There were Africans in Britain – Roman soldiers – before the English arrived. Britain had a Libyan-born ruler in Emperor Septimius Severus, who inspected Hadrian’s Wall in 210 AD. Waves of invasion and migrations from Europe over the past two millennia have created a multicultural British society, and the historical record exposes the fallacy of the populist claim that immigration is destroying the fabric of British society. Everyone in Britain is an immigrant or descended from immigrants.
Yet Britain has had a mixed record of tolerance towards immigrants and ethnic minority communities. Anti-Irish sentiment, anti-Semitism, hostility towards Caribbean, African and Asian immigrants in post-war Britain and Islamophobia are still fresh in the minds of many Britons, especially ethnic minorities. Even the term ‘ethnic minorities’ as it is commonly used excludes groups such as the descendants of Irish and French migrants, who have by and large been fairly integrated. Yet increasingly, it leaves those of mixed ethnicity in a definitional quandary as well.
The interaction between the many cultural communities, however, has shaped present-day society, and looks set to do so in the future. Claims that migration into Britain is changing our way of life and allegations of swamping merely detract from the reality that multiculturalism has enriched British society. No less than The Commission for Racial Equality observed that the restrictive legal measures to deter applicants for asylum, created after a panic over illegal asylum-seekers, contrasted greatly with the Victorians’ liberal approach to accepting political refugees.
In the 1850s, Lord Thomas Macaulay dubbed England ‘the sacred refuge of mankind’ for its philanthropic record of taking in political exiles from the Continent. However, at the turn of the last century, parliamentary debate lamented the inclinations of newcomers to live ‘according to their traditions, usages and customs’, expressing concern that these ‘debilitated sickly and vicious products of Europe’ might be grafted onto the English stock. A 1956 Cabinet memo concluded that the traditional right to free entry for Commonwealth residents was anachronistic, given the likelihood of a ‘coloured invasion of Britain’. In the 1964 elections, Tory MP Peter Griffiths won by painting a picture of future ‘voters in their turbans and saris’ deciding his constituency’s future. Little seems to have changed since then.
Segregation has almost always resulted from discrimination by landlords and estate agents, naturally resulting in many immigrants staying in enclaves where they would be most welcome, with community networks present. Talk of minorities’ refusal to integrate usually leaves out the other perspective – the experience of discrimination. Even today, refugee and minority children in schools are taunted, affecting their willingness to integrate with the larger community that is viewed as unwelcoming. Society has always needed scapegoats – minorities, with their higher rate of unemployment, their perceived criminality, and their different skin colour, are perceived as a problem. A hundred years ago Irish immigrants were seen as polluters of urban life and Jewish migration was blamed for slums, just as minority communities today are blamed for the decrepit condition and general insecurity of neighbourhoods such as Brixton and Tower Hamlets.
Two facts that are often obscured in talk of multicultural Britain are that, contrary to popular perception, the majority of immigrants and refugees who came to Britain after 1945 are white, and the net rate of immigration into Britain is insignificant compared with declining birth rates and substantial emigration. Talk of a strain on resources misses the point. The drawing of distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and the reshaping of these distinctions does no party (except the mob mentality) any good. A recent Home Office study revealed that over 33% of refugees held a degree, compared with only 12% of the British population, but they were not allowed to work in Britain.
The reality is that British culture is continually changing as minorities and majorities learn from each other, and as the society they share is subtly altered by the new assumptions, values and possibilities they negotiate. In 1867, The Times pronounced, ‘There is hardly such a thing as a pure Englishman in this island’. Bhikhu Parekh, writing fifteen years ago, suggests ‘Britain should not be allowed to become a hall of mirrors, but should be a family of minorities constantly fashioning a common culture: open enough to enable them to grow at their own pace and firm enough to hold all together.’