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The British Dream, By David Goodhart

Immigration severs elite from masses – but does the panic about controlling it deepen that rift?

In 2004, David Goodhart wrote an essay called "Too Diverse?" in Prospect magazine, which he then edited. Liberals, he suggested, had to face up to a "progressive dilemma".

Too much immigration undermined social solidarity. We had to choose between the two. The essay caused considerable controversy, but became a key point of reference for many, both Labour and Tory. Goodhart has now developed that essay into a book.

At its heart are three key themes: first, the chasm between the elite and the public on the issue of immigration; second, the corrosive effect of immigration on community solidarity and traditional identities; and third, the problems caused by what Goodhart calls "laissez faire multiculturalism".

Since the 1960s, Goodhart suggests, the public, faced with the reality, have become increasingly hostile to mass immigration. The political class, driven by abstract universalist ideas, has continued to see it as a good. This has led to the perception of an elite out of touch with the views and needs of ordinary people, which has helped fuel the rise of populist groups, such as UKIP. There is clearly a germ of truth in this argument. Yet the story is far more complex than Goodhart allows.

From the 1960s on, policy-makers broadly adopted a "twin track" strategy, imposing increasingly restrictive immigration controls while also creating a framework of legislation aimed at outlawing racial discrimination and facilitating the integration of minority communities. Far from being driven by a universalist impulse, the political class, initially at least, moved in the opposite direction.

In 1960 the Labour Party opposed, on high moral grounds, Conservative plans for immigration controls. Eight years later, the Labour government introduced perhaps the most openly racist piece of legislation in postwar history, the 1968 Immigration Act whose sole aim was to prevent Kenyan Asians from entering Britain.

That shift was symbolic of how the political class had come to view immigration. From Labour's infamous "virginity tests" on subcontinental brides, to Margaret Thatcher raising the spectre, in a 1978 TV interview, of Britain being "swamped by people with a different culture", the attitudes of the elite and the realities of immigration policy were very different from the story Goodhart tells.

It is true that by the Noughties much had changed. There was now a broad acceptance of racial equality and a greater openness to immigration in certain government circles. Up to the mid-1990s, Goodhart observes, net immigration was close to zero. Since 2004, more people have arrived each year than in the whole period from 1066 to 1950. Yet, even as the Treasury pushed greater immigration as an economic good, the Home Office continued to project the image of immigration as a social problem requiring tighter control. Asylum seekers in particular became the target of mean-spirited policy.

What had developed was a certain elite contempt for the views of working-class voters, and the perception that such voters were often driven by racism, a perception symbolised by Gordon Brown's dismissal of pensioner Gillian Duffy as a "bigot" during the 2010 election. This, however, had less to do with elite attitudes to immigration than with the disconnection of the public from the political process.

We can see this in the second of Goodhart's key themes: the impact of immigration in disrupting communities, eroding traditional identities, and creating an England "increasingly full of mysterious and unfamiliar worlds". Virtually every wave of immigration has been met with similar fears and anxieties. What is different today is that there really has been a transformation in working-class life.

The first post-war immigrants arrived during a period of full employment, an expanding welfare state and a sense of working-class power. By the time of the new wave of immigration at the beginning of this century, that landscape had been transformed. Britain's manufacturing base had disappeared, working-class communities torn apart, and the welfare state begun to crumble. Many sections of the working class felt voiceless and detached from politics.

These changes helped create that gap between masses and elite that rightly worries Goodhart. Immigration played almost no part in fostering these changes. Immigrants became, however, symbolic of the shift. Because working-class voters saw their problems through the lens of immigration, so the liberal elite could often dismiss their concerns as merely an expression of racism.

Real problems need to be addressed with the growth of minority communities in Britain. These have arisen not from immigration as such but from the attempts to manage diversity. This takes us to the third of Goodhart's themes: the problems created by multicultural policies. He distinguishes between "liberal" and "separatist" multicultural policies. Liberal multiculturalism amounts to "colour blind equality". It failed because the authorities failed to tackle racism. It was replaced by "separatist" multiculturalism, which "privileges minority identities over common citizenship", wants to promote "ethnic difference", and regards society as a "community of communities".

I agree with much of the argument. I, too, have long been a critic of multiculturalism, and Goodhart generously quotes me in his book. Yet his critique is different to mine. I am hostile to multiculturalism not because I worry about immigration but because I welcome it. The lived experience of diversity is something to celebrate. The problem has been the attempt the authorities to manage that diversity through multicultural policies by putting people into cultural boxes and using those boxes to shape public policy. The result has been disastrous, sidelining progressive movements within minority communities and giving legitimacy to conservative, often religious, figures.

Goodhart accepts much of this, and indeed relates part of this story. Yet, because he sees the issue through the lens of immigration, he falls back on the argument that the real problem stems from the values and behaviours of certain, particularly Muslim, communities.

For some, Goodhart's argument about immigration is brave and necessary. For others it is nasty and racist. I belong to neither camp. Goodhart raises important questions. But his answers are flawed and his story of how we have got here implausible. Goodhart's three key themes – the gap between the elite and the masses, the erosion of social solidarity, the problems of multiculturalism – are all crucial issues. The trouble is, we cannot begin to address them until we stop being so obsessed by immigration.

Kenan Malik's new book 'Multiculturalism and its Discontents' will be published in June by Seagull Books