David Coleman on why it is nonsense to say that
Britain is a nation of immigrants —
only permitted argument remaining in the Townend affair is whether he
and a few other pariahs may or may not be allowed to express opinions
universally accepted as wrong and repulsive. His assertions themselves
are now officially racist, a label against which there is little
defence: it appears to mean what accusers say it means — nothing
more, nothing less. This state of affairs is one of the more
depressing consequences of the attempt to create a 'multicultural'
society: we are all now obliged to believe without doubting whatever
the CRE may reveal about its merits and its attendant myths.
It is one thing to accept, as a matter of
fact, that Britain has become 'multicultural' or multi-ethnic',
meaning that postwar mass migration has brought to Britain a variety
of new ways of life, values, identities and loyalties to which
immigrants and their children may remain attached. But
'multiculturalism' often means much more; a dedication to a
'multicultural' policy in the sense of an official commitment to the
preservation of those cultural differences, while displacing the
values of the host society from the primacy formerly taken for
granted. This recognition of group rights, with all its baggage of
ethnic questions, monitoring, targets, group representation,
'positive' action and all the rest is, however, only one of several
ways to approach the problems of large-scale non-European immigration.
Official perpetuation of ethnic
differences in a new, ethnically corporate state by this
'institutional multiculturalism' is actually quite an extreme
position. Other liberal societies, perhaps more conscious of their
constitution, take an opposite view. In the French tradition, for
example, both Right and Left have looked upon the formalisation of
ethnic and religious distinctions with alarm, as divisive and harmful,
seeking instead individual equality under a common citizenship with
shared constitutional values — a concept which we might revive.
As far as I can see from press snippets,
John Townend claimed that immigrants, or at least their descendants,
should adapt to become part of the country in which they have chosen
to live. As a general proposition, this seems to be a proper aim of
public policy, one widely followed in other countries and in line
with natural justice. The dreaded m-word, however, which no one
excuses, sealed his fate. But Townend seemed to be complaining that others
(e.g. Mr. Cook) had so labelled his constituents, along with all
residents of this country, as merely being part of a 'nation of
immigrants', for which he used that vulgar synonym.
It would not be surprising if his
didn't think much of the suggestion that Britain was just a 'nation
of immigrants' (and therefore, of course, had no business objecting to
any more settling here). It isn't true. Yet it is one of the supporting
myths of the multicultural society; one of the more bizarre inventions
of New Labour's New History.
In so far as it means anything, the
that Britain is, a 'nation of immigrants' is contradicted by history,
demography and genetics. We cannot know in detail the ancestry of our
people. No population has 'pure' origins; to reject the 'nation of
immigrants' label is not to claim that they do. Nonetheless, English
population history is known better than almost any other in the world;
it has been reconstructed carefully from the i6th century. Although
few direct data on migration exist, this demographic reconstruction
implies substantial emigration, as we would expect. Immigration
forms no part of the story.
Of course, there is always a drift of
in and out over the centuries in all but the most closed societies,
and immigrant populations are normal. Some notable episodes have
punctuated that small drift of people. The Flemings are a well-known
group, for example; but those who list these and other episodes in
support of their case seem to have little idea how small such
contributions were in comparison with the general population.
cannot be precise, but the Flemings seem to have comprised only a
fraction of 1 per cent of a population that was then about three
million. Later on, up to 100,000 Huguenots, middle-class Protestant
refugees — equivalent to about 1 million today — were more
numerous, but quickly assimilated.
similar number of Ashkenazi Jews in the late 19th century made a
smaller impression on a population by then risen by natural increase
to 30 million. They were soon more British than the British in
reducing their birth-rate to low levels, on their way up the social
impoverished black servants and slaves of the 18th century are a
puzzle. Some British families today claim ancient black ancestry. But
most seem to have left no descendants. Blood-group data from blood
donors show no trace; the new genetics of mitochondrial DNA and
Y‑chromosomes will clear up the matter.
Irish, linked to Great Britain for more than a millennium, hardly come
into the same category of 'immigrant'. Most of Britain's five million
or so Roman Catholics have some Irish ancestry. Today most marry
non-Catholics and no longer regard themselves as 'Irish'. The number
born in Ireland peaked at 900,000 in the 1970s: 2 per cent of the
population, just as in 1841. Today their number is falling as the
Irish 'tiger economy' flourishes.
the remote past, things were different. People lived in Britain for
half a million years until the Ice Ages pushed them out. The country,
not then an island, was almost uninhabitable until 10,000 years ago.
Then, not even Eskimos lived north of Watford. Population drifted
back, although from about 6000 bc
until 1909 they all had to come by boat. The Anglo-Saxons
(originally guest-workers, of course) and the Danes of the Dark Ages
were, indeed, the last major colonists. Historians cannot agree
whether the Romano-British were eliminated
Universal Anglo-Saxon place names and the absence of Celtic roots in
English suggest genocide, but others claim that no more than 100,000
Saxons arrived over more than a century, among well over a million
Britons. The hostile takeover by the brutish Norman ruling class had
immense cultural and political consequences but was demographically
and genes confirm a British population little affected by immigration
for a millennium, with many traces of ancient local settlement. The US
state department website says so, and the CIA should know, after all.
The demographic record tells of Britain and Ireland as countries of
emigration, not immigration. From the 16th century, several million
people have left for the New World and elsewhere.
Postwar immigration from the New Commonwealth, and more recently from the
rest of the world, is different. It has never stopped, and with higher
birth-rates the new population continues to grow much faster than the
native, from negligible numbers in 1950 to almost four million now.
That is nearly 7 per cent of the population of England and Wales.
Births to mothers born outside the UK have increased from 12 per cent
in 1989 to 14 per cent in 1999. Immigration has grown to record
levels, adding 190,000 foreign citizens to the population in 1999
alone and more than 1.2 million since 1990: a new London borough every
year and a new conurbation in the decade. Even that does not make us a
'nation of immigrants' yet.
Robin Cook's apotheosis of curry is typical
of the banal triviality of arguments in favour of permanent cultural
diversity, the rest seeming vague to the point of invisibility, or
plainly perverse, like the expensive and divisive Babel of language in
London which he asked us to celebrate last month. This is insulting to
all concerned. There must be more serious grounds for turning the
country upside-down. Let us hear them.
Meanwhile, in the real world a multicultural
society faces some dilemmas. The problem with 'multicultural' policy
is that it is a fundamentalist Utopia. It cannot admit the possibility
of conflicts between the values, behaviour and loyalties of
immigrant populations and those of the natives, and has no principles
for determining which should prevail when incompatibilities arise
(both, of course, are equally 'valid').
It is attractive to those who dislike their
own old, conservative, racist and off-message society, and who see
new cultural preferences as a way of displacing it. Yet its
practical problems do not lack evidence. They include the poverty
arising from some minority family patterns, variously of lone
parenthood and large family size; the incompatibility of strongly held
traditional views on female position and family honour with modern
aspirations to gender equality;
the explicit rejection of integration
implicit in the continuation of arranged marriages and the increased
immigration arising from it; and the perpetuation in Britain of the
ethnic conflicts of the Third World seen recently in Oldham. While
most increase in crime is not due to ethnic minorities, the
disproportionate contribution of ethnic-minority youth to London's
street crime is a dismal fact. Gradual adaptation to a new life should
make at least some of these issues transient. But that, it seems, is
not to be encouraged.
What is Conservative policy on
these issues? If anything, it now seems further Left than Labour's.
What, exactly, do Mr. Hague, Lord Taylor and the others want us to
believe in order that we should all be saved, and to reject that which
makes Townend such a heretic?
The greater damage to the Conservative
party is not from Townend's clumsy remarks, which Hague could easily
have brushed aside, as Bruce Anderson suggested last week. Much worse,
Hague's misjudgments in falling into the CRE trap were compounded by
being panicked by Lord Taylor's threat and by the intolerance of his
party's liberals into what seems to be a blanket endorsement of a
multicultural policy and of the unqualified benefits of immigration,
formerly a highly contentious issue. Is the Conservative party now,
for fear of the CRE, committed to the ethnically corporate state which
multiculturalism implies? If existing multicultural 'diversity' may
now only be uncritically 'celebrated', whatever its manifestations,
what justification remains for policies which limit immigration, or
for that matter asylum-claiming? His illiberal response in suppressing
widely held and arguable views on immigration and on the country's
cultural future have created a one-party state on the issue. No
respectable political party now permits dissent on these matters; the
egregious CRE has been elevated to a position beyond criticism.
This has arisen because a few embarrassed
politicians lack the knowledge or wit to see difficulties in our
present situation regarding immigration and its consequences, lack
the ability to find reasonable words for reasonable concerns, or
lack the courage to speak of them.
Coleman is reader in demography at Oxford University.