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5 September 2013

David Goodhart: Confessions of a liberal heretic

There are many problems with describing politics in terms of left and right – and one of them is that it encourages us to see the main political parties as mirror images of one another. Of course, symmetries do exist on issues like public expenditure (the left wants more, the right wants less). But beyond these matters of political economy, there’s something profoundly asymmetrical about the red and blue corners of the British political arena.

In particular, the mainstream right is much more tolerant of ideological differences than the mainstream left. British Conservatives are able to hold sharply differing views on hot-button issues like abortion, immigration, climate change, capital punishment or foreign intervention and still co-exist. To an increasing extent the same does not apply on the other side of the aisle. Thoughtful leftwingers can quite easily find themselves beyond the pale if they think (and say) the 'wrong' things.

Dissident lefties like the Blairite Dan Hodges or the liberal interventionist Nick Cohen often find a friendlier reception on the right than the left. The same goes for David Goodhart, the editor of Prospect. His thought-crime was to question the liberal left orthodoxy on immigration. In a confessional piece for Standpoint – the centre-right counterpart to Prospect – he gives an account of himself:

  • “To express it in a slogan, I am pro-immigrant but against mass immigration. I believe in human equality and the unity of the human race, but I am sceptical about the economic benefits of large-scale immigration for the bottom half of British society, and worry about too much rapid change leading to segregation of communities and a withering of the kind of fellow-feeling needed to sustain welfare states.”

By his own admission, he was for most of his adult life an unthinking subscriber to the standard line:

  • “I had barely given immigration a thought until well into my forties — though as a journalist of leftish sympathies I was reflexively in favour of as much of it as possible and vaguely aware of having two immigrant grandfathers (both American). Like many metropolitan liberals I had very little direct experience of immigration yet I came to see it as beyond the normal trade-offs and interest calculations of political life. It was simple: good people were in favour of it, and bad, bigoted people were against it.”

Though it’s still a touchy subject on the left, the wider debate on immigration has become a great deal more open in recent years. It is now possible to address issues of identity and citizenship without being accused of racism. Yet for many decades, the grip of political corrrectness was stronger on this issue than any other. Goodhart has some interesting ideas as to why this was:

  • “Britain did not in the 1970s develop a post-imperial language of national citizenship and identity. Many on the Right felt ambivalent about fully extending citizenship to non-natives (who were just starting to arrive in significant numbers), and too many young lefties like me thought that welcoming the newcomers meant discarding the nation and its traditions. A more coherent "middle way" between universalism and a tribal nationalism is what we have been reaching for ever since...”

There’s an important lesson here for the right. When conservatives have nothing constructive to contribute on an issue, it gives the doctrinaire left an opportunity to establish an ideological monopoly, one which can take a long-time to break open.

We should therefore take encouragement from the fact that the modern-day British right is a place of diverse opinions and lively debate. Unlike the American right, conformity is not confused with authenticity. 

But you may disagree.


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