Jonathan Portes, a former chief economist in the Cabinet Office under Tony Blair and leading immigration advocate, recently penned a critical review of David Goodhart’s The British Dream – a book which takes aim at Blair’s generous immigration intake. Knowing both men personally, as well as their views, I cannot but come away with an impression that the two have very different notions of national identity. Both have American-Jewish family background, but Portes’ Englishness tends toward the multicultural whereas Goodhart’s is anchored in a political nationalism rooted in historic traditions. The divide seems incommensurable, but maybe it’s not: rather than a one-size-fits-all national identity imposed from above, what if British national identity could emerge from below?

The Goodhart-Portes spat mirrors a wider chasm in political theory – and among politicians – between multiculturalists and integrationists. The debate is at least 25 years old, dating back to the publication of Will Kymlicka’s Liberalism, Community and Culture (1989). For multiculturalists like Kymlicka, ethnic groups should be publicly recognised because the majority culture is privileged in civic life and this demeans ethnic minorities. By contrast, integrationists, be they civic nationalists such as David Miller or liberal egalitarians like Brian Barry, insist only individual rights (not group rights) be recognised.

A country’s mode of ethnic conflict regulation – multicultural or integrationist – can be applied at three levels, the symbolic, the political, and the economic. In crude terms, economically the debate is between quotas or individual merit in jobs, contracts and admissions; politically, between quotas and individual merit in Parliament and government posts; and culturally, whether the national identity reflects multiple ethnic groups or the historic majority.

The economic and political questions can be bracketed for the moment: in the UK, there are no quotas for ethnic minorities in politics, and affirmative action is a weak reed. Instead, the action revolves around the cultural – is England a multicultural construction that ought to be constantly evolving in a pluralistic direction, or a historic nation which should integrate new immigrants into its traditions?

Goodhart calls for a national day and common historical narrative for native and immigrant alike, Tariq Modood for a community of communities. Meanwhile, there are those who envision England as an ethnic nation with a white British essence. The notion of racial purity must be dismissed as fascist, but white British identity is another matter – the white working-class in particular may rightfully ask how their identity fits within a multicultural story that is constructed in opposition to white Britishness.

Here I think we need to think about complexity theory and its handmaiden, localism, to help us cut the Gordian knot. Complexity theory places the accent on the emergence of simplicity out of complexity: the behaviour of scores of individuals in exchanging goods and information leads to market equilibrium; the complex strategies of individual species creates a balanced ecosystem, and so on. Rather than think of national identity as a fixed mould to be imposed on people from on high, we might imagine national identity and belonging as emerging organically out of the distinct viewpoints of individuals. Everyone, I argue, sees their nation through different local, ideological and ethnic lenses. If you are a white resident of an English market town, your England will likely be a green and pleasant land with a white British character. Minorities are at the fringes of this picture, associated with London and other cities. This is not just your perception of your village but of England and Britain, since, as a number of leading historians point out, your lived experience is the prism through which you view the nation as a whole. In rural England, this means you imagine an ethnic geography looking pretty much the same in the future as it does today and has in the past.

Yet if you are a Bangladeshi Briton from Tower Hamlets, your England is a multicultural community of communities, and only becoming more so with new waves of immigration. As a mixed-race Londoner, by contrast, your nation may well be a melting pot in which minorities and majorities are blending to form a new compound. Broadly speaking, less mobile whites, conservatives and those from homogeneous parts of the country are attached to England through their English ethnicity, and perceive the country as a largely white nation continuous with that of their forebears. Minorities, liberals and those from diverse areas like London understand England as polyglot, and are often advocates of multiculturalism or, like Goodhart or Trevor Phillips, a melting-pot integrationist nationalism.

Partisans of the three positions battle it out on the opinion pages and in the media, each wishing to give the full force of state backing to their zero-sum national story. But what if the nation can be all at once – if politicians can, through ambiguity and symbolism, recognise the validity of competing dreams?

For instance, David Cameron might laud the unrivalled mix of ethnic groups in London one moment, the magic of integration and intermarriage the next, and still comment favourably, as did John Major, on the settled ethnic continuity of England’s villages. Each message will be eagerly received by those attuned to its frequency and ignored by others. People generally hear what they want to hear, and all form attachments to the whole in their own way. Political parties thrive on this, adopting a constituency-based form of organisation which mobilises groups with widely differing views – think Muslim traditionalists in East London and trade unionists in Lancashire. They overlook their differences to coalesce behind Labour’s anti-Tory message. In Northern Ireland, the ‘constructive ambiguity’ of the Good Friday Agreement permitted each side to convince themselves the Agreement was in their communal interest, so it worked.

Therefore, so long as clear red lines safeguard women’s rights, freedom of expression and other basic liberties, politicians might remain elusive on ‘the’ national identity and tolerate wide differences in the way it is perceived around the country. People can form attachments to as many different Englands, or Britains, as they wish: regardless, the nation benefits. A unitary approach based on a limited set of ‘British’ characteristics, by contrast, flattens and alienates both minorities who wish to maintain their culture in perpetuity and white British who seek a deeper continuity between past, present and future.

Eric Kaufmann is Professor of Politics at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is currently working on a joint ESRC-Demos project on ‘Diversity and the White Working Class.’ He may be found on twitter @epkaufm and on the web at www.sneps.net.