Douglas Carswell is a member of what has always – to my mind – seemed like a very sharply defined cohort. These were the individuals who seemed to pop into existence in roughly 2014 to give texture, colour and population to the long Brexit story. Each abruptly disappeared in around 2019, when this story came to an end. They were narrative devices, each with their own quirks. Douglas Carswell was one; Gina Miller and Gisela Stuart were two more. Arron Banks, whom William Hague had famously “never heard of” before 2014, made a dramatic intervention in the EU referendum that seemed to announce him as a permanent factor in public life. Each of these people were real national figures, but few outlived the historical moment that made them. Only Steve Bray has escaped this fate, through sheer will.
The point is, Douglas Carswell seems to belong to a particular era, one which has now passed. His contribution to the Telegraph on Friday was similarly anachronistic. It seems to have been transplanted from that same age. Writing on Israel-Palestine, Douglas warns that a new spirit of cultural relativism has caused a crisis of confidence in Western values, but that these values really are superior, and this insight should inform our border policies.
This isn’t a new idea. This ‘Clash of Civilisations’ boilerplate was very much the party line of the British centre-Right in the 2010s. It was, again, a product of a particular moment in history: after the Salman Rushdie episode and the Trojan Horse scandal, but before the return salvo of historical sin and decolonisation in 2020. It reflected the beginnings of a consensus that levels of migration had perhaps been too high, and that mentioning the costs of this was no longer beyond the pale. As with any new idea, the rhetoric was halting and notional. Multiculturalism could be criticised on conceptual grounds, but there was rarely any brass-tacks discussion about the number of arrivals. The British people didn’t have a right to see this number reduced, only an abstract right to be heard on the subject, and to experience ‘that sense of control’. This was the kind of extended philosophical throat-clearing that precedes a new settlement, not a new settlement in itself.
And it was always a strange formula. Its proponents, like David Cameron and Michael Gove, spoke of an essentially unsolvable conflict between Islamism and the West, one which could end with a traumatic ‘Reformation’ in the Ummah, and with social revolution in England to iron cultural differences flat. It was abstract and apocalyptic in premise, far in advance of anything felt by the average denizen of the Telegraph comments section, who simply wanted to see the numbers brought down.
It fell flat anyway. Migration and state multiculturalism had created ‘parallel societies’, maybe so, but the British state still insisted on swelling their ranks with new arrivals. Prevent, the flagship policy of Muscular Liberalism, is now mainly used to harass teenagers. This philosophising over multiculturalism, Islam and the West may have been meant as a preamble to a new settlement on culture and migration, but it wasn’t one that ever arrived.
This principled argument against multiculturalism always skirted over the practical one, perhaps wilfully so. The British people haven’t experienced the failure of mass migration as an abstract clash of civilisations, but in child rape gangs in provincial cities, whose hatreds are ethnic, not confessional.
Seldom mentioned is the other great argument against mass migration, which is that it’s been decisively voted against. One phrase from the 2010s was that it was now time for a national debate on immigration. One was had, and the restrictionists won. Every Parliament returned for the last 30 years has had a commission to tighten the border. Add a referendum result to that pile, and the result is the largest democratic mandate for any measure in modern history.
And so, if this kind of philosophising was insufficient in 2013, in 2023 it’s simply malicious. The abstract critique of multiculturalism reopens a debate that has already been won at the ballot box. It drags everything back to a protean stage, and implies that the argument for restriction needs to be made anew. These figures are not entitled to subject their constituents to yet another ‘conversation’ about migration, one which implicitly cancels their vote. Having won an 80-seat majority in 2019, Boris Johnson didn’t feel the need to restate the case for Brexit. In 2023, politicians’ worthy treatises on multiculturalism only show that they’re unwilling to extend this same courtesy to the voters; it’s something that should arouse suspicion, not praise.