Britain, as this month’s issue reminds us, has long been a country of immigrants. Far-right groups like the British National Party may mutter darkly about ‘indigenous Britons’, but it only takes half a brain cell to realise how ridiculous that notion is. From the Anglo-Saxons and Norsemen who poured across the North Sea in the Dark Ages to generations of Huguenots, Dutchmen, Indians and Jamaicans, waves of migration have left a deep imprint on British life.
Even the language we use – a blend of old West Germanic, Norse and Norman French, full of imported words such as bungalow and pyjamas – testifies to our ethnic and cultural heterogeneity. And far from being an all-white nation, Britain has long had a significant black population. One estimate suggests that as early as 1800, the black community in our ports and cities was some 10,000 strong.
And yet, despite the manifold contributions migrants have made to British life, from Hengist and Horsa to Karl Marx and John Barnes, fears of immigration are still an extraordinarily powerful political force. Even the most colourful incident of this year’s election – Gordon Brown’s catastrophic dismissal of Rochdale pensioner Gillian Duffy as a “bigoted woman” – was directly linked to immigration.
“You can’t say anything about the immigrants,” Mrs Duffy had said after raising the issue of welfare, adding: “All these eastern Europeans what are coming in, where are they flocking from?” And whatever Gordon Brown thought of her, there is no doubt that many ordinary voters shared her sentiments: after the election, more than a few Labour MPs remarked that immigration had been one of the chief issues mentioned on the doorstep.
What is remarkable, though, is how little voters’ fears have changed. Researching my new book on the early 1970s, I was struck by the similarities between today’s debate and that surrounding the arrival of the Ugandan Asians, after Idi Amin expelled them in 1972. In the tabloids there was talk of a ‘deluge’ of immigrants, a ‘flood’ of newcomers that would put Britain on ‘panic stations’. And although the people of Leicester boast today of their multicultural spirit, the city fathers at the time did all they could to stop refugees coming to the east Midlands.
The most common explanation for anti-immigration sentiment is that it is basically a form of disguised racism. But I have never been convinced by that argument. Even National Front supporters back in the 1970s recognised that there were other issues at stake, often directing their fire not just at the immigrants themselves, but at their own social superiors.
People felt abandoned by the “wine and cheese set with their posh accents and big words”, said a gruff local councillor from one north London estate with a strong National Front presence. He denied being a ‘racialist’ himself, praising the estate’s midweek football league for integrating “dozens of black kids, and Greeks, and Turks”. But he had no time for his council colleagues or the community workers, all “long hair and plimsolls” who “come here and think they can tell you how to live. These people fall over backwards to do anything for black people,” he said contemptuously. “They give money to squatters, Bangladeshis, the lot.”
These kinds of sentiments will be immediately familiar to anybody who has followed the immigration debate over the last few years. As far back as 1968, in fact, the journalist Peter Jenkins astutely remarked that there was more to Enoch Powell’s appeal than pure racism. Powell, he wrote, exploited the feeling that “the politicians are conspiring against the people, that the country is led by men who have no idea about what interests or frightens the ordinary people in the back streets of Wolverhampton”.
In my view, that same sense of resentment and abandonment, which often has far more to do with unemployment, crime and urban breakdown rather than race itself, is what really lies behind the current unease about immigration. For decades, politicians have tried to avoid discussing the issue, frightened that they will fall foul of public prejudice. The irony is that the public are probably much more tolerant than they think. Our new leaders ought to get the issue out in the open, come clean about the figures and dispel a few myths. Better that, surely, than to let it fester for another 50 years.