David Goodhart’s British fantasy

David Goodhart's book on immigration and the UK, the British Dream, hasn't been released yet.  But on what I know (I've discussed these issues with David numerous times and he kindly asked me to read part of the draft) it will have a tremendous amount of sociologically interesting anecdote but a rather selective, at best, reading of the evidence.

Post Date
27 March, 2013
Reading Time
8 min read

David Goodhart’s book on immigration and the UK, the British Dream, hasn’t been released yet.  But on what I know (I’ve discussed these issues with David numerous times and he kindly asked me to read part of the draft) it will have a tremendous amount of sociologically interesting anecdote but a rather selective, at best, reading of the evidence. I suspect I will agree to a considerable extent with some of the conclusions on the broad approach to integration, while disagreeing violently with immigration policy prescriptions that I consider very poorly reasoned and economically damaging. 

[UPDATED 11pm 27/3 – SEE END]

But meanwhile I wanted to pick up on one point David has raised in two articles, which strikes me as not just wrong, but outlandish, and makes me wonder about the coherence of his general thesis.   In the Mail he wrote: 

“There has been a huge gap between our ruling elite’s views and those of ordinary people on the street. This was brought home to me when dining at an Oxford college and the eminent person next to me, a very senior civil servant, said: ‘When I was at the Treasury, I argued for the most open door possible to immigration [because] I saw it as my job to maximise global welfare not national welfare.’I was even more surprised when the notion was endorsed by another guest, one of the most powerful television executives in the country. He, too, felt global welfare was paramount and that he had a greater obligation to someone in Burundi than to someone in Birmingham.”

And he repeated this in the Guardian

“In busy offices up and down the land some of Britain’s most idealistic young men and women – working in human rights NGOs and immigration law firms – struggle every day to usher into this society as many people as possible from poor countries.They are motivated by the admirable belief that all human lives are equally valuable. And like some of the older 1960s liberal baby boomers, who were reacting against the extreme nationalism of the first half of the 20th century, they seem to feel few national attachments. Indeed, they feel no less a commitment to the welfare of someone in Burundi than they do to a fellow citizen in Birmingham”

So apparently UK immigration policy, from the Treasury downwards, has been driven by a common objective, shared by the liberal elite, of “maximising global welfare not national welfare” – with that of somebody from Burundi having the same value, from a policy-making perspective, as that of somebody from Birmingham.  To describe this as a straw man is far too generous. It is such obvious nonsense that it is completely inexplicable that anybody as intelligent as David could possibly have got to the point of writing it down – if he were not blinded by a preconceived viewpoint that has absolutely nothing to do with the reality of UK policymaking. Just think about it for, say, 10 seconds. If it had been the case, what would policy have actually looked like? Well, for a start, if the Treasury cared as much about Burundi as Birmingham we’d presumably have allowed free movement of people from Burundi – they should have just as much chance to get a job in London, or access the NHS, as UK natives.   Coincidentally, we do actually know how many people born in Burundi are resident in England and Wales, from yesterday’s Census release:  a grand total of 4,169 or about 0.008% of the resident population (and about 0.05% of the Burundian population).   Moreover, we would have been spending (per capita) on aid to Burundi about what we spend on public services in Birmingham. In fact, when we had an aid programme to Burundi, it was worth about £2 per head per year; Brummies, like the rest of us, get £10,000 per head or so, very roughly.   At a more macro level,  it is hardly a secret – you would expect nothing less from a responsible finance ministry – that the Treasury, under both this government and the previous one, has done its level best to stop the 0.7% target for overseas aid being written into law. This is not how an organisation that was trying to maximise global welfare would behave. So what was the real goal of UK immigration policy in the 2000s? It was hardly a secret.  To state the obvious, policy-making in the Treasury, as on other policy issues, prioritised overall UK economic welfare, for which – being a quantitative department – it tends to regard GDP as being a pretty good indicator.  Now, many people would argue that for immigration policy, which affects the level of population as well as that of GDP, GDP per capita is a better measure (and I’d agree) – although the Treasury tends to point out that in the short term it’s GDP that matters for the public finances.   In any case, politicians, media and the public focused on UK GDP – as they still do – as the most important indicator of the Treasury’s success. Not surprisingly, so did and does the Treasury, nothing if not a political department. The result was that within Whitehall the Treasury,  with its focus on growth and hence the economic gains from immigration, waged a continual battle with the Home Office, whose raison d’etre was immigration control.  Meanwhile, many outside – including David – criticised the government, and especially the Treasury, for seeing immigration through an exclusively economic lens, without thinking enough about social cohesion and wider cultural impacts. These are perfectly legitimate debates, which I won’t go into further here; but certainly they were live both in the Treasury and around Whitehall, as well as outside, in the 2000s.  Indeed, you only have to read the now notorious 2001 Cabinet Office paper (I was the lead author) “Migration: An Economic and Social Analysis“, which was the basis for policy development for the rest of the decade, to see the tensions even then.  That concluded that the overarching aim should be “to promote sustainable growth and a stable, secure and tolerant society”.  But the point is that no-one – and I mean no-one, in any Department, regardless of their views on immigration policy – ever propounded the view that the interests of the UK and its economy and society should be anything other than paramount.  DFID would occasionally make the case from the sidelines that we should at least think about the global impacts, positive and negative,  of remittances, brain drain and circulation, but in this area its influence was marginal. David may not like the fact that immigration policy in the 2000s was driven primarily by the benefits, actual and perceived, to the UK economy, rather than by the cultural concerns that he thinks should be paramount and which he believes argue for a more restrictive policy. But to suggest that they were actually the result of a policy that prioritised Burundians over Brummies is not just a dream – it’s a fantasy. 

PS. If anyone is interested in a rational, well-researched and evidence-based account of how immigration policy developed in the 2000s (done using proper research methods and published in a respected, peer-reviewed academic journal), then I suggest this, by Alex Balch, of the University of Liverpool. 

David Goodhart tweeted me shortly after this was published, saying:

“What a silly thing to say of course I don’t believe, or say, that UK policy was run for benefit of Burundi – dotty non-sequitur”


I certainly did not say that the treasury ran immigration policy for the benefit of Burundi etc this is babyish”

Here are the first three paragraphs of his Daily Mail article.  

“Among Left-leaning ‘Hampstead’ liberals like me, there has long been what you might call a ‘discrimination assumption’ when it comes to the highly charged issue of immigration.Our instinctive reaction has been that Britain is a relentlessly racist country bent on thwarting the lives of ethnic minorities, that the only decent policy is to throw open our doors to all and that those with doubts about how we run our multi-racial society are guilty of prejudice.And that view — echoed in Whitehall, Westminster and town halls around the country — has been the prevailing ideology, setting the tone for the immigration debate.”

He refers to Whitehall  and Westminster here, but specifically to the Treasury later.  And, obviously, as the quotes above show, it was David, not me, who decided for some reason (mainly alliteration, I suspect) that Burundi was the appropriate poster boy (in both his press articles) for this particular supposed worldview.

If this doesn’t imply directly that people in the Treasury and elsewhere in Whitehall and Westminster wanted to “throw the doors open” to Burundians, I don’t know what does.  I agree that the idea that UK policy was run for the benefit of Burundi is indeed completely dotty – but I leave it to readers to decide whether it was mine or his. If you think I might be guilty of selective quotation, please do read both his articles in full.