Let me start today, by affirming that I am not, and have never been, a political animal. As I hail from the Emerald Isle, just a short boat ride away, I have lived on both sides of a border which politics created and maintained. The current worldwide hysteria over immigration has left me, and I am sure many others, disturbed, saddened and uneasy. Although my relocation to these shores, several times over the years, have been in a mood of optimism and comparative ease, I sympathise with those fleeing their war-torn homes and would urge those less compassionate to revisit the history of the British Isles.
As one travels these shores, relics of the most significant early wave of immigrants, that of the Romans, may be found in the road structure, place names and of course historic monuments. Estimates put the size of this “invasion” at around 125,000 people, around 3% of the population of that time.At the end of the Roman Empire, In the period of upheaval that followed its collapse, Germanic tribes such as the Jutes, Angles and Saxons continued to invade and settle. Subsequent Viking and Norman incursions added Scandinavian and French genes to our ancestry. Jews and Flemings brought knowledge of their crafts and trades during the Middle Ages.
From the sixteenth century on, the slave trade brought unwilling Africans to our shores. From this time, political unrest and subsequent war brought Europeans; during and after World War II eastern Europeans were actively recruited to work in Britain as “guest workers”. Polish soldiers who did not wish to return to a Soviet-dominated Poland were offered citizenship with the Polish Resettlement Act of 1947, and as so many people were displaced at that time, many “foreigners” settled on these shores. Asian, American and Commonwealth immigration brought relatively small numbers of people from the 18th century onwards.
Prior to Partition in the 1920s, Ireland was part of the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland. Famine, poverty and the search for work led to a well-documented history of emigration from Irish shores. Yet even these “neighbours” were unwelcome arrivals. Modern history relates that they, and similarly the Afro-Caribbean folk, were greeted in the fifties with boarding house signs coldly stating “No Blacks, No Irish, No dogs”. Modern classic The Lonely Londoners, written by Samuel Selvon, speaks of a capital city of “little worlds” which existed at that time.
This almost constant flow of people has not been only one way. As current governments talk of closing borders and building walls, we should remember that. Early settlers and the establishment of colonies around the world, bestow these isles with an extensive history of emigration. In the nineteenth century, Britain became the fifth largest emigration nation following Germany, Ireland, Italy and Austria-Hungary. This potential “brain drain” still runs at over 300,000 per annum. Just like those seeking our shores, those fleeing Britain cite better job and life prospects as a reason to move!
While these isles may have lost famous, or potentially famous, names the inward flow of talent over the years has included such household names as Karl Marx, Handel, Sigmund Freud and Michael Marks, founding partner of Marks and Spencer. Without immigrants, our country would be a poorer place. Not only would our hospitals, trades and agriculture struggle for manpower but there would be fewer curry houses and Asian takeaways. So, I am bound to suggest, with apologies to JFK whose quote I have cobbled, perhaps you should ask not what immigrants can do for you, ask what you can do for them?