Monday, 29 August 2016

Is Britain a nation of immigrants? Plus some thoughts on the "British Values" problem

At no time in the last 25 years has total immigration into the United Kingdom fallen below 250,000 per year. In only one year since 2002 has it been below 500,000 (and even then it was only just below - 498,000). Between the censuses of 1951 and 2011, so over much less than a lifetime, the proportion of the population born overseas increased more than threefold, from a little over 4% to 13.4%.

Many people are concerned by the sustained high level of settlement by people from outside the UK that has persisted, on and off, since the late 1940s. Others are not. Those who favour mass immigration often insist that Britain is a "nation of immigrants".

But is this actually true?

If by the phrase “a nation of immigrants”, people simply mean that Britain has always contained various non-indigenous populations, mostly in London or port cities, then yes, it is a nation of immigrants. But if instead they are claiming, in defence of high rates of immigration, that modern immigration patterns are nothing out of the ordinary from a historical perspective, and that Britain has frequently seen large-scale permanent settlement by outsiders during her history, then that is simply incorrect. A much more accurate statement would be that until around the time of the Second World War Britain was a homogeneous and settled society, whose economic success, relative openness and tolerance ensured inflows of immigrants throughout the modern period, but that these were almost all demographically insignificant.

I am not asking people to approve, or indeed to disapprove, of this – only to acknowledge that it is fact, regardless of their view on immigration (this is not a post about the rights and wrongs of immigration). If you are a white British person, there’s a good chance you can trace your ancestry in the British Isles back a very long way. From the Norman Conquest to the Second World War, Britain was largely ethnically stable, and even the Conquest itself may have had a lesser demographic impact than one might imagine. Indeed, there is an ongoing debate as to the exact demographic significance not only of the Conquest, but of other events that are traditionally assumed to have had considerable demographic significance. This article from The New Scientist last year looks at some of the most recent research in this area, and suggests that of the four main invasions in recorded British history up to 1066 - the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings and the Normans - only the Anglo-Saxons came and stayed in sufficient numbers to leave a large genetic footprint.

There is very little sign in either the historical record or population DNA analysis of large and regular “waves” of immigration. One that people like to talk about is the Huguenots (and a small number of Walloons), Protestant refugees from Catholic France. The main Huguenot migration began in the late seventeenth century, although smaller numbers had arrived in Edward VI's time. This was the first time that England had accepted a large number of refugees, and we were right to do so, but in almost no important respects does the Huguenot migration bear any resemblance to the huge migrations into Britain that have taken place since the Second World War, and particularly since 1997. The most obvious difference is the numbers. No more than 50,000 Huguenots settled here, and that settlement was over a long period of time, with the great majority arriving between 1680 and 1720. Obviously flows were not constant from year to year, but c.50,000 over four decades is an average of just over 1,000 newcomers per year, or less than one fiftieth of one percent of the contemporary British population of around six million. It is only perhaps 0.2% of the population of London in the late seventeenth century.

It should also be noted that a significant minority, perhaps one fifth, of that 50,000 did not stay in Britain, moving on to Ireland, and that the Huguenot settlement was followed by a return to the status quo ante of minimal immigration, which lasted into the nineteenth century, giving the new arrivals time to settle and integrate and the existing population time to absorb them. Moreover, the Huguenots were for the most part highly skilled, keen to integrate, and shared with their British hosts an adherence to Protestant Christianity and the wider culture of Christian Europe (albeit Britain’s place within that culture had been complicated by the Reformation).  

There is one nationality whose movement into Britain might be said to resemble the kind of permanent, large-scale settlements that characterise post-1945 immigration, and that is the Irish. There were long-standing links between Ireland and Scotland, and Irish trading communities in English and Welsh towns on the west coast, but significant Irish migration to England began with the industrial revolution and the rapid growth of the big northern cities, and by 1841 there were 415,725 Irish-born citizens in Britain (2.3% of the population). This number almost doubled in the next two decades, with most of that growth coming in the 1840s as the Irish fled famine and disease at home. By the 1861 census Irish-born people were 3.6% of the total British population, but this represents a peak: in the two subsequent censuses (1871 and 1881) the figure for Irish-born people was a little lower.

The number of Irish-born residents then fell very steeply in the 1880s, by about 130,000, and continued to decline for the next three decades, with a particularly big fall in the first decade of the twentieth century. In 1921 only 1.3% of British residents had been born in Ireland. The USA had replaced Britain as the most popular destination for Irish emigrants perhaps as early as the 1830s (faster and more affordable transatlantic travel in the form of steamships was an important factor).

So here we have a population movement that looks more like modern immigration – but only if you squint a bit and hold the picture upside down. For one thing, between 1801 and 1922 Irish people coming to England, Scotland and Wales were not really immigrants at all, but internal migrants within the UK, which for those 121 years included the whole island of Ireland. In addition, even though this migration continued on a fairly large scale for some time, and caused considerable consternation for many Victorians, it is still utterly different in scale from the situation in 2016, when the foreign-born population of the UK is well in excess of 10% and likely to rise considerably in the not very distant future.

Non-Irish immigration in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries remained comparatively low, although it was rising. The two largest groups of immigrants, except the Irish, were Jews and other Europeans, mostly Eastern Europeans. By the time of the Second World War there were about 400,000 Jews in the UK. The vast majority of them were either refugees from Eastern Europe and Russia who had arrived in the course of the nineteenth century, or refugees from the Nazis who had arrived much more recently. As late as 1800 it had been estimated that there were no more than 20,000 Jews in Britain, the population having slowly recovered from practically zero since Cromwell’s informal relaxation of the total ban on Jews that had existed in England from 1290 onwards.

Among the c.82,000 Eastern Europeans in Britain by the time of the 1901 census, Poles featured heavily. There had been small numbers of Polish merchants in port towns since Elizabethan times; the population was swelled first by Polish Protestants in the eighteenth century, and then by refugees from Tsarist oppression in the nineteenth.

As well as the much smaller numbers, another important difference between historical immigration and modern-day immigration is that the UK in which pre-Second World War immigrants found themselves had a strong cultural and national identity into which they were expected to integrate (and did, by and large). To give one small but not atypical example: in his book The Diversity Illusion, Ed West discusses how Jewish immigrants in London set up schools for Jewish boys with the express purpose of making them into English gentlemen. By contrast, the start of the great post-war migrant flows into Britain, and the ones after 1997, coincided with enormous cultural upheaval and fragmentation, and our post-imperial identity crisis, which has had the result that there is no longer any widely shared idea of what Britain is, or what it is for.

Charles de Gaulle, that towering figure of twentieth century France, began his memoirs with the immortal line Toute ma vie, je me suis fait une certaine idée de la France; “All my life, I have had a certain idea of France”, that is, he had some vision of what France stood for, her place in the world, her special qualities. British politicians talk about expecting people to adopt “British values”, but when pressed as to what these values are, they reach for windy platitudes about tolerance, respect, equal opportunities, gay rights and so on. The problem is that as good as those things might be, they just aren’t distinctively British in the sense that most politicians mean them. Rather, they represent the ethical commitments of universalist liberals, who make up the majority of the establishment in most Western countries in the current year.

I understand why politicians retreat to the safe zone of banality. If you were to compile a list of specific British achievements and characteristics, there would be great potential for causing controversy and offence. You would have to include things like the common law and its (admittedly far from perfect) traditions of maximal liberty and respect for conscience; the influence of Christian thought on our entire legal regime; and the civilised compromise between different streams in Christianity represented by the Anglican Church, as well as that institution’s glorious literary, musical, artistic and liturgical legacy. You could hardly avoid discussing the pattern of our landscape, or our unique and ancient constitutional arrangements, often mocked by clever would-be reformers, but ensuring peaceful changes of government and orderly administration for more than 300 years. You’d probably have to mention our great achievements in the arts, exploration, trade, finance, science and technology, our robust civil society and independent institutions, unarmed policing by consent, the right to jury trial and the presumption of innocence, and our long-standing powerful protections for freedom of speech and press freedom.

In other words, you’d spend a lot of time talking about Christianity, Britain's stint as Top Nation, tradition, hierarchy, elitism, high culture, independence from bossy government, and Dead White Men. I suspect that most politicians in the UK, if they have even heard of most of the things mentioned in the paragraph above, would rather have complicated dental surgery.

Data on historical Jewish and Eastern European settlement, and on the debate surrounding the demographic impact of early medieval invasions, is from


  1. Great post.

    A few thoughts:

    1. I suspect that it is not just embarrassment about traditional values that causes our politicians to be mealy-mouthed about 'British' identity (and how many people who are historically British primarily identify as such, rather than as English, Scottish, Welsh, or Irish?). Perhaps they can't adequately control immigration and are struggling to find a way of forging a non-exclusionary collective identity out the messy reality of twenty-first century demographics. There is no possible plan B in our globalized world if we can't make a high immigration, multi-cultural Britain work. Speaking truthfully about what is happening won't empower us to change anything, but may just heighten simmering tensions.

    2. The percentage of the population born outside of the UK is dramatically higher in London (36.7% in 2011 and rising). This isn't even including the second generation immigrant population. How meaningful or workable is a nativist-weighted identity in such a context? The fact that our politicians' experience of the UK is dominated by London is a problem here. In many respects, London is an outlier, not the appropriate determiner of British identity.

    3. There is constant pressure to speak of immigration in binary terms. One is either for or against 'immigration' as such, with the attendant implication of being for or against immigrants as persons. This leaves little room to speak about the specifics of immigrant groups, the rate of immigration, saturation levels, etc., etc. Liberal universalists are seldom willing to speak about group differences, about the significance of religious differences, about different marriage customs, levels of clannishness, degrees of cultural proximity, about the failures of integration, and the like.

    4. Our tendency towards ethical universalism is an important cultural trait, but that very trait prevents liberals from appreciating its cultural particularity and the tendency for the trait to destroy the conditions of its own existence through indiscriminate welcome. I don't want us to abandon the trait, but in order to prevent its loss we need to recognize that limits must be placed upon tolerance, inclusion, equality, etc. and that we must honour, appreciate, and privilege our own particularity in order to preserve our universalism (e.g. our marriage customs, religious heritage, forms of institutions).

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