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Our current national debate includes many veiled and not so veiled references to nationalism and the suggestion that somehow, by cutting off the country from a flow of migrants ‘we’ might be better off. This idea seems to have a simple logic to it. Foreigners are competition for jobs, may well be criminals, could be terrorists and may become a burden on already stretched public services.
As always with simple narratives, it’s worth thinking about this in more detail. A 2002 poll by the BBC found that the general public considered Winston Churchill to be the greatest Briton of all time. There are few that would dispute that this extraordinary man had a huge impact on British and world history, but I suspect many will forget that his father was born in the USA and his mother was an American. Do people care that Churchill was half American?
Then there’s the living legend is David Attenborough; it is difficult for many to imagine a world without this pillar of public life, educator of the UK and broader humanity in the fragility and importance of the natural world. David’s parents were English, but in most accounts, he owes his initial interest in the nature to a piece of amber provided by one of two Jewish refugees taken in by his parents, having escaped from the continent as part of the Kindertransport rescue of children from Nazi persecution.
Moving to stage and screen, Dame Judi Dench, arguably the pre-eminent actress of her generation, was born to an Irish mother and English father. They met whilst he was studying to become a doctor in Dublin. Her astonishing contribution to national cultural life began with this international union of two people, enabled by the free flow of peoples between these two nations. Her success since has been enabled by her and her many collaborators being able to move and communicate freely to generate the art that has been loved by millions.
In culinary life, two ‘national dishes’, fish and chips and chicken tikka masala, owe their existence to cultural appropriation. Frying fish has a Jewish cultural origin and this became British when combined with the Scottish practice of deep frying potatoes, whilst tikka masala harks back to the (some would say unholy) marriage of UK and Indian cuisine in the period of the Raj.
On the sporting field, Sir Mo Farah, or Muktar Jama Farah, winner of four gold medals for Team GB at two Olympics, is a refugee from Somalia. He escaped that dangerous and largely ungoverned country to find a new life in the UK. His achievements have been celebrated by millions and it is impossible to quantify his full contribution to national life; what price could you put on that moment in 2012? His arrival and success in the UK is a result of Britain’s long tradition of welcoming migrants in need or those in search of a better life.
I will stop before those who want a stricter migration policy pick up their barbed pens to construct a response. There are clearly problems with unfettered migration of people who seek to outcompete local workers to secure ‘unskilled’ and insecure jobs.
This has been a real and present issue in many towns and cities throughout the UK, as has been the upsetting of the social balance by a sudden influx of large numbers of people from eastern Europe. This has perhaps caused the issue of migration to become toxic and synonymous with societal ills, and therefore been a driver of a move towards wishing to insulate the economy and society against the ‘other’.
I heard recently a discussion that was centred around a person’s grandad having fought in the Second World War for the British to be British. I agree that he fought to preserve the right of this country (and many others) to exist with its own collective will and values.
These values were displayed in the pre-war years by giving safe haven to the persecuted from across nationalist Europe, were fought for in a global conflict and post war, have been demonstrated time and again by having an open door to the oppressed, from the ‘Ugandan Asians’ to Syrian children. Somehow this humanitarian tradition, which has aided many thousands and added countless positives to ‘Britishness’, has become entangled in the idea that migration is bad.
The decisions of governments, from Thatcher to May, have led to economic hardship in areas that are most ‘anti’ migration, meaning the causes are much closer to home. If there is to be anger, it should be directed at these politicians, not people who have legitimately made the most of opportunities presented. Britain may wish to redefine migration rights in response to leaving the EU, but it would be advisable to cast an eye on history and objective fact when doing so.
Britain and British-ness have been shaped by being open to people and ideas from many places. Bohemian Rhapsody, arguably the nation’s second favourite song, was penned by Farrokh Bulsara, a migrant from Tanzania- better known as Freddie Mercury as the recent award-winning film reminded us.
The nation’s favourite song, Imagine, which is built around the idea of no barriers between people, was the product of a half Irish singer called John Lennon, who was inspired throughout his career by Yoko Ono, a Japanese citizen. Britain is a melting pot, and this has inspired many celebrated aspects of the nation’s history. British-ness is the product of this. Pulling up the drawbridge will not enhance British-ness, but it may lead to the very things that in living memory were fought against, becoming norms in ‘our’ home.