Immigration through the ages, is it different today?

Some 75% of respondents to a recent YouGov poll indicated that they were ‘concerned’ about immigration. It’s just not good enough to dismiss their concerns as irrational. All politicians and community leaders need to wake up to the fact that this concern, whether justified or not, needs to be addressed. When it comes to migration, either in or out, the British Isles has previous history, as does my own family.

On December 30, 1869 the American passenger ship, SS City of Washington, arrived in New York harbour after a voyage from Liverpool that had lasted the best part of three weeks. Amongst the many passengers on board, mostly seeking a better life in the New World, were my recently widowed great-great grandmother, Jane Marriott, together with three of her four daughters, and two of her granddaughters (the other daughter was to join them with her husband a few years later).

Remaining behind in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire were her two surviving sons, including my great grandfather. Two branches of the family survive in the USA to this day.

Scroll forward one hundred years and in August 1970; my wife and I landed at Edmonton International Airport in Alberta, Canada, where I had secured a post teaching French and German in a senior High School.

Although our means of travel had been much quicker, and definitely more comfortable than that of my ancestors, our emigration (our British passports carried the stamp ‘Landed Immigrant’) would appear to have followed a family tradition.

This, in our case, meant three years on the Canadian prairies, including a trip along the west coast of the USA as far as Mexico, followed by a year spent for me teaching English in a West German grammar school, before returning permanently to these shores in 1974.

Both my ancestors and I were able to go and live and work abroad because we provided the countries we settled in with what they needed. A young country like the USA in the 19th century welcomed new citizens, as, for most, the journey would be one way, whilst Canada and West Germany in the 1970s needed skilled workers such as teachers.

So desperate were some parts of Germany for teachers at that time that cities like Bremen were recruiting US science teachers who, it was alleged, were allowed to conduct their lessons in English! West Germany’s post war ‘Economic Miracle’ would have been impossible without foreign labour, not only from Common Market countries but also from countries such as Turkey.

Some of you may remember the 1980s TV series ‘Auf Wiedersehen, Pet’, which charted the sometimes hilarious adventures of a group of Brits working on German building sites. It would appear that the wheel has now turned full circle and, in addition to tradesmen from Europe, it’s ironic that some parts of the UK are now seeking to fill teacher shortages by recruiting from Canada, where they now have a surplus of teachers.

Given my own experience it is highly unlikely that I am ever going to advocate pulling up the drawbridge completely and not allowing any more immigration into this country, just as I could not possibly stand in the way of those who wish to seek their fortune abroad.

Since time immemorial people have moved around and many ‘foreigners’ have settled here. From the Diaspora in the first millennium, the Jewish peoples were early arrivals in Europe and in this country in particular (and didn’t always receive a warm reception).

In the 17th century the protestant Huguenots began arriving in large numbers on our shores, followed a couple of centuries later by large numbers of Jews from Eastern Europe, fleeing from Tsarist pogroms, although most continued their journey across the Atlantic.

After World War II, citizens of the West Indies were actively recruited to help to run basic services, whilst many Indians and Pakistanis were encouraged to settle here to work in the hosiery industry around my home town of Leicester and what were left of our cotton mills, particularly in the North of England.

In more recent decades, many people have arrived from the former communist countries. Some have stayed and some have returned home. Conversely, let us also not forget all those generations of Britons who have gone to live abroad, many of whom have stayed and some who have returned, particularly in North America, Australia and New Zealand as well as all those in recent times who have retired to countries like Spain and France or even further afield.

I acknowledge that my fairly liberal attitude towards immigration does not go down well with many people, who see their country changing almost before their eyes. Hearing foreign languages spoken openly on the streets here may be a fascination to a linguist like me but it is undoubtedly viewed with suspicion by many and I understand their concerns.

Perhaps if the UK were more like the USA, a melting pot, where nationalities came together far more, the problem might not be so great. But it isn’t, whether we like it or not, possibly because we are a much older country than our former colonies both in the northern and southern hemisphere. The tendency in the first generation to stick together and not to integrate with the population at large, either through fear or through religion and custom, has not helped.

There are still quite clearly some people who feel uneasy, even threatened, when confronted with someone whose skin colour is a different colour from their own, although they are far less likely to admit it publicly compared with a few decades ago. To label them with the crude term of ‘racist’ would be unfair.

It is clear that there is room on this island of ours for new people whose skills we need as well as for those who are genuinely seeking shelter from oppression. However, as this increase is usually targeted in urban areas, the strain is now beginning to show as services are struggling to cope. It is for this reason that we need a sensible and rational debate as to whether, for the sake of social cohesion, we should limit the numbers entering our country more than we do at the moment.

The danger is that recent immigrants have again become convenient scapegoats for many of the problems we face, some of which are undoubtedly of our own making. That said, surely it is not beyond our capacity to come up with a way of at least making sure that those arriving, unless they are genuine asylum seekers, have a job to come to or are dependents with a right to join spouses or family members.

If this means challenging the concept of the free movement of peoples as set out in the Treaty of Rome, then so be it. This treaty was designed for a much smaller number of nations and, like many of the institutions of the EU, needs updating in the light of changes that have occurred in Europe over the past 60 years. For much too long the problem has been brushed under the carpet for fear of evoking the wrath of the politically correct.

Don’t forget that migration works both ways. As a young man I was able to gain experience working abroad and millions of Britons are currently living, working or retiring outside the UK – and what about all those students who spend their gap year travelling around the world with many supporting themselves by taking up temporary paid work?

Nobody appears to question the young British doctor or nurse, for example, who, after receiving expensive training in the UK, chooses to work in relatively wealthy countries like Australia, Canada or the USA. I wonder if the same applies for developing countries seeing their skilled practioners being poached by the higher salaries in the west, given the mammoth task faced at home. I worked for four years before I went abroad. I wonder if a three or four year rule ought to apply to some of our highly trained people? However, enforcing such a ‘law’ might prove difficult.

I would argue that migration is basically no different today; but, if you drill down, you will find subtle changes. Countries that used to be the traditional destinations for migrants no longer offer the myriad of opportunities they once did, especially as service and manual jobs have become more scarce and harder to maintain.

Also, given that people expect a certain standard of living, no government would wish to put that in jeopardy by sanctioning an immigration free-for-all which was virtually the case a generation or so ago. Firm but fair controls are, in my opinion, necessary if social harmony is to be maintained and these need to be seen to be enforced otherwise they will lack credibility. That sensible and rational debate I advocated earlier in this piece is so vital if we are all to profit from the contributions we make or have made, no matter where we originally come from.