Dreaming One Nation

David Goodhart’s book The British Dream is a work of polemical journalism and reportage, not of scholarship, and has strengths and weaknesses accordingly. The strengths are that there are many anecdotes and striking phrases, and there’s relatively little jargon. The weaknesses are that over-simplification is commoner than thoughtful and tentative nuance, and that too many facts and quotations are left unreferenced and therefore uncheckable. The book is reviewed for the Insted consultancy at http://leftcentral.org.uk/2013/05/16/dreaming-of-one-nation-labour-multiculturalism-and-race/

Although aimed essentially at the centre left of the political spectrum, where it has been well received by, for example, Jon Cruddas in the New Statesman, and where it chimes well with Labour’s One Nation rhetoric, the book is likely to be read also, and with an even warmer welcome, on the centre right.

The book’s valuable features include its insistence that issues of race and immigration should be rationally not emotively discussed, and that discussions should centrally include narratives, understandings and dreams about national identity and national history, and concepts of imagined community and emotional citizenship. Within this context Goodhart refers from time to time to Danny Boyle’s pageant at the opening of the 2012 Olympic Games as an iconic and vivid illustration of what the concept of One Nation can mean in practice. ‘When a country is changing very fast,’ he says, ‘it needs stories to reassure and guide it’, stories which are ‘about connecting majority to minority and old to new’.

The book’s unfortunate and disappointing features include its caricatures of multiculturalism, and of thinkers such as Bhikhu Parekh and Tariq Modood who have devoted their careers to thinking in depth about how multicultural societies such as Britain have developed; the weakness of its references to the importance of law and legislation; its embracing, in effect, of a Daily Express view of British Islam and British Muslims; its uncritical endorsement of the view that ‘humans are group-based primates who favour their own and extend trust to outsiders with caution’; its insufficient attention to the global and international context and to relevant issues of gender and social class; and its disinclination to consider the continuing influence of racisms in their various forms (behavioural/attitudinal; colour/cultural; personal/institutional; crude/subtle; street/dinner-table).

Goodhart describes himself at one point as a member of ‘the political tribe of north London liberals’. His dream is indeed that of such a person. For others, though, in view of the shallow generalisations and stereotypes on which it is built, it has the elements of a nightmare.

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