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Multicultural or monocultural? A house near Brick Lane in London’s East End decorated for a Bangladeshi wedding (photo: Cate Gillon/Getty Images)

I recently attended a conference about the refugee crisis. It was a serious gathering in a country house with many experts and a few people from the front line providing alarming glimpses of Europe’s southern and eastern borders — looking increasingly like Europe’s version of the Mexican-US border.

At several points during the two-day discussion the academics, NGOers and government officials talked about migration flows as if they were generals moving troops around the battlefield. There is, for example, a big youth bulge in the Western Balkans and in many of the 40 African cities with more than a million residents and, at the same time, several Western European countries have rapidly ageing populations. So, hey presto, argued several delegates, let’s make it easier for the former to move to the latter and we have a “win-win situation” if only European politicians would show political leadership: code for ignoring public opinion.

This idea appeared to have quite widespread support. Yet it blithely ignores the fact there is such a thing as society. Societies are not just random collections of individuals who happen to live in physical proximity and into which millions of people from elsewhere can be easily transplanted.

Successful societies are based on habits of cooperation, familiarity and trust and on bonds of language, history and culture. And if our European societies — so attractive to millions of refugees banging at the door — are to continue flourishing they need to retain some sense of mutual regard between anonymous citizens, which means keeping inflows to levels that allow people to be absorbed into that hard-to-define thing called a national culture or way of life.

Most people in Britain and the rest of Europe when faced with images of desperate people do feel compassion — many act on it as individuals by donating to charities and most of us want our governments to do something to alleviate the suffering. But there are also clear limits — both financial and emotional — to this compassion. Most of us want to be generous without encouraging further flows and without damaging our own country’s social and cultural infrastructure. High levels of regular immigration in recent years mean Britain is already struggling in some places to properly integrate incomers, especially those from more traditional societies.

This ought to be common sense, especially to the sort of politically engaged people at my conference who were mainly on the Left. Yet when it comes to immigration the Left abandons its normally communitarian instincts and becomes Thatcherite in its individualism. Why not another 500,000 desperate people? After all what is there to integrate into? We are all human beings, are we not? The universalism of the Left — based on its historic commitment to race equality — meets the “there is no such thing as society” individualism of the liberal Right.

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Tim Waite
July 5th, 2016
9:07 AM
Lev Lafayette : your'e misinterpeting what what David Goodhart means by ' Thatcherite Individualism 'in this context . . Read the whole paragraph again and you;ll see where he's coming from ! He's saying both the liberal right and the modern progressive left converge on the ' there's no such thing as society ' viewpoint .

Lev Lafayette
January 6th, 2016
10:01 AM
> Thatcherite in its individualism. I'd rather suggest that is not the case.

Observer of the Scene
November 5th, 2015
10:11 AM
It also means less free speech and more sex crime. What's not to like for libertarians and feminists?

October 29th, 2015
1:10 PM
This is an excellent article; integration is indeed a central issue that the liberal left tends to neglect. The tendency to forget communitarian roots and regard migrants as economic units is indeed puzzling and illogical. Many self-identified progressives stand right there shoulder-to-shoulder with Peter Sutherland and the corporate globalists.

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