Thursday 23 May 2013

The Aliens have Always been Landing, by Leslie Wilson

shouted a headline in the Sun last week. This, Professor David Coleman announced, would be due to 'soaring immigrant birthrates', fuelled by 'record-breaking levels of immigration, coupled with the departure of thousands of Brits for a better life abroad,' (white Brits, presumably, though I can think of quite a few black Britons who have had to go abroad in order to get the level of jobs they are qualified for, due to discrimination) and it would 'represent an enormous change to national identity - cultural, political, economic and religious.'

While Roger Scruton mourned, on the pages of the Guardian - which now and again gives its readers a taste of how the other half thinks - over 'Englishness,' which is being trashed by the modern Tory party, including the common law of England, which, he argues, is now being supplanted by 'the abstract idea of human rights, slapped upon us by European courts.'  
Cricket on the village green, via Wikimedia Commons

I'm not qualified to pronounce on the accuracy or otherwise of Coleman's statistical analysis - though I know it has been challenged, and in any case, projections of future birthrates are notoriously unreliable. But what I want to talk about is the narrative that both of these men are drawing on, a narrative about a historic Britishness - or Englishness - which should be unchanging and stable, but is threatened with dilution by incoming foreigners or foreign ideas. Scruton, too raises the threat of 'wave upon wave of immigrants' who want the benefit of our 'hard-won assets and freedoms.' (He doesn't mention that Britain's past prosperity was greatly contributed to by looted assets from the countries we colonised.)

The immigrants are at the gates: seething verminous multitudes who will destroy our treasured culture.

Flick back through history to 1938, and you can see a headline from the Daily Mail. GERMAN JEWS POURING INTO THIS COUNTRY. 'The way stateless Jews from Germany are pouring in from every port of this country is becoming an outrage,' inveighed Mr Herbert Metcalfe, a magistrate at Old Street, referring to the 'aliens entering this country through the 'back door' - a problem to which The Daily Mail has repeatedly pointed.' The Observer asserted that by the summer of 1938, there were more Jews in Britain than Germany ever had - this statistic definitely proved to be questionable. And once again the spectre of an eroded national identity was invoked.

Go back to February 3rd, 1900 and we find the Daily Mail again in full cry: 'There landed yesterday at Southampton from the transport Cheshire over 600 so-called refugees, their passages having been paid out of the Lord Mayor's Fund. . .There was scarce a hundred of them that had, by right, deserved such help, and these were the Englishmen of the party. The rest were Jews. . .They fought and jostled for the foremost places at the gangways. . .When the Relief Committee passed by they hid their gold and fawned and whined, and, in broken English, asked for money for their train fare.' These were refugees escaping from the South African war.
Store founded by Jewish refugees, (Wikimedia images,
photo by Michael Maggs)

'Englishness' seems to have remained intact, though, in spite of these past influxes - it must have done, for it to be so threatened again now. It must be intact or there would be no need for anxiety about the fraying, snipping and gnawing away of its boundaries, threatened as this narrative always has it by foreigners and foreign ideas (like human rights, though I believe quite a few British philosophers have been quite keen on that idea from the eighteenth century onwards). 

And yet - what we regard as Englishness (or Britishness) has changed rather a lot from what we thought of as Englishness in the past - which makes me wonder, if Roger Scruton went back two hundred years, how at home would he feel? I don't regard a changing national identity as problematic.

But then, I have to come out and admit that I am one of those dreadful people - deplored by the BNP and the Mail alike - born to a mother who was herself born abroad. I am one of the fifth columnists, apparently.
My mother's baggage tag
for her arrival in Britain, 1947

What is quintessentially English, though? Tyneside dialect, for example? I had a Norwegian student who spent some time in Newcastle and understood Geordie speech better than many English people would, because, she said, they were talking Norwegian. When I went to Oslo, I didn't register the word 'gate' for street, because it seemed perfectly normal to me, having lived for eight years in Kendal, that a street should be called 'gate. (Gillinggate, Stramongate..) The Viking heritage. In 1066, a rather large influx of Normans radically changed English language, culture and custom, not to mention the landscape. How many of us understand Anglo-Saxon?
Incidentally, the fact that the self-appointed defenders of national identity can't decide whether to call that identity 'Englishness' or 'Britishness' shows the United Kingdom's lack of cultural homogeneity even within its borders and among those people you might call its natives.

We have had the Huguenots, who altered our English ways of working with cloth by introducing their far more efficient looms, thus giving this land a commercial edge over the French who had chased the Huguenots out. They were also accused (by pamphlets that must have been the ancestors of the Daily Mail) of threatening jobs, standards of housing, morality, hygiene - and eating weird foods. I believe it's now estimated that 75% of Britons are descended from Huguenots. And undoubtedly a considerable amount of us are descended from Jewish converts, not to mention the smaller doses of different-nationality descent from individual marriages (like myself). This is the national identity which, we're told, cannot survive immigration.
Door, French Protestant Church, London
By Ruskin via Wikimedia Commons

 I can remember, as a child, describing yoghurt to my friends - I could only get it in Germany in those days. 'Yuk!' they said. So, has Britishness/Englishness been damaged by all that yoghurt on the supermarket shelves? How far has chicken tikka masala, that very British dish, eroded our national standards? Or pizza? Or lager? We also have vegemite and US products on our shelves - and on our TV sets - which doesn't seem to trouble the contemporary authors of this narrative. Americans and Australians are white, I guess.

OK - I know it's not all jam (or yoghurt). For example, I don't think it's right for little girls to be mutilated by their communities; I don't like 'honour killings.' I want to see British Muslim girls get an education and not be forced to get married against their will. There will always be tensions between the values we want new incoming Britons to absorb, and their need to remain connected to what they come from. But the things we value can come under threat from very British people - like the attacks on the National Health Service. We can never lean back and take anything for granted.

 Most importantly, considering where I'm posting today - the stories about our national identity are an area where I believe that knowledge of history is quite vital, to counteract that misleading, sadly popular narrative of a heritage which is supposed to be - always at the present moment and with unique dreadfulness -  threatened with annihilation.


H.M. Castor said...

A brilliant and urgently important post. Thank you, Leslie. If only the history of immigration could be as widely-studied a topic in schools as the Tudors or the Romans.

Ann Turnbull said...

Well said, Leslie. An excellent post.

Mark Burgess said...

Absolutely agree, Leslie. We're all mixed, and for most people you don't have to look far back. Added to which, immigration has helped this country in very many ways.

Susan Price said...

Yes, I remember when I was researching my book, Christopher Uptake, set in the 16th century, reading those anti-Flemish pamphlets - their wording was very like that of the pamphlets the BNP was handing round at the time. The same fears, the same threats, the same ugliness.

Sally Zigmond said...

Great post. Nobody can claim a 'pure' ancestral heritage. And those who do are kidding themselves.

Leslie Wilson said...

Christopher Uptake is a brilliant book!

Miriam Halahmy said...

Well said Leslie, a brilliant post as usual. Scrape the surface and so many of us have only been here for a short while. But despite all cultural influences, if you are born in England, you just feel English. Hard to explain, but its a fact of life. We should all get over it and get on with it...oh, teeth grinding... ha!

Leslie Wilson said...

So do I, but I would say British-English, because of being married to a man from Northern Ireland, and my kids are half Irish. Which shows that other thing affect one's perception of identity than even residence or ethnicity. I do feel comfortable in Germany in a way I don't in France or other European countries - much though I enjoy visiting those - and of course the fact that I am bilingual affects this. I even feel comfortable in Austria. But when I spent a year in Germany - admittedly, not the nicest part of Germany, Solingen - and returned home, I did realise that I was mainly English. Not on the topic of cakes, though. I prefer continental patisserie, especially Austrian, Danish, and German (in alphabetical order rather than order of preference). To my mind, an almond cake must be made primarily with ground almonds, rather than just having a few almonds scattered on top, and this is a deep cultural gulf.