Foreign Influences: Take Away Great Britain's Long History of Welcoming Immigrants to Its Shores and We Would Find Ourselves Stripped of Much That Is Now Considered British
Winder, Robert, Geographical
The tabloids often present immigration as a contemporary phenomenon. And it s true that it has been boosted by the ease of modern communications. Job ads in Manchester can be pored over in Harare and Bangalore on the day they are posted, and flights can be booked with a few keystrokes. But though it takes new forms, migration is an ancient story, one that has sculpted British society as surely as water and wind have groomed its landscape. Nothing could be more natural: early humans were nomadic, drifting with the seasons in search of easier food or a kinder climate. What we see today is merely the continuation of this ancient habit.
Much of what we see as typically British is the fruit of such migrations. The ancient British bloodstream, matured by repeated conquest, is a mongrel brew from Iberia, Bohemia, Germany, Rome, Scandinavia and France. The Normans brought the castles and cathedrals that lie at the heart of our classic scenery, planted the grassroots of agribusiness in their monasteries and installed a baronial class system that underscored British life for nearly 1,000 years. They put the language through finishing school by rubbing French polish onto the awkward Celtic-Roman-German-Danish tongue and turning it into English.
In the Middle Ages, religious conflict sent Protestants fleeing west in search of a haven as the first refugies. In Elizabethan times, Flemish craftsmen lit the touchpaper of the first industrial revolution, turning England from a sheep farmer into a textile worker. French Huguenots brought business acumen, military expertise and mercantile wit. As industrious midwives to the birth of British capitalism, they embodied a potent new idea: the Protestant work ethic.
As the Empire expanded, British capitalism rollicked along on the back of cheap labour provided by African slaves, Irish and Italian peasants, and Asiatic seamen, or Lascars. At home, the tone was set by Hanoverian monarchs who brought a German flavour to British culture, giving upper-class taste a whiff of horses, cards and dinner after the opera. Even in Victorian times, the royal family spoke German at home, while bestowing on its people the 'traditional' British Christmas and opening the nation up to the German entrepeneurs, bankers and teachers who helped reinforce its supremacy in business and finance.
Hungry migrants from Ireland, Italy and the colonies continued to put their shoulders to the wheel of British commerce, providing the raw material--cheap labour--without which capitalism couldn't thrive. And, at the end of the 19th century, some 120,000 Jewish refugees from Russia landed in eastern ports and turned shuns into business turbines. Michael Marks came as a 17-year-old refugee from Russian Poland before setting up a stall in Leeds. "Don't Ask the Price," he said. "It's a Penny." The stall grew into Marks and Spencer, and the man himself became St Michael, the tasteful patron saint of the take-it-back-if-it-doesn't-fit jumper.
Migration from the Commonwealth during the post-war period is the logical reverberation of Britain's own adventures overseas. European imperialism was a terrific engine of migration, uprooting and mixing the world's population with scant regard for the consequences. Some 350 million people of African descent live outside Africa; 250 million people of European descent live outside Europe; nearly 30 million people of Chinese descent live outside China; and almost ten million South Asians live elsewhere. …