At a time when the very words immigrant and refugee have been distorted, hijacked and corrupted by the political right, the Commission for Racial Equality's Roots of the Future: Ethnic Diversity in the Making of Britain project is both timely and welcome.
The project has two components: an illustrated book on the history of ethnic minorities in Britain and an exhibition on the themes of the book, which will tour throughout England, Scotland and Wales. Both book and exhibition set out to lay to rest the myth of the "immigrant" as economic drain and social liability.
Since the Celts first immigrated to these isles during the first millennium, there has been a rich and enriching stream of settlers coming from the four corners of the world to settle here and to contribute to Britain's economy, culture and society.
The book documents the waves of settlement and highlights some individuals to illustrate the diversity of influx. How many people think of Handel, Jonathan Swift, G B Shaw or Oscar Wilde as immigrants? Where do we think Selfridges came from (Gordon Selfridge was an American who came here) or, at the other extreme, the Peabody Trust housing charity for the poor (George Peabody, who was also an American)?
While most people know about the banking Rothschild family's German-Jewish ancestry and Marks amp; Spencer's Russian Jewish roots, how many people know about Noor Inayat Khan, the only Asian working as an undercover agent with the French resistance for the Special Operations Executive during the Second World War, who was captured and killed at Dachau concentration camp? Or about Olaudah Equiano, the black 18th century author and anti-slavery campaigner? Or Major James Africanus Beale Horton from Sierra Leone, an army medical officer and author, also in the 18th century?
Alongside the stars are the unsung workers who have not only contributed to the British economy through their labour but have also provided employment for other British workers. Not many of us will know, for instance, that among self-employed immigrant men, 10 per cent of Asians and 20 per cent of Chinese created jobs for others compared with 6 per cent of the general population.
Roots of the Future is more than the sum of its parts, demonstrating the breadth of ethnic minority contribution to the life of this country throughout history to the present day. From October, a curriculum pack developed by the National Youth Agency and designed for youth workers and teachers of young people aged 12 and upwards will be available through the NYA.
Roots of the Future is available through major bookshops or Central Books (0181 986 4854) priced Pounds 9.95. For information about the exhibition tour schedule, ring the Roots of the Future coordinator at the CRE on 0171 828 7022.