Strangers and friction

28th May 2004 at 01:00
Immigration has been shaping British culture for centuries. Sean Lang finds a thought-provoking book that counters current hysteria over asylum seekers

Bloody Foreigners: the story of immigration to Britain

By Robert Winder

Little, Brown pound;20

Immigrants, as Robert Winder points out in this thought-provoking survey, are the less welcome flip-side of the intrepid, pioneering emigrants. We can deplore the famines or the land clearances that forced British emigrants to seek a new life overseas, and we can admire their courage, but you wonder about the reaction when they arrived in the United States or Australia: "I don't know, they come over here, taking our jobs, stinking the place out with their pie and chipsI" Winder even imagines Norman Tebbitt as an immigrant in South Africa (and probably failing his own cricket test).

The whole point about immigration is that people don't usually choose to pack up everything and leave: it is forced upon them by events that could happen to any of us. It's a sobering thought. It's hard to recall, with newspapers whipping up public hysteria about asylum seekers and the British National Party recruiting at the school gate and even in the staffroom, but the British used to take some pride in having opened their doors to those fleeing persecution abroad. This may ring hollow now, but Winder is impressively fair about the difficulties under which the modern immigration service is operating. Britain does not take 25 per cent of the world's refugees, as some people apparently believe; the figure is closer to 2 per cent. And asylum seekers do not get pound;113 of taxpayers' money a week; they get pound;35.54 - and if that seems generous, you try living on it.

Winder gives a full account of the voyage of the "Empire Windrush" from Jamaica in 1948, undertaken entirely on the initiative of the captain, who had a lot of passenger spaces to fill. Loyal Commonwealth citizens, many with happy memories of the warm welcome they had received when stationed in Britain during the Second World War, listened in disbelief to radio reports of their likely reception in peacetime. They had a naval escort, not to protect them, but to turn them back if they made any trouble. Yet they were soon being actively encouraged to come to take the jobs no one else wanted.

One MP went all the way to British Guiana to invite people to seek work in Britain; his name was Enoch Powell.

But, of course, the story didn't start in 1948, or anywhere near it. Since neolithic times there has been a steady stream of peoples coming and going to these shores: from medieval German merchants through 16th-century Dutch protestants, to the Indian and Chinese lascars of Victorian Limehouse and the Italian hurdy-gurdy men and Russian communists of the early 20th-century East End. Familiar patterns emerge: a tendency of groups to gather in their own areas, such as London's Steelyard, where the German Hanse merchants lived, or Brick Lane, with its ever-changing population of French Huguenots, east European Jews, and Bengalis.

Nor has the immigrant's reception changed much over time. Medieval England was as inhospitable to Jews as anywhere else in Europe, and anti-semitism wasn't far below the surface in the Second World War. A society lady who invited the local American commander to send half a dozen men round to tea stipulated "no Jews" and was taken aback to find six black GIs on the doorstep. As one of them explained: "Colonel Cohen no make any mistake, ma'am."

Some immigrant groups have been viewed more favourably, at least for a while. There was sympathy for the Ugandan Asians fleeing Idi Amin in 1973 - perhaps because the dictator also victimised white Britons - and for the Vietnamese boat people a few years later, but such sympathy seldom lasts.

The usual reaction has always been suspicion, resentment, and an irrational fear of being overrun. Winder gives a vivid picture of the ugly persecution of Germans and anyone whose name sounded vaguely German (which included someone called Smith) during the First World War, and some of the things said of Italians in Victorian London or of east European Roma today sound chillingly similar to Nazi descriptions of Jews. Not for nothing, you feel, do the British use the same word "alien" for a foreigner and for an extraterrestrial.

This all renders even more surprising the success with which each wave of immigrants has managed to assimilate into the "native" culture. Even African slaves, more numerous in Britain than most history books allow for, could fit in, at least as domestic servants. There was a craze for African pages among the 17th and 18th-century gentry, and there were many black faces in Nelson's navy. We even get the word "rookery" from the poor tenements that housed so many Africans in Georgian London. In much the same way the Indian corner shop or the Chinese take-away slipped seamlessly into the fabric of British life.

Where do we draw the line between "them" and "us"? Marks and Spencer, Moss Bros, chiming ice cream vans, late-night fish and chips, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Triumph motor cars, Handel's "Messiah" sung at Christmas - all of them the epitome of Englishness, and all the products of immigrants. Indian cuisine has so infiltrated the national palate that we talk of "English breakfast tea", though not a leaf of it comes from England. Yet the Chinese, one of the least assimilated of immigrant communities, is one of the most successful. It becomes increasingly difficult to find any satisfactory definition of "British" that makes any sense except in the most multicultural terms. Put simply, to be British is to be an immigrant.

Winder gives a balanced account of race issues in education, including Ray Honeyford's complaints about what he saw as racial segregation in Bradford primary schools and the tension between the high expectations of the parents of Caribbean children and the low expectations of their teachers.

He doesn't mention citizenship education, but this book is tailor-made for it. There is plenty of material for a good school assembly, but much also to inform a staff training day. Ultimately, this book is not the story of immigration to Britain; it is the story of Britain itself.

Sean Lang is research fellow in history at Anglia Polytechnic University and honorary secretary of the Historical Association

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