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Choppy waters for Britain's latest 'bloody foreigners'

Written by
John Kelly
Date of Publication:

The Guardian reported in June that Robert Winder's excellent 'Bloody Foreigners' has been revised and updated.

A compelling and level-headed account of immigration to Britain, the book was first published in 2004. And it was reviewed for EIN's Headlines publication in 2006, so it's a good excuse to dig out my old review for the blog.

The review mentions the oft-used maritime metaphors for immigration and it's fitting that the significant new addition to the book is a chapter entitled Choppy Waters.

As Winder told the Guardian, the last decade or so of immigration has seen some turbulent times, with the enlargement of the EU and the cultural fallout of the 'War on Terror'. "The noisy one is the Islamic one. I think that is what has shocked people into a pretty old-fashioned, nationalistic mindset," Winder says.

While Winder believes it's too early to say definitively whether the most recent wave of migration will be a success, he remains optimistic about the ever-evolving story of immigration to these shores.

I'll endeavour to read the new version of 'Bloody Foreigners' and write an updated blog post on what Winder has to say about the last ten or so years of immigration to Britain, but, for now, here's the first twenty-five thousand years...

The 'knotted ethnic roots' of modern Britain

November 2006

In 'Bloody Foreigners', Robert Winder traces the history of immigration to Britain. If immigration is often alluded to with the language of the sea – the notion of an island facing the threat of being flooded, deluged, by waves of 'bloody foreigners' – Winder presents us with an altogether more pacific pattern: an ebb and flow across the centuries.

It is a book both broad in its scope and rich in its detail. For within these tides of immigration, lie the stories of individual lives of individual immigrants. The point is crucial to the book, even if "[i]t isn't easy, in the torrential generalisations that dominate the subject, to imagine individual plights." Discussions and discourses on immigration so often and so swiftly turn into debates on 'the issues' that the drama, the story of immigration is diminished.

Winder asks the reader to realise that immigration is, indeed, a story. "And, like all the best stories, it has happy moments as well as sad ones, comedies as well as tragedies."

The book presents immigration to Britain as an epic story: "a pageant, a picaresque, a jumble of remarkable tales". Whether French Huguenots crossing the Channel by boat or modern day asylum seekers hiding underneath the Eurostar, immigration can be a fearful adventure. Such journeys are neither for the faint hearted nor undertaken lightly.

But Winder does not give us a polemic. Nor is it a misty eyed tome on the virtues of the immigrant. As Winder points out when dealing with early twentieth century attitudes to Jewish immigrants, while some saw them as cunning subversives, a common temptation for others was to exaggerate their virtuous merits. Both sides overlooked a more prosaic truth: that the Jews might be ordinary people like anyone else.

'Bloody Foreigners' warns us that to presume all immigrants and refugees are alike and 'common' is a "patronising and wrong-headed fallacy". Immigration to Britain is not just one story: it is a collection of millions of individual stories.

And immigration is an old story. 'Bloody Foreigners' begins in the dawn of history: the first immigrant arrives in the British Isles some 25,000 years ago. England, Winder tells us, is a nation of "knotted ethic roots", the very name deriving from the arrival of the Angles – immigrants from what is now Denmark. Along with the Germanic Saxons and Jutes, these immigrant groups established the foundations of English life.

And while Britain may not always have been a welcoming paradise of tolerance for its new arrivals, it has nevertheless proved both resilient and accommodating. "For a thousand years, when the countries of their birth could not endure them, people have been able to thrive – or at least survive – here."

But there are dark passages. Chapter three recounts how in 1263 and 1264, the resentment of Jewish immigrants led to the murder of many hundreds in London. It was followed in 1290 by the expulsion of the Jews – "a tragedy and a national disgrace" – which highlights that Britain's treatment of 'bloody foreigners' has sometimes left much to be desired.

Yet many immigrants to Britain have thrived. The seventeenth century saw the arrival of thousands of religious refugees – the Protestant Huguenots from France. It was a "momentous" event. Within a few years, French Huguenots comprised 1 per cent of Britain's population, and their skills and knowledge would help revolutionise Britain's early industry.

Though not all welcomed the presence of the new arrivals. In sentiments which would be "echoed many thousands of times in the coming years," there was talk of the French overrunning the country. Nor did the Huguenots always escape angry mob violence.

New chapters of immigration would repeat a similar pattern: a group initially resented, even despised, would come to find acceptance. Of course, it always helped that the next wave of immigrants would be viewed as even worse.

Difference is seldom a welcome trait of immigrants. Neither is poverty. In 1709, thousands of penniless, unskilled German Palatines arrived in what Winder calls "one of the least edifying episodes in the entire history of migration." Eventually shipped off to Ireland or America, the Palatines were seen as a "different and base species".

"The age-old fear of foreigners was merging with mutterings about racial superiority that would ride in the vanguard of Western thought for the next 250 years," Winder tells us.

The arrival of the rich and the titled immigrant caused fewer waves. Indeed, the most important event of immigration in the eighteenth century saw the arrival of another German – a Hanoverian who would become George I. Many notable and influential Germans would follow.

In contrast, chapter nine describes the eighteenth century horrors of the slave trade. It would result in a community of thousands of Africans in Britain, living lives "so ill-documented that it requires an effort of imagination to picture them at all."

While previous generations of European immigrants had prospered, the Africans represent "the opposite, the tragic side." And the idea of Britishness would now carry with it a new definition, namely of being white.

But as chapters twelve and thirteen show, immigrants did not have to be too different to arouse scorn. Here Winder describes the arrival of Italians and Irish. In the early nineteenth century, Italian musicians sent out Italian urchins to play barrel organs. One newspaper spoke of a horde of "semi-barbarous foreigners".

The Irish, fleeing a humanitarian crisis, may have been technically British but they were viewed as barbaric: "hated as viciously as any minority in history". Winder also makes the point that the slum conditions in which they lived were held against them, like many other groups of "social unfortunates." The immigrant here was seen as the cause of the problems, not the victim.

Eastern European pogroms would also cause a tide of Jewish immigration in the nineteenth century. Assimilation and success were by no means instant, but they would lead to the creation of such British high-street institutions as Marks and Spencer, Tesco and Burton, and would give the British arts many of its celebrated luminaries.

However, the backlash against immigration, and the Jews in particular, soon emerges, with the talk of Britain being swamped. Winder makes the important point that the industrial revolution helped to dehumanise the individual. The people became a mass, a collection of common groups.

In chapter sixteen, Winder describes the passing of the 1905 Aliens Act on August 10th as "a fateful day". Britain was, for the first time, a club with an exclusive membership.

Immigrants were now dangerous, a threat. The Chinese, for example, were reported in 1906 to be seducing and luring young girls into opium dens. And a general anti-foreigner feeling would find a specific target as World War I broke out. German businesses and homes were attacked, and Germans themselves were detained. The war would also lead many to feel a "sharpened hatred of all thing foreign." Even if this was despite the assistance of so many foreigners during the war. The Indian subcontinent, for example, contributed 1.4 million men.

In the years that followed, the rise of fascism, World War II and the decline and fall of the British Empire would have a profound impact on the changing nature of immigration.

While the postwar years would see the assimilation of over 100,000 Poles – "no group of foreigners had ever melted into British society with such speed and so little clamour" – this would be a period in which immigration would become inextricably linked to race and skin colour.

The sun may have been setting on the Empire, but the 1948 Nationality Act "gave all imperial subjects the right of free entry into postwar Britain." The same year would see the arrival of the Empire Windrush, a ship that made more waves than most which brought immigrants to Britain's shores. As chapter twenty describes, the impending arrival of (just) 492 passengers caused a "blizzard of official memos … from ministry to ministry." The Caribbean immigrants that followed this initial voyage to England "could hardly help noticing how deeply they were resented." It was, Winder tells us, nothing but simple racism.

Nor was Britain quite the place it had seemed from afar. As Winder points out in chapter twenty-one, "Britain had managed to portray itself in a misleadingly good light." The writer and television producer Mike Phillips describes finding a landscape "grey, gloomy, lowering, threatening."

The West Indians were joined by Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims from the Indian subcontinent, West Africans and Cypriots. By 1958, an estimated 210,000 people from the now Commonwealth were living and working in Britain. Immigration had gone "mass market". August of the same year saw race riots as a new youth movement – the Teddy boys – unleashed their fury on the new influx of 'coloureds'.

In chapter twenty-two, the passing the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act signals the door to Britain closing – more immigrants had arrived in the previous three years than the rest of the twentieth century up to that point. Though, for Winder, the Act was characteristically British: the pursuing of a policy which showed distaste for absolutist solutions and reflected both Britain's mean and generous streak simultaneously. The 1960s also saw an increase in emigration. England may have won the World Cup, but 161,000 left in 1966 alone.

The arrival of East African Asians would soon test the new resolve and set a "sorrowful pattern". Britain protested, tried to keep them out but failed and admitted them anyway – "a circuitous route to the worst of both worlds."

The 1970s would see a familiar pattern. Some immigrants would thrive, with many Indian and Pakistanis becoming prosperous and prominent figures, but the most common migrant experience was social exclusion. The 1970s also saw the rise of the National Front, skinheads, and racist murders. A period of "steady, awful persecution." The 1980s saw riots in Toxteth, Bristol and Brixton.

Yet, as before, a new underclass of immigrant would soon emerge to take the spotlight: the asylum seeker. Chapters twenty-four and twenty-five cover what Winder terms the 'asylum madness'. The collapse of communism and the fall of the Berlin wall, wars and uprisings across the globe would drive a diffuse international migration and Britain again faced the threat of being flooded by 'bloody foreigners'.

As the popular press seemed eager to sow discord, rather than just report it, the British public were badly misled. "There cannot, indeed, have been many matters of national importance on which it was more deluded," Winder says. The debate was "rancid and polarised": some shamed that the system offered refugees so much, others shamed that it offered so little.

The final chapter goes beyond the notion of immigration as mere economic scourge or saviour and examines its impact on issues of national and ethnic identities. Does Englishness mean anything more than 'not foreign'? It is, for Winder, a national identity no longer easy to summarise, with class-specific notions of a historical Britain growing ever more remote. "But it is immigration, above all, which exposes the traditional sense of national identity as a mirage." Winder sees no singe banner of national identity beneath which all Britons can rally, instead we have an identity parade. "If anything defines modern Britain, it is the variety, the sense of often clashing flavours."

Ethnic identity is also a "slippery concept," and one which "becomes less meaningful the more widely it is used." And it is a concept that carries the unsettling idea of ethnic groups as being things rather than individual people. It is "a catch-all intended to make rough and ready distinctions, for political and cultural reasons, without giving offence."

For Winder, identity is a constantly evolving work-in-progress and, whatever form national identity may take in the future, it has been, and will be, "imported, stretched and updated by migrants as a distinct contribution to the ongoing story of Britain."

Level-headed, informative and excitingly readable, 'Bloody Foreigners' is, then, not just a book for someone seeking to understand the history of immigration to Britain; it is a book for anyone seeking to understand the history of Britain.