the country as a largely white nation continuous with that of their forebears. Minorities, liberals and those from diverse areas like London understand England as polyglot, and are often advocates of multiculturalism or, like Goodhart or Trevor Phillips, a colour-blind civic nationalism.

Partisans of the three positions battle it out on the opinion pages and in the media, each wishing to give the full force of state backing to their one-size-fits-all national story. But what if the nation can be all at once - if politicians can, through ambiguity and symbolism, recognise the validity of several hopes and dreams?

For instance, David Cameron might laud the unrivalled mix of cultures in London one moment, the magic of integration and intermarriage the next, and still comment favourably, as did John Major, on the settled ethnic continuity of England's villages. Each message will be eagerly received by those attuned to its frequency and ignored by others. People generally hear what they want to hear. Political parties thrive on this, adopting a constituency-based form of organisation which mobilises groups with widely differing views - think Muslim traditionalists in East London and trade unionists in Lancashire. They overlook their differences to coalesce behind Labour's anti-Tory message. In Northern Ireland, the 'constructive ambiguity' of the Good Friday Agreement permitted each side to convince themselves the Agreement was advancing their communal aims.

Therefore, so long as clear red lines safeguard women's rights, freedom of expression and other basic liberties, politicians could remain elusive on national identity and tolerate wide differences in the way the nation is perceived around the country. People can form attachments to as many different Britains as they wish: regardless, Britain benefits. A unitary approach based on a fixed set of characteristics, by contrast, flattens and alienates both minorities who wish to maintain their culture and white British who seek a timeless continuity between past, present and future Englands.

The multicultural, colour-blind and ethno-nationalist visions coexist, and point to distinct national utopias. A multiculturalist's England seeks an increasingly multi-ethnic kaleidoscope like the island of Mauritius. Here ethnic boundaries multiply and persist through time. Against this, an integrationist idyll sees groups melting to produce a 'new man', a hybrid of influences never yet seen. This model was propounded in America by Crèvecoeur in the eighteenth century, Emerson in the nineteenth and Zangwill in the twentieth. In England, it is associated with Daniel Defoe's The True Born Englishman (1703).

Finally, a version of white nationalism that respects basic liberties is possible, in which the white majority absorbs minority blood - perhaps overshadowing the contribution of the initial white British population - while imbibing only the most superficial cultural influences along the way. In the England of the 2200s, what Michael Lind terms the 'beige' white population may, like today's racially ambiguous American Indians or Hawaiians, narrow the focus of its ancestry myths to a narrow set of founders - even as its actual ancestry goes global. Anglo-Saxons, Normans and Celts will prove a lot more useful in setting the English apart from the similarly dusky whites of continental Europe and the United States than England's post-1900 waves of superdiverse global migrants. This selective reading of the past will link the future English majority to its forebears, whose phenotype has, after all, been immortalised on canvas, film and statuary. Furthermore, 'whiteness' may matter more in an Asia-centric world where Europe feels smaller, accounting for a tiny 5 percent of the globe's population and output.

This vision won't allay the anxieties of the fringe of race purists, but it offers hope to many white British people that they will remain the ethnic majority in England. Importantly, it avoids the alienating narrative of 'get used to it' ethnic demise that fuels far right popularity. The truth is nobody knows what will come to pass, but it makes sense for politicians to adopt a hands-off approach, setting basic liberal parameters while tipping its cap to a wide range of competing visions: ethnonational, hybrid and multicultural. With localism and mutual respect, each can flourish, producing both greater liberty and a more powerful attachment to the country.