The Christian Response to Racism, Part 1:
ideological assaults on equal rights
by Fr. Ian Dalgleish


The Brotherhood of Man
One year in the late 1960’s or -70’s the Catholic primary school I attended taught its pupils a song entitled - if I remember rightly – “The Brotherhood of Man”. The chorus went:
“The brotherhood of man/ keeps growing. The brotherhood of man/ keeps sowing/ the seeds of a new life every day”.
Such a cheerful, optimistic stance about the prospect of a united world rested on the conviction that beneath the numerous distinctions of culture, race and creed, all men and women share a single human identity and therefore possess equal dignity and rights.
Not that such principles were accepted by everyone at the time, of course. This was the period in which Enoch Powell sought to mobilise the fears and prejudices of the British electorate, predicting that within fifteen or twenty years “the black man will have the whip hand over the white man” and campaigning to prevent any further immigration from the Caribbean and Asian countries of the Commonwealth.
For Christians, however, the vision of a fundamental solidarity encompassing every member of the human race arises from the testimony of the Bible and from the tradition of theological reflection on human nature and social life. It should be uncontentious and even self-evident, at least from the Christian standpoint. But now, in 2004, it has come to appear almost utopian against the backdrop of the vindictive attitudes which are widely held towards refugees, asylum-seekers and ethnic minorities of any description, in Britain and in many European countries as well.
For many years the right-wing press has maintained a campaign of denigration against immigrants, portraying them as criminals, “scroungers”, and “welfare tourists”, misrepresenting their motives, exaggerating the numbers seeking entry to Britain, and fomenting an ugly, braying nationalism. The extreme right and the fascist fringe, embodied by the British National Party, has raised its political profile by espousing the Islamophobia of the French National Front and has won borough council seats on the basis of outright lies - about plans for mass housing of asylum-seekers, for example, in Broxbourne, or about the existence of Asian paedophile rings in Yorkshire.
Further, according to Barbed Wire Britain, 1,800 people, mostly asylum-seekers, are imprisoned in British detention centres, without trial, time limit or right to bail. Bullying and ill-treatment by staff have frequently led to mental ill-health and even suicides, or attempted suicides, on the part of detainees. [1]
Meanwhile throughout 2004 the Labour Government proceeded with another Asylum and Immigration Bill, which was attacked not only by Amnesty International and The Refugee Children’s Consortium Council but also by the Law Society and the Bar Council, for its intention to further limit asylum-seekers’right to appeal and for threatening to deny welfare payments to refugees and render their children homeless. [2]
During the past year my attention was drawn to two magazine articles which especially seemed to articulate the mean-spirited and even racist attitudes which abjure the universal human values shared by Christian and secular humanists.
In February, David Goodhart, the editor of Prospect magazine, published an article, later also reprinted in part in the Guardian newspaper, arguing that a society which becomes “too diverse” cannot maintain the necessary basis for a welfare system. Then the (still current) Summer issue of the City Journal, published by the American free-market think tank, the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, carried an article by Theodore Dalrymple assailing the supposedly failed concept of multiculturalism.
David Goodhart: the trade-off between “diversity” and “solidarity”
David Goodhart’s article was entitled “Too Diverse?” [3] There seemed to be two main planks to his argument.
First, he says, Britain has become an extremely diverse country and now lacks its former cohesion and sense of shared values. The new diversity is multifaceted: different generations have conflicting notions of morality and lifestyle and there are also longer-standing variations of region and social class. But it quickly becomes clear that Goodhart considers ethnic differences, resulting from immigration, to be the greatest threat to social solidarity.
Second, and more precisely, Goodhart claims that a high level of diversity – “a wide range of peoples, values and ways of life” - undermines solidarity - “high social cohesion and generous welfare paid out of a progressive tax system”. He quotes the Conservative social security spokesman David Willets as having crystallised the problem during a speech on welfare reform:
“The basis on which you can extract large sums of money in tax and pay it out in benefits is that most people think the recipients are people like themselves, facing difficulties which they themselves could face. If values become more diverse, if lifestyles become more differentiated, then it becomes more difficult to sustain the legitimacy of a universal risk-pooling welfare state. People ask, ‘Why should I pay for them when they are doing things I wouldn’t do?”…Progressives want diversity but they thereby undermine part of the moral consensus on which a large welfare state rests”.
This piece of standard Tory rhetoric, a thinly-disguised attempt to discredit the very principle of welfare, encourages Goodhart to launch his own attack on the concepts of universalism and internationalism. He prefers to start instead from the more “common-sense” position that human beings are “social, group-based primates with constraints, however imprecise, on their willingness to share”, a view reinforced by psychologists who argue that “we feel more comfortable with, and are readier to share with, and sacrifice for, those with whom we have shared histories and similar values. To put it bluntly – most of us prefer our own kind”.
Many people today admit to being racially prejudiced, he says, quoting another psychology study to support the claim that “[f]eelings of suspicion and hostility are latent in most of us.” So when NHS resources are spent on visitors, outsiders and non-citizens, people’s objections are merely instinctive, to be expected. In the sixties, when immigrant families gained the housing points necessary to move from poor accommodation to superior council properties, the resentment of white working class residents was, in Goodhart’s view, only natural.
Goodhart believes that liberals and those who value solidarity are foolish if they refuse to acknowledge the instinctive “constraints” on people’s willingness to share and to recognise solidarity, especially in relation to the more recent groups of immigrants. There is a danger of further fragmentation, he argues, in the fact that on current trends, “about one fifth of the population will come from an ethnic minority by 2050, albeit many of them fourth or fifth generation”. By this criterion, most Catholics in Britain, including myself, must count as members of a potentially divisive ethnic minority, having roots among the economic migrants from southern Ireland, Italy, Poland etc.!
Goodhart congratulates David Blunkett for recognising the above constraints and finishes by recommending that the government reassures the majority population that immigration is under control. “[S]mart aspiring Indians or east Asians” should be allowed to enter the country, he declares, but he queries the wisdom of welcoming “people from poor parts of the developing world with little experience of urbanisation, secularism or western values”. Finally he proposes a two-tier welfare system – limited parts only available to foreign workers and certain refugees – and I.D. cards for unnamed “logistical reasons” and as a “badge of citizenship”.
There is a great deal one could say about Goodhart’s article. It appears as yet another exercise in New Labour “thinking the unthinkable”, i.e. providing intellectual justification for abandoning the traditional commitments of the labour movement and adapting to the neoliberal agenda. Stripped of its roundabout language, non-sequiturs and irrelevant illustrations the article simply recapitulates familiar right-wing positions on immigration, welfare and British “national identity”, bolstered by appeals to traditional conservative ideology.
First, merely to say that Britain in the year 2004 is a “diverse” country is vague and analytically useless. There are different forms of diversity which are not necessarily related to each other. Further, a diverse society is not the same as a fragmented or atomised one. Mixing these different ideas together in a woolly and imprecise way enables Goodhart to link one form of “diversity” – social fragmentation – with another - ethnic diversity, and indeed to blame the former on the latter.
As far as diverse lifestyles and conflicting moralities are concerned the truth is rather that they are a natural consequence of a mass consumer economy, shaped by powerful and sophisticated methods of marketing and advertising.
A consumer economy promotes individual freedom of choice as, in effect, a moral absolute, and instils appetitive, individualistic attitudes. The huge emphasis on individual consumption in such areas as personal health, physical appearance, diet, home renovation, leisure and entertainment cannot fail to break society up into isolated units. The consumer economy inevitably loosens the grip of a single ethical code and dissolves the bonds of mutual responsibility, service and neighbourliness which constitute “community”.
But in addition to the natural tendencies of a consumer economy part of the programme of the Thatcher governments during the 1980’s was to deliberately attack the whole principle of solidarity and any idea of social life which stood as an alternative to the free market and its economic individualism. Need we recall yet again Thatcher’s infamous remark about there being “no such thing as society” – only individuals and families?
From the destruction of heavy industry, and the disintegration of the communities that depended on them, to the anti-union laws and the sale of council housing, both the concept and practice of social solidarity - especially working class unity and collective action - were scorned and destroyed, and replaced by the ideology of self-reliance, individual enterprise etc. John Major’s disastrous “Back to Basics” campaign, and his nostalgic elegy for an England of old maids cycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist, warm beer and long shadows across the country grass was a pathetic and futile attempt to restore some sense of moral and social unity to the bleak wilderness of a totally marketised society.
One would have thought that if Goodhart was genuinely concerned about the low level of social cohesion in modern Britain, he might have shifted his gaze away from the minor issue of ethnic diversity and settled on these far more significant facts of recent social and economic history. But one suspects that from the very start of his enquiry he denied himself access to certain avenues.
A second point concerns his heavy reliance on a well-worn line of argument from the political right.
Faced with left-wing appeals to class solidarity and the vision of a more egalitarian society, conservative theorists and pundits have always fallen back on a simplistic and reductive “human nature” argument.
Human beings, the argument goes, instinctively pursue their own self-interest and possess only a limited capacity for self-sacrifice, altruism, cooperation. The great virtue of capitalism is its realism: it is perfectly adapted to a common-sense view of human nature and mobilises competitive, self-interested motives in the form of entrepreneurship, creativity, a desire to better oneself, raise one’s standard of living etc. Socialism by contrast is a noble but unrealistic utopia which will always fail because psychologically and emotionally it goes against the grain.
Goodhart’s references to people preferring their own kind and having innate suspicions towards strangers is an extension of this familiar Tory thesis, aimed – despite his qualifications and circumlocutions – at justifying prejudice towards ethnic minorities and construing them as scapegoats.
“Human nature” is not only self-interested and egoistic but expresses itself equally in tendencies towards fellow-feeling, sympathy, and solidarity. Whether these tendencies are restricted to members of one’s own social, ethnic or cultural group or applied universally, to all human beings, depends mainly on prevailing social conditions and the influences governing people's ideological formation. In propitious circumstances generous, sympathetic and cooperative qualities and the ability to identify with fellow human beings will emerge naturally. Apart from other situations, this is the experience of those caught up in revolutionary struggles or engaged in large scale collective action.
On the other hand an enormous amount of propaganda is required to buttress the “dog-eat-dog” ideology of the profit system, and to foster primitive attitudes of fear and hostility towards the supposed threats to “our” prosperity and sense of security. Without the efforts of politicians and tabloid journalists to divide and conquer the public at large, and the racist demagoguery of various fascist outfits, civilised attitudes towards “outsiders”, and a consciousness of fellowship and hospitality, would take shape far more readily.
Lastly, Goodhart’s characterisation of the welfare state is factually and historically inaccurate. Systems of welfare and social security did not arise as an exercise in consensual “risk-pooling” but as a reaction by governing circles to pressure from strong unions, the threat of potentially revolutionary working-class movements and the apparent success of the collective Soviet economy.
It may be difficult for us to imagine now, but from the 19th century onwards, governments and business leaders were gravely worried about the growth of international socialism and the prospect of revolution, and various initiatives were undertaken to mitigate the effects of unbridled capitalism and weaken the basis of collective resistance. Benevolent schemes organised by large employers for their own workforce, for example, were often conditional on employees promising to refrain from forming a trade union or organise independently.
The corporate counter-revolution which began in the Reagan-Thatcher era removed restrictions on international trade and facilitated the movement of capital around the world. From the standpoint of business this reduced the importance of national barriers and enormously weakened the ability of labour parties and unions to protect working people. As the Guardian economics commentator Larry Elliot wrote regarding globalisation:
“In reality, globalisation…represents the final triumph of capital over labour, since the corollary of the deregulation of finance is the shackling of trade unions. It means that national governments are left powerless in the face of multinationals who will relocate at the first whiff of interventionist policies”.
In the face of such weakened forces, successive Conservative and New Labour governments have felt free to scale back welfare provision, reduce corporate tax and concentrate on creating attractive investment opportunities, including opening public services wherever possible to exploitation by private companies.
This is the reality behind Goodhart’s picture of a welfare system operating with limited amounts of cash and strained by recent influxes of immigrants.
He chooses not to reflect on the fact that despite steady economic growth and falling unemployment, a growing percentage of Britain’s huge wealth is now owned by a tiny minority, while the poorest fifth of the population owns a smaller fraction of the total than it did twenty years ago. Instead he perpetuates the myth that in the cause of serving the greatest good of the greatest number a conscientious government faces tough choices about the levels of tax with which to fund welfare provision, and difficult moral dilemmas about who deserves to benefit most and who must lose out.
His justification of the resentment felt towards “non-citizens” who receive welfare payments, health treatment or housing echoes the Conservative propaganda during the eighties against welfare cheats who preferred a benefit cheque to a wage packet and single mothers who fell pregnant so as to jump the queue for council housing. Like the Tories in relation to the layer of native poor which they themselves created, Goodhart now identifies the foreign poor - asylum-seekers and migrant workers - as the easy targets needed to deflect attention away from the reversal of post-war redistributive commitments and the organisation of tax policy for the benefit of the rich.
There is nothing original in the positions advanced by Goodhart. The only novelty is the fact that they are now being advocated by a self-described “progressive” and recommended for acceptance by the left-liberal circles represented by Prospect and The Guardian.
Continued in Part 2.


Notes and References
[1] http://www.barbedwirebritain.org.uk/index.shtml, and http://www.irr.org.uk/index.html.
[2] http://www.refugeecouncil.org.uk/news/june04/relea067.htm.
[3] http://www.prospect-magazine.co.uk/ArticleView.asp?P_Article=12394.
[4] The Guardian, 27th May 1996.