Unmaking England

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Benjamin Schwarz wrties in the American Conservative:

Over the last 18 years, Great Britain—more precisely, England, a distinction we’ll get to soon—has been in the grip of the most profound social transformation since the Industrial Revolution. Neither the upheavals attendant on the world wars nor the dislocations triggered by economic depressions nor the changes wrought by the attenuated breakdown of a social order rooted in a feudal past have so fundamentally altered England’s civilization as will the impact of mass immigration.

When in 1941 George Orwell—social conservative, Little Englander, intellectual cosmopolitan—hopefully envisioned an English socialist revolution, he assured his readers (and himself) that such a mere political event, like all such past convulsions, would prove no more than a surface disturbance. Yes, England’s class system would dissolve; yes, the nation’s economy and social relations would change radically as authority and privilege was wrested from the figurative “irresponsible uncles and bed-ridden aunts” who held the levers of power—England, after all, was “a family with the wrong members in control”—and yes, accents might even alter. England, however, would “still be England, an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past, and, like all living things, having the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same.”

But the mass immigration that Britain has experienced since 1997—the year Tony Blair’s New Labour government radically revised the immigration laws in a deliberate effort to transform Britain into a multicultural society—has had an effect wholly different from that of all previous political and social disruptions. Mass immigration hasn’t merely embellished, changed, or even assaulted the enduring, resilient national culture that Orwell adumbrated. Rather, by its very nature—by its inherent logic, and by the ideology, aspirations, and world-historical forces from which it springs and to which it gives expression—it perforce obliterates that culture.

This essay attempts, in an admittedly eccentric way, to support that sweeping assertion. But it does not—it cannot, given any realistic confines—offer a history and systematic analysis of such a complex and convoluted subject as Britain’s experience of mass immigration. (Academic studies on specialized aspects of this subject abound, but no synthetic analysis and comprehensive history has yet been published. The best book-length treatment—although one that pursues a definite line of argument—is David Goodhart’s exceptionally cogent The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-war Immigration.) Still, the first steps must be to define terms, and to place the argument in some historical context.

Britain is the common name for the sovereign state of the United Kingdom, the political entity comprising England, Wales, Scotland (which make up the island of Great Britain) and Northern Ireland. The overwhelming weight of mass immigration has fallen on England, where fully 90 percent of immigrants to Britain have settled. Far too few assessments of the “devolution” of political power to Britain’s constituent nations and the constitutional future of the United Kingdom consider the implications of this salient fact. Because the British state has determined policies toward mass immigration, and because nearly all official figures and studies put immigration in a British context, in discussing policy and politics, I do the same. But because mass immigration’s social and cultural impact falls so disproportionately on England, whenever possible I try to examine that specific nation—a nation that has always been the dominant member of the multinational state of Britain. (Because of that easy hegemony, the English have in many circumstances felt comfortable espousing a British identity when, strictly speaking, they mean an English one.)

Anyone examining the impact of mass immigration on Britain who is at all attendant to right thinking opinion may well wonder what all the fuss is about. After all, hasn’t Britain always been a multicultural society, “a gathering of countless different races and communities, the vast majority of which were not indigenous to these islands”—as then-Foreign Secretary Robin Cook averred in 2001 in New Labour’s most famous pronouncement of its vision of the mass immigration society it was creating, the so-called “Chicken Tikka Masala Speech”? Indeed, in a process that can best be described as Orwellian, advocates of mass immigration and multiculturalism in contemporary Britain have pushed a mantra that, by virtue of insistent repetition, has settled into common knowledge, slackly intoned by politicians, government ministers, and Guardian opinion writers and lazily slotted into White Papers, government leaflets, and advocacy group reports. Britain, so the refrain goes, has always been a “mongrel nation” of immigrants. To buttress this article of faith, the bien pensant trot out Jute and Pict clan folk, Angle and Celt settlers, Roman legionnaires, and Norman barons in a know-it-all fashion to silence doubters.

That this idea is so dependent on population movements in the dim reaches of prehistory reveals both its weakness and its irrelevance: ultimately, of course, every people had to come from somewhere else. Moreover, while mongrel-nation sloganeering is based in part on an appeal to a supposed genetic reality—“It is not their purity that makes the British unique, but the sheer pluralism of their ancestry,” as Robin Cook declared—in fact the genetic evidence compels a different conclusion. The tiny number of Roman and Norman conquerors were the thinnest veneer over the native population and have left virtually no genetic trace. Furthermore, based on DNA sampling of contemporary native Britons and of the mitochondrial DNA recovered from the teeth of prehistoric human skeletons, the emeritus professor of human genetics at Oxford, Bryan Sykes, concludes that “by about 6,000 years ago, the [matrilineal genetic] pattern was set for the rest of the history of the Isles, and very little has disturbed it since.” At least three-fourths of the ancestors of today’s Britons were already in the British Isles then. A final influx of Angles, Saxons, Frisians, and the like—which brought no more than 250,000 people over a period of several centuries—essentially completed the genetic mix. Thus, the evidence demonstrates the striking fact that, genetically, the population of Great Britain has been essentially frozen in time and place since at least the Dark Ages—indeed, settlement patterns from that period emerge clearly on contemporary genetic maps.

As the dean of British geneticists, Oxford’s Sir Walter Bodmer, explains, the country’s genetic history reveals “the extraordinary stability of the British population. Britain hasn’t changed much since 600 AD.”

In itself, this relatively immutable genetic makeup and population distribution isn’t particularly important, but it is tremendously meaningful for the stability and longevity of the political and territorial arrangements that it signifies—arrangements that by turn bestowed early on a strong sense of a shared history and of linguistic and cultural continuity. “If a nation is a group of people with a sense of kinship, a political identity and representative institutions,” the Cambridge historian Robert Tombs writes, “then the English have a fair claim to be the oldest nation in the world.” England’s people have called themselves English since at least the 700s. The idea of an English kingdom and of an English nation with its own land dates to the 800s. The nation has been at least partially politically unified since the Anglo-Saxon kings and fully and permanently so since the Conquest. Since then, the English have shared the experience of living together on an unconquered island. Without doubt, the Normans enhanced and altered English culture—especially its architecture, the vocabulary of its language, and the manners and mores of the elite. But the Conquest was the last foreign admixture imposed on English culture. For nearly the next thousand years, that culture would be left to itself to evolve in itself and to adopt foreign cultural influences wholly on its own terms.

From even before the Conquest, the social, economic, and family lives of the English have been secured, sustained, and shaped by a system of common law, a system always understood to be peculiarly their own. (William the Conqueror was accepted as sovereign because he vowed to uphold English law.) Rooted, sedimentary, and organic—not devised and enacted—the common law worked its way into the English mentality. It established within the English a keen and jealous sense of the protections it afforded to the individual, and it engendered that distinguishing English attitude that has combined a veneration for proper authority with a hostility to, and disdain for, power. To be sure, those on the lookout for the sources of that hoary, much-vaunted virtue “English liberty” can find an important taproot here. But equally important is the profound way it shaped English social life, in both the wide and narrow sense of that term.

The common law, Roger Scruton writes,

becomes a familiar companion, an unspoken background to daily dealings, an impartial observer who can be called upon at any time to bear witness, to give judgement and to bring peace. … It was the root cause of the law abidingness of the English, and their ability to live side by side as strangers in a condition of trust. All communities depend upon trust: but in few communities does trust extend beyond the family; in almost none does it embrace the stranger, while conceding his right to remain a stranger, and to go about his business undisturbed. England, however, was a society of reserved, reclusive, eccentric individuals who constantly turned their backs upon one another, but who lived side by side in a common home, respecting the rules and procedures like frosty members of a single club.

The insinuating effect of the common law helped forge a distinctive temperament across centuries and class lines. Common law, then, at once clarified a collective identity while, in both its direct and indirect effects, it circumscribed the sway of that identity. Long predating the nationalism of the modern state, this national identity exercised a profound, even instinctual, hold over the English mind and imagination. But it didn’t make demands and was resolutely un-communal.

Within their stable perimeter the English developed a remarkably persistent, shared demotic culture: in the 1960s, for instance, the indefatigable researches of Iona and Peter Opie established that English children had been continually playing many of the same games since at least the 1100s. And of course the English have developed and shared an enduring language. Since Chaucer, they have recognized that its conspicuously rich vocabulary, idioms, and metaphors at once wrought and reflected a peculiar mentality, intellectual style, aesthetic approach, religious outlook, even humor. That common linguistic identity, by turn, engendered in the English an intense and historically very early sense of national distinctiveness—a mutually reinforcing political, cultural, and linguistic identity—that Edmund Spenser in 1580 called “the kingdom of our own language.”

Paradoxically, this deep-rooted awareness of collective identity, although born of insularity, probably permitted England to develop a strong sense of itself not as a nation of immigrants but as a nation with (some) immigrants. Of course, historically England never resembled the sort of 1900-Lower-East-Side-writ-large of multiculturalist fantasy. In fact, Britain today receives more immigrants in a single year than it did in the entire period from 1066 to 1950. Over those nearly thousand years, the country took in two sizable influxes, each spread over a lengthy period of time and each, even given England’s far smaller population during those times, on an incomparably tinier scale than the post-1997 immigration wave. Some 50,000 Huguenot refugees arrived in two phases, the first in the 1500s and the second in the 1600s. And some 200,000 Jews came—one stream of about 150,000 fleeing Tsarist persecution from the years 1881 to 1914, and then another, of about 50,000, fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

In addition to those influxes, from the 16th to the mid-20th centuries England received a more or less steady dribble of individual foreign settlers, a dribble that was demographically irrelevant though culturally momentous. The nation’s defined, assured cultural identity gave it a unique absorptive capacity: It could tolerate a discrete number of wholly alien émigrés—Mazzini, Kossuth, Herzen, Lenin, and Marx (who lived the final 34 of his 64 years in London) spring to mind—and more important, it could assimilate, entirely on its own terms, and be enriched by its miniscule number of immigrants.

Here are some prominent immigrants and children of immigrants, all intensely, identifiably English, all of whom arrived long before Britain’s postwar immigration waves: Hans Holbein, George Frederick Handel, Frederick William Herschel, Isaac and Benjamin Disraeli, Christina Rossetti, Gustav Holst, Augustus Pugin, Louis of Battenberg and his son Louis Mountbatten, Hilaire Belloc, Joseph Conrad, George Louis du Maurier, Winston Churchill, Leo Amery, T.S. Eliot, Lewis Namier, Learie Constantine, Alexander Korda, Michael Pressberger, Nicholas Pevsner, Isaiah Berlin, Geoffrey Elton, the two Michael Howards, Solly Zuckerman.

This list illuminates a fundamental point: although these figures immensely enhanced English life, they did not make their adopted nation cosmopolitan; their adopted nation made these cosmopolitans English. The keys, then, to England’s successful, if very limited, history of immigration were the small scale and gradual pace of entry; a confident, well-defined, and long-established national culture; and the ability and willingness of the newcomers to integrate fully into that culture. None of these conditions obtain today.

No discussion of mass immigration to Britain can avoid the terms “non-white” and “visible” minority, the meanings of which are interchangeable. A great many facts and figures, official and academic, tether themselves to those designations—official data use “non-white ethnic,” “white ethnic,” and “white British”—and so those facts and figures cannot be deployed without the terms attached to them. These designations can be useful in drawing cultural distinctions, especially since they were and are often applied to differentiate between, say, on the one hand, immigrants from Canada, Australia, and Ireland (all of Ireland, of course, was part of the UK until 1922)—places with strong kinship, historical, and cultural ties to England—and on the other, say, immigrants and the British-born children of immigrants from Muslim, rural, clan-dominated Kashmir or Bangladesh. But they can prove a too-crude shorthand in efforts to convey the relative compatibility of ethnic and immigrant groups with English culture.

Take a black immigrant from Jamaica in the 1950s. He—the first New Commonwealth immigrants were overwhelmingly men—was probably Anglican, likely cricket-playing, and quite possibly a wartime veteran of the British armed forces or merchant navy. Had he been schooled, he would have learned England’s history and been introduced to its literature. (Probably owing to these commonalities, today’s black Caribbean population has the highest rate of intermarriage with British whites of any minority group.) The cultural distance that separated him from a white British native was almost certainly smaller than is the chasm that today separates a white British resident of, say, Sheffield from her new neighbor, a Roma immigrant. Yet that immigrant, having almost certainly arrived from Bulgaria, Slovakia, or Romania, would be classified by UK immigration authorities as a European Union migrant—EU citizens enjoy the unfettered right to live and work in Britain—and would therefore be presumed “white” by researchers making extrapolations from immigration data. (Although immigration of Roma has aroused considerable anxiety and controversy in Britain, their number remains a mystery; conservative estimates put the Roma population at 200,000, but it could be as high as half a million.)

Schwarz-Quote-1For all their limitations, “non-white minority” and “visible minority”—terms that take in both immigrants and British-born members of ethnic groups—are more illuminating categories than “immigrant” or even “ethnic immigrant.” This is because an essential feature of the society that mass immigration has created in Britain doesn’t only, or perhaps even mostly, involve immigrants. Several largely unassimilated, in fact often rigidly self-segregated, ethnic groups, members of which may be the British-born children or even the grandchildren of immigrants, form geographically distinct enclaves throughout urban England. To cite extreme examples, British-born children of immigrants make up most of the estimated 3,000 British Muslims trained in al-Qaeda camps, most of the estimated 500 British citizens fighting for ISIS, and most of the 300 known or convicted British Islamist terrorists—including three of the four bombers responsible for the 2005 “7/7” attacks, the coordinated series of bombings in London that killed 52 people and injured more than 700. (Those three, by the way, were all of Pakistani descent.) A majority of the rapists and procurers—almost all ethnically Pakistani or Bangladeshi—in the sexual “grooming” crimes that have plagued England’s North and Midlands are also British-born.

But “ethnic” can often obscure as much as it reveals, because some ethnic groups—such as the East Indians from Uganda, who fled Idi Amin in the 1970s—have proved far more assimilable than others. Even the widely used, somewhat euphemistic term “Asian” sweeps in, for instance, Sikh Indians who have largely integrated into British life with Bangladeshis and Kashmiri Pakistanis, groups that, as we shall see, haven’t. Any assessment of the problems mass immigration of ethnic minorities poses to Britain that, by virtue of slack nomenclature, lumps in the ethnic groups from which the Rotherham groomers sprung with, say, such members of “visible minority” groups as Trevor Phillips—the former head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, whose parents were Guyanese immigrants—and the Trinidad-born journalist Trevor Macdonald isn’t nearly fine-grained enough. No, this isn’t tantamount to arguing that all Kashmiri Pakistanis or Bangladeshis are jihadists or sexual groomers. But plainly, different cultural and ethnic groups have affected Britain in very different ways: it’s obviously unhelpful to probe for sexual groomers among Britain’s “Asian” population of Indian Jains. If certain minority groups, as groups, pose certain problems—and yes, even present certain dangers—any meaningful discussion must focus on those specific groups. To do otherwise misdirects attention and obfuscates analysis.

In 1948, Britain’s non-white minority population stood at the statistically insignificant number of about 30,000. But in that year, as a gesture of imperial solidarity, Parliament passed the British Nationality Act, which granted UK citizen rights to those colonial subjects—and, crucially, the former imperial subjects of newly independent Pakistan and India—who chose to settle in Britain. To the shock of politicians and civil servants, by 1962 about 472,000 people had taken up the offer, a number divided roughly equally between black West Indians and “Asians”—that is, Indians, who were mostly Hindu and Sikh, and Pakistanis, who were Muslim. Britons overwhelmingly opposed this “New Commonwealth” immigration. Opinion surveys at the time consistently demonstrated that 75 percent of Britain’s population supported the proposal in Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech to stop this immigration and to offer the new arrivals grants to return to their native countries. The controversy surrounding Powell’s speech revealed a class- and political-divide between mandarin elites—both Conservative and Labour—who found the speech repugnant, and the working class, backed by the provincial middle-class and Tory right wing, which overwhelmingly embraced it. (Although Powell’s supporters were obdurate in their opposition to mass immigration, the evidence does not support the elite’s caricature that the overwhelming popular support of Powell’s views was motivated by racial animus: 65 percent of the population favored laws that barred racial discrimination, and a mere 12 percent objected to non-white children being in the same class as their children at school.)

But despite the half-hearted efforts of a succession of Labour and Conservative governments to respond to this clear popular sentiment, the influx of New Commonwealth immigrants proved impossible to reduce below the rate of about 50,000 per year, a level that now seems miniscule, that prevailed into the mid-1990s. That fact reveals a stubborn reality: once the flow of mass immigration starts, it has consistently proved exceedingly difficult to stanch. Some of the reasons for this are explicable, if largely unanticipated: the upward pressure exerted by family reunions of members of foreign ethnic groups with their British-residing relatives and spouses-to-be have proven irresistible, for example. But other reasons defy explanation. For instance, when he was asked in 2003 why so many bogus asylum seekers remained in Britain illegally, the then-Home Secretary David Blunkett said, “I haven’t a clue, is the answer. I suppose that’s a lovely headline that my advisors will be horrified with, but I haven’t and nor had any other government.”

By 1997, Britain’s ethnic minority population had grown, thanks to immigration and the children born to immigrants, to about four million. That population had certainly leavened what had formerly been a strikingly ethnically and culturally homogenous country. Nevertheless, British—again, really English—society remained defined by a national culture that Orwell would have recognized. In that year, however, Tony Blair’s just-elected first Labour government launched a demographic—and, concomitantly, a cultural—revolution, a revolution that historians and commentators of all political stripes now recognize as by far Blair’s most historically significant legacy. New Labour greatly relaxed or entirely eliminated previous restrictions on immigration, with the aim to convert Britain quickly to a polity as fully exposed as possible to the apparent social, cultural, and economic advantages of globalization.

The government never systematically laid out its rationale for pursuing this radical policy. It emerged from a convoluted set of ideologies, shibboleths, slogans, and aspirations that celebrated the dynamism of global capitalism and that rejected what was regarded as a stultified and insular traditional British culture. Although rooted in an economic vision, the policy derived its energy and appeal from its cultural, even aesthetic aspirations: “diversity,” “inclusiveness,” and “vibrancy” were its watchwords. Cook’s “Chicken Tikka Masala Speech” was New Labour’s most famous pronouncement of its vision of this policy, a feat of social engineering designed to forge a new national identity by means of“the changing ethnic composition of the British people themselves.” In a fit of consumerist enthusiasm, Cook disdained the former “homogeneity of British identity,” dismissed older Britons who clung to that antiquated and stodgy identity, extolled the ways mass immigration had “broadened” lifestyles, and enthused over the prospect of a pulsating and ever-changing “immigrant society” that would continue “enriching our culture and cuisine.” 

Although New Labour was the architect of this policy, Blair and his ministers were hardly alone in espousing its heady goals. But while the largely London-based progressive elite embraced New Labour’s vision, New Labour recognized that the Labour Party’s traditional constituency—the working class—abhorred it. On the issue of a mass-immigration society, however, as on a host of social issues, New Labour believed the wise course wasn’t to alter its policies to conform to the outlook and preferences of old-fashioned Labour voters—after all, where else would those voters turn?—but to forge a new constituency that embraced an economically entrepreneurial and socially progressive vision.

The scale, scope, and rapidity of Britain’s demographic transformation—the consequence of New Labour’s revolution—is unprecedented. Over the last 18 years, about twice as many immigrants have settled in Britain as had done so in the 49 years (1948-97) that constituted the first wave of mass immigration. About 80 percent of these have come from outside the EU, the greatest number from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Somalia, and Nigeria. In 2014, 636,000 migrants came to live in Britain, and 27 percent of births in Britain were to foreign-born mothers. Since 2001, Britain’s visible minority population has nearly doubled, from 8 percent to 14 percent today. Already “White British” residents are the minority in London, Luton, Leicester, Slough—as they are in large districts of towns and cities throughout England’s Midlands and North. The visible minority population is projected to rise to about 38 percent by mid-century and to over 50 percent by 2070, which will make Britain by far the most ethnically diverse country in the West.

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