In 2009, Lionel Shriver, the American author of the award-winning novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, and columnist at the Spectator, shared a deeply felt wish. As an immigrant living in London for twenty years plus, her cri de coeur was that: “when I go back to New York … I want to have the feeling of going home.” If a more recent article is anything to go by, the idea of home remains important to her. Most of us require some sense of belonging to a place, and to its shared values and customs. This provides a sense of security that helps us navigate our lives.
Home may be a place we love, but it is often a place we needed to leave, as Shriver’s own life suggests. Perhaps we left in search of a better life, or simply out of curiosity, but eventually when we go home, we find that the place we left has changed, as have we. There’s no going back. Home, it turns out, is not really the fixed entity we’ve been holding in our hearts.
There are numerous social structures and spaces in which a feeling of belonging can be encouraged or discouraged, including the family, school, locality, city, region, nation and—ultimately—the world. As the daughter of first-generation Indian immigrants to the UK, I grew up as an ethnic minority of one at my primary and junior schools. I attended harvest festivals and sang hymns printed in blue, cloth-covered books—practices far removed from those of my parents’ home culture. Yet that did not prevent me from feeling very much at one with both the school and my peers. Looking back, I think one of the most important reasons for this was that all the staff at my school held the same expectations of me as they did of everyone else. And my parents did not see the differences between Indian and British culture as a threat. Nor did they feel disrespected, because they weren’t.
Shriver’s article offers a conservative version of nation and belonging. It is an account with which I profoundly disagree for three main reasons. First, Shriver is historically mistaken; second, she wrongly implies that demographic change implies political change; and finally, her views are unethical.
The lineages of white Britons in their homeland commonly go back hundreds of years … Yet for the country’s original inhabitants to confront becoming a minority in the UK (perhaps in the 2060s) with any hint of mournfulness, much less consternation, is now racist and beyond the pale. I submit: that proscription is socially and even biologically unnatural.
She is correct in pointing out the difficulty of voicing concerns about increases in immigration without being labelled a racist; a democratic society needs to debate difficult issues openly and in good faith. But she conflates politics, culture and biology and implies that shared ancestry is the only valid basis for authentic citizenship and a sense of belonging. This is a version of ethnonationalism, which presupposes a continuity and homogeneity of culture, language and history, among people living in the same geographical space over time.
This claim is questionable. In The Making of English National Identity, Krishan Kumar questions the views of those historians who date the emergence of a distinct English national identity to Chaucer’s time, when the loss of English territory in France led the monarchy to focus on “the English realm.” These scholars argue that the development of common law and the centralization of power, as monarchs battled the Welsh, Scots and French, contributed to this inward focus, while the emergence of vernacular English language and literature may have contributed to a new sense of Englishness. It was in this period that the Lollards called for the Bible to be translated into English and Chaucer wrote his works, which some see as evidence of “a certain bluff Englishness … common sense and a healthy dislike of foreigners—even when they come from no further afield than Norfolk.” But this idea, Kumar has shown, is a nineteenth-century invention. In the fourteenth century, Kumar argues, Middle English vernacular was not the language of the whole population. While it may have been the most popular spoken language in England, Latin and French continued to be used for important matters of state and dominated literary culture.
Shriver’s appeal to an idea of nationhood based on centuries-old ancestral lineages is further weakened if we consider the profound changes created by industrial capitalism. As cities grew, internal migration increased, weakening people’s ties to specific local towns and villages. But, as James Vernon explains in Distant Strangers: How Britain Became Modern, the main transformation was in social relationships, as people moved from relatively static rural communities to cities whose populations were more fluid, and the scope for voluntary associations hugely increased. This remade society at every level and brought new possibilities and freedoms, as well as the loss of old certainties.
Eventually, the capitalism expanded beyond the boundaries of the nation state, through colonialism. In the process, new, if unequal, relationships were established between citizens of the metropole and of its colonies. After World War II, these relationships changed as a result of new political and economic realities. From then on, immigration has been a fact of modern life, and often used as a scapegoat and distraction from internal political and moral problems.
Clearly, the realities of modern life affect questions of nationalism, identity and who is legitimately eligible for citizenship as well as people’s chosen cultural affinities. Even if you agree with Shriver’s claim that “white Britons” have centuries-old cultural legacies, British men were not citizens in the sense of having a say in the political arrangements of their country until the Reform Acts of 1832, 1834 and 1867 and women were not full citizens until they achieved equal suffrage in 1928. The development of political citizenship was won largely through the efforts of those who rightly thought their contributions to society should be recognised in the political sphere. Later, the right to citizenship was also extended to immigrants from Britain’s former colonies, many of whom had cultural affinities with Britain before ever setting foot here.
These postcolonial relationships have weakened and changed over time. Today, immigrants come from a wider range of countries and do not necessarily have prior affiliations with British culture. The cultural dissonance which Shriver alludes to is real. However, the development of the modern political nation state has also created public, civic and work spaces that allowed groups to mingle, who would previously have lived very separate lives. Shared national politics leads to a shared national culture.
People concerned about immigration numbers often assume that a nation’s public wealth and cultural goods are fixed quantities in need of careful rationing, and therefore conclude that their fears are warranted. This economistic argument entirely misses the important questions: what cultures do immigrants come from, and what is the state of Britain’s own culture into which we want them to integrate? The most important problems we face are political and moral, rather than demographic.
The Displacement of Politics
The problem we face today is not the spectre of cultural swamping by immigrants, as Shriver fears, but of political disenfranchisement, made easier by the decline or demise of those political and civic organisations through which the majority of people could traditionally make their views heard. When Shriver notes that the white British cohort has fallen to 79% of the UK’s population and that this means that the number of “non-white, non-native Britons diminishes very quickly,” she is missing the elephant in the room. The failings of the British political class, which have led to the failure of our politics per se, have also led to this one-sided view of citizenship and belonging. Cultural affiliations—as important as they can be—cannot be the basis of democratic politics.
Democracy requires commitment to universal moral standards, expressed in politics and public policy. Cultural affiliation is too subjective and divisive to be an adequate substitute for a sense of political citizenship. Ethically, we should uphold freedom of movement and moral equality for all individuals. However, we are social as well as ethical beings, and as citizens of a politically defined nation, we have the right to decide how much immigration we wish to accept, what the criteria of citizenship should be and so forth, but we need to work out how to balance these practical requirements with our moral commitments.
Statistical measures—such as immigrant numbers—do not necessarily reflect people’s commitments to our values or allow us to predict how our society will develop. The apocalyptic scenarios involving immigration painted by Shriver and others obscure the nature and extent of the problem we actually face. The problem is that people are disillusioned with politics, not that we have too many immigrants.
Values and Integration
According to Shriver, there is a tipping point at which the social consensus threatens to come undone, when there are too few people who share the values of the host culture. This cultural element is the overriding criterion for classification as an insider or outsider. She writes:
Most people are capable of hospitality towards foreigners who arrive in modest numbers, but balk when outsiders are so populous that they seem to be taking over.
But adults aren’t simply destined to espouse the values of the culture they were born into any more than they have to stay in one geographical place all their lives, as most people did in pre-modern societies. In a modern, liberal society, values are freely chosen. There is no reason why an immigrant from a very different culture may not choose the values of the place where she settles. Many become immigrants precisely because of the values they know they will encounter in their adoptive country. Or they may arrive with different values and aspirations, and then change and adapt. For example, as Shriver herself has acknowledged in a conversation with Remi Adekoya, while recent immigrants often favour large families, “birth rates tend to come down as they settle.”
Shriver writes that “a third of British school children are already from ethnic minorities; in 20 years, ethnic-minority children will constitute more than half the students in state schools.” She doesn’t spell out what the problems with this scenario would be, but then she doesn’t need to. Those who loathe Britain and its culture are likely to see this as a positive development with which to morally improve an education system they see as beset with racism. On the other hand, those who, like Shriver, are fond of Britain and its culture, are likely to see this as a harbinger of further depredations in Britain’s schools.
But there is no logical connection between the number of immigrants and the quality of a nation’s education system. The issues that may arise are practical questions involving staffing levels, suitable buildings, resources for teaching English language and so forth, which can be resolved through consultation with experts and democratic deliberation between government and the citizens it represents.
Shriver holds a classic liberal view on the curriculum: “Ultimately, western classics belong to everyone.” But her liberalism is sorely absent in her fear-driven response to immigration:
One of the things that’s happening in parts of Europe and in a lot of the US is that we’re crossing what I think is a mathematically identifiable tipping point where we have strained the local population’s natural tolerance, natural welcome, natural enjoyment of the interesting and new. Suddenly, what they’re experiencing instead is akin to invasion. It’s a sense of being colonised, of being taken over.
Shriver’s words would no doubt delight Kehinde Andrews, a well-known supporter of critical race theory, who has argued that anti-racist activist/educators should aim to “colonise” educational institutions, rather than merely call for decolonisation. Politically, Shriver and Andrews differ greatly, but they share a mechanistic view of the individual and of society. Andrews tells white people they need to be ashamed: Shriver tells white people they need to be afraid. Some choice.
Thankfully, there are signs that most people, irrespective of their colour or ethnicity, do not share Shriver’s fears for the future of Britain. Of course, polls and questionnaires do not always accurately represent societal attitudes, but it is notable that in a 2020 Ipsos Mori Poll on attitudes to immigration only 31% of respondents in the UK and USA supported stopping immigration altogether; most people agreed that it should continue to some degree. What of the threat to cultural continuity? A recent HEPI (Higher Education Policy Institute) poll revealed that most respondents favoured expanding the educational curriculum in a balanced way to encompass western and non-western material. Explicitly pro-western curricula garnered only minority support; so, too, did explicitly anti-western curricula. Finally, 77% of respondents in a recent poll said that they did not think white skin was needed for an English identity.
As the daughter of immigrants, I congratulate British citizens for being as tolerant as my parents had hoped they would be. Of course, polls are far from the complete picture, but they do cast doubt on the claim that most Britons see themselves as culturally under siege, or at least, not from immigration. What the polls do suggest is the growing distance between the values of the majority and those of the elites who hold power in cultural and academic institutions. This sense of cultural estrangement from Britain’s own public institutional norms comes on the back of decades-long political disengagement, detailed in Bernard Crick’s report, Education for Citizenship and the Teaching of Democracy in Schools (1998). Unfortunately, the authors of that report did not take sufficient heed of Emile Durkheim’s insight in his 1909 essay “A Discussion on the Effectiveness of Moral Doctrine” that schools cannot teach morals that are not already shared by society at large. Citizenship and democracy, like morality, can be taught about in schools, but they take hold indirectly, through example and persuasion. Most importantly, if democracy and citizenship are undervalued, this is a problem for the adult political sphere. Laying the blame on teachers—or immigrants—is an unhelpful deflection.
Many brown-skinned immigrants, like my father, moved to Britain because they saw it as the home of liberal values, which were most clearly expressed in the idea of a universal education system with a common curriculum. The people who first began to move away from a belief in liberal education were the policymakers and professionals in charge of it. In the late 1960s and 70s, not long after my father’s arrival, educationalists faced the prospect of providing a higher level of education on a mass scale. They responded by moving away from a liberal ethos.
The introduction of comprehensive schools in 1965 and the rise of the school leaving age in 1972 (first announced in 1964), created a new challenge: an unprecedented increase in pupils from working class homes where education was not always so highly regarded. Where could they find sufficient teachers? New teaching colleges were established, populated by trainees whose education differed from that of their predecessors. Then people began to ask: do “non-traditional” students, who would not previously have stayed on at school, really need the same classical, liberal education as traditional fifth- and sixth-formers (sixteen to eighteen-year-olds)? Wouldn’t they prefer something “more relevant” to their own experience or to the economy—perhaps a curriculum designed to give them “better life chances” or—more recently—to make them “better social justice allies”?
Universal, liberal education was all but doomed from the moment the educational establishment backed off from implementing it. This regressive step was taken with little or no help from immigrants.
While schools and culture play an important role, the nation is perhaps the most important factor in engendering a sense of belonging—not because of any blood and soil mythology, but because in a democracy, the nation’s boundaries define the space in which those who govern can be held accountable by those who are governed. It is here where institutional arrangements are agreed that affect the social and civic spaces where shared social experience can be fostered or hindered, and social solidarity strengthened or weakened in ways that allow room for cultural differences, but do not view them as defining people’s politics.
When Shriver distinguishes between immigrants who assimilate easily, and those who don’t, or says that, in the US, the mainly white Irish and Italians managed to assimilate easily to become “civilizational kindred people,” the implication is that they are more authentic than more recent non-white immigrants. This is wrong. It is not racist to discuss immigration, or to express concerns. But when she conflates biology, morals, culture and politics, and views demographic statistics (which are descriptions of a single feature of populations) as determining the course of society, she is being logically incoherent. Worse, she ends up reneging on the universalist values and Enlightenment cultural traditions she wishes to uphold.
Shriver herself has rightly spoken out about some of the effects of political disenfranchisement. She has been a vocal critic of cancel culture, and she is right: it is a serious problem if people cannot speak out freely, even if they speak clumsily or offensively. It is better to allow people to voice their fears out in the open. Yet Shriver’s courage in speaking out does not validate her analysis. The real problem is the weakness of her argument. Even if it’s intended as a critique of the elite and their casual disregard for the concerns of the majority, Shriver’s argument provides a statistical fig leaf for the intelligentsia’s insecurities about immigration, as well as for its prejudices against the working class, with their perceived propensity for tipping over into violence.
Between the immigrants on the boats and the indigenous population who allegedly fear them, lies society itself and all the opportunities it offers for people to think, discuss, argue, persuade, demand, resist and improve the conditions of life—both material and non-material—for all. If, in Britain today, frank, open, public conversation is in dangerously short supply, please, Lionel, don’t attribute this to immigrants. The culprits are the technocrats who evicted huge numbers of British citizens, of all ethnic origins, from the political home they used to own.