This blog is defunct! Check out my new music blog at Sonicrampage.org.
I’ve been quite bad recently about finishing up pieces for this blog. Here’s one that I actually started about three weeks ago but I’ve only just got around to finishing.
Earlier this month Randy McDonald responded to my November post about European attitudes to immigration by quoting extensively from a Financial Times article by Saskia Sassen on the history of immigration in Europe, both intra-European and from further afield. It's quite an interesting article, and so it’s worth going over there to read his extensive quotations from the article.
At the end of his post he asks the question: "What factors--social, economic, political--lie behind the creation of this yawning gaps in the national memories of Europe?"
I think the key issue here is perceptional - the question of identity is an eternally thorny issue in the modern world. My take on the matter is that, although there are quite obvious parallels between 19th and early 20th century patterns of assimilation of and native reaction to immigration in Europe (and in America for that matter) and the patterns of the post World War II period, these similarities are not seen, they are ignored. Partly this is a result of the fact that, being honest, most people have only a limited knowledge of history, and certainly social history is underemphasized in favor of the tales of the great politicians and generals and major wars. Additionally, even if the parallels between the two periods are seen, I think that (and obviously this does not apply to everyone) they are seen as less important than the differences between migration patterns of the two eras.
What are these differences? Well, the most obvious one is (as Randy mentioned in the comments section of his post) that in the early period much of the intra-European migration was temporary, with many people from the poorer parts of Europe (such as Ireland, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and the Balkans) choosing to return home after working in the richer parts of Europe (such as France, Germany, England, and the Netherlands). Recent re-migration rates have been much lower and they have also occurred at the same time as tremendous social changes in the host nations, such as a slow collapse of traditional family structures and a spectacular decline in birth rates, such that non-white populations have been able to grow at impressive rates in terms of their proportion of the wider population. Indeed, during the 1990's the non-white population of Britain grew by 53% (of course, the UK as a whole remains well over 90% white, but this is still an enormous change from even three decades ago).
What does this mean? Well, at this point I should say that it is very difficult to accurately predict demographic patterns more than ten years into the future. Unforeseen events can have an enormous impact on key demographic factors such as migration patterns, fertility rates, and intermarriage. Assuming that history has ended and that the patterns of today will continue indefinitely is a pretty fool-proof way of ensuring that further down the line you will be munching on a nice piece of humble pie. History is littered with demographic prophets who have proved to be spectacularly wrong. The decrease of the native populations of European nations as a percentage of the total population is a currently-occurring fact, yet beyond ten years into the future it is very very difficult to be sure as to what will happen.
Yet, this is not particularly important, because we are discussing perceptions, and perceptions are often impervious to the lessons of history or to rationally-drawn conclusions based on empirical data. The perception exists that, through immigration, Britain (and the other nations of Western Europe) is being swarmed, is losing out on what it was, is being taken for a ride by unscrupulous foreigners who see Britain as "a soft touch". How else to explain the fact that immigration is consistently one of the biggest concerns of the British public?
Of course, this is not everyone. When I was back in London I went out for for drinks with my friends Jen and Stacey. While we were at the pub Jen was saying that, having read my original article, she was very sad that I'd gotten such an impression of Britain. Yet, it's kind of difficult not to notice the hostility to immigration, the tremendous paranoia about immigration and its role in the transformation of the nation. Having personally been through the immigration system the idea, to me, that Britain is some kind of "soft touch" is laughable. Our family had to wait seven years to gain 'indefinite leave to remain' status, and this period included a point where, for about eight months, we had to live on two-month tourist visas, so that every two months we had to leave the country and then get our passports stamped on the way back in. And we're white, upper-middle-class, and American. I am sure that a working-class black Nigerian family would have at least as many hoops to jump through as we did. Yet this doesn't really matter, because perceptionally the 'problem' is enormous and an unstoppable threat to some kind of unarticulatable 'Britishness'.
Perhaps I am excessively gloomy on this point, but I do think that there has been a tremendous resurgence of xenophobia in Western Europe. Just this week, in Britain, Michael Howard, the Leader of the Conservative Party, has caused a political firestorm over his controversial plans to toughen up the UK's immigration system. It is unquestionably playing the xenophobia card, because in the popular imagination immigration is a phenomenon of, as David Aaronovitch put it today, "knife-wielding Kurds, pimping Albanians and benefit-defrauding West Africans."
An example of this can be seen in an article from The Economist from December 9th, 2004, which said that:
THE British like to think of themselves as rather enlightened when it comes to immigration and race relations. Disputes over headscarves are left to the French. Ghettos, frank discrimination and the nasty notion that Britishness is a white characteristic endure only in coal-stained northern towns, which are stuck in the past in more ways than this. Everywhere else, a multicultural consensus reigns.
It's a view that is becoming hard to sustain. A YouGov poll for The Economist this week finds that 74% of people believe too many immigrants are coming into the country. Londoners, young people and the middle classes can normally be counted on to hold more liberal views, but not, it seems, when it comes to immigration. Their sentiments are virtually identical.
Most damaging for Britain's enlightened self-image, the nation has risen to the top of the European xenophobes' league. A Eurobarometer poll earlier this year found that 41% saw immigration as one of the two biggest problems faced by the nation—16 points more than in any other European country. Forget unemployment, terrorism or crime: the real threat comes from the man with the battered suitcase.
What seems to have happened over the past few years is that immigration has become associated with refugees and illegal entrants rather than with migrant workers. That is not surprising, given the rise in asylum claimants that began in the late 1990s. Numbers are down, but it does not matter: perceptions have shifted.
A curious side-effect of this change is that the nation's mental image of the immigrant has taken on a different hue. “We traditionally thought of immigrants as black and brown, and for 40 years they were,” says Mr Phillips. Unlike America, where ethnic minorities and immigrants have always been viewed as two different things, Britons regarded them as one and the same. Now their attention has been drawn to paler arrivals who are often more disliked. Romanians, who are often accused of living off the state, are less popular than West Indians. Iraqis, who are not just refugees but also come from a country where our boys are dying, are more loathed than either. Pakistanis (a well-established but growing group) are disliked, too, probably because of fears of domestic terrorism and memories of riots in 2001.
The fact that immigration has less to do with race only makes it easier to dislike. Hostility used to connote racial prejudice, but no longer. That's modern Britain: multicultural, racially liberal and anti-immigrant to the core.
Update (8:30 AM, Jan. 26th, 2005): There's an excellent column by Joseph Harker in today's Guardian that talks about this issue of perception. Key bit:
Editors and politicians like to point out that many of the current concerns have been about eastern Europeans, so how can it all be about race? This goes to the heart of how humans cope with difference. People accept newcomers when they are perceived as relatively wealthy, relatively powerful, or "like us". With the common language, Americans and Australians tick all three boxes; western Europeans the first two. These are the migrants whom people appear unquestioningly prepared to live with.
Eastern Europeans currently meet none of the criteria. However, for them, differences begin to dissipate over time: they learn the indigenous language and accents slowly disappear. One generation on, they will no doubt assimilate seamlessly into the mainstream population - the only lasting symbol being a strange surname or a different faith. For all the talk of Muslims being vilified, this is nearly always a euphemism for "those brown-skinned people with a culture I don't understand". Let's not forget: in Bosnia and Kosovo, where the Muslims were white, they were the good guys.
Another problem is the wildly inaccurate estimates that people give for the number of ethnic-minority people in Britain. The real figure is 5 million, but many believe it to be almost 20 million. No wonder they feel "swamped". As far as perception is concerned, visible minorities are like cars. You buy a new one and suddenly you notice the same model everywhere. People see visible minorities "everywhere". They just don't notice the white faces in between.
Update 2 (9:04 PM, Jan. 26th, 2005): Reaction to this piece at Randy McDonald's blog. I put in a defence of my position. See for yourself what you think. Also, my old flatmate from Edinburgh, Rob Dinsdale, emailed last night to say, "Just read your most recent post on your blog, and I have to say that I'm with you on this one. I've been quite perturbed this week by Michael Howard tickling my nation's xenophobic underbelly. Not quite sure where the Tories are going to go after this, after they hopefully get humped in the general election. They've gone as far as ripping off Australian ideas, but how much further right can they go?"