Wednesday 3 April 2013

A response from David Goodhart

[David Goodhart's response to my blog  is now posted below]
David Goodhart here
I agree with Martin! But can I just clear up Jonathan's original misunderstanding. He jumped on a couple of paragraphs in an excerpt of my book in the Daily Mail, and I think unfairly twisted them. I would not have expressed things in quite the blunt way that the Mail did (an excerpt often involves a bit of re-writing and simplifying, that is what happens and I am not blaming the Mail). But even in the Mail version "I" did not say that the Treasury policy was "driven" by a belief in the equal or greater importance of the welfare of Burundians.
I did report a conversation in which two influential figures in British public life, did say that was their belief. What the Mail did have me saying was that a liberal openness ("throwing the doors open" in Mail speak) was the "instinctive reaction" for many people in Whitehall and it helped "set the tone." A bit of an exaggeration perhaps but not the rank absurdity that Jonathan claims. But just for the record below is an extract from a piece in the last issue of the Sunday Times, that I did write, which tries to explain why politicians talk a lot about immigration but say so little, and also explains what I do believe about elite universalism.
"This is also about a gulf in political instinct [between most voters and many members of the policy elite] . I was struck by this two years ago dining at an Oxford college. When I said to my neighbour, one of the country’s most senior civil servants, that I wanted to write a book about why liberals should be more skeptical about large-scale immigration, he frowned and said, ‘I disagree. When I was at the Treasury I argued for the most open door possible to immigration … I think it’s my job to maximise global welfare not national welfare.’ I was surprised to hear this from such a senior figure in a very national institution and asked the man sitting next to the civil servant, one of the most powerful television executives in the country, whether he believed global welfare should be put before national welfare, if the two should conflict. He said he believed global welfare was paramount and that therefore he had a greater obligation to someone in Burundi than to someone in Birmingham. 
My dining companions were unusual. Very few people, even in the liberal elite, believe that the idea of human equality means that we have equal obligations to all people, everywhere. But there tends to be a more “universalist” assumption the higher up the educational scale you go.
The liberalism shared by much, though not all, of the political elite likes the idea of community in theory but does not see that a meaningful one excludes as well as includes. To this kind of liberalism people are rational, self-interested individualists existing apart from group attachments or loyalties. Much of modern economics and law are based on this model of how people behave. And if you accept the liberal premises then any defence of tradition or community is likely to appear irrational or, in the case of immigration, racist. 
There is a dilemma here, especially for the left, between the obligations of governments to prioritise the well-being of their own citizens and a more universal ethic that values the well-being of all humanity. As David Miliband has written: ‘The left is torn between a commitment to individual human rights for all people, whatever their nationality, and a recognition that communities depend on deep roots.’ By plumping for a New York refugee charity over South Shields, Miliband has perhaps made his choice.
But for most ordinary voters there is no dilemma here at all. They are moral particularists with a hierarchy of obligation that ripples out from family and friends to town and country and then rest of humanity. They believe that belonging to a nation means prioritizing the interests of national citizens before outsiders, if the two should conflict, and are therefore dismayed to discover that their government cannot give priority to their interests in the labour market or welfare system or housing list over someone from Latvia or Romania. 
British politicians, with the exception of those that want to quit the EU, are caught in a bind. They generally like talking about Britishness and “all being in it together” and, rightly, appreciate the value of moderate national feeling especially in a more fragmented and diverse country. Yet, as the ordinary voter  understands, those same politicians have agreed to the abandonment of national citizen preference within the EU. No wonder their speeches sound a bit hollow and technical."

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