Migration and History

The travails of the British Conservative party, although a source of great interest and amusement to the likes of me, seem trivial by the side of the great problem besetting us all just now: which is – apart from the ongoing crisis of capitalism – migration. I say ‘migration’ rather than ‘immigration’ because, obviously, it is problematic at both ends; indeed, far more so at ‘their’ end – the Syrian refugees’ – than at ours.

It is also – what many people seem to be unaware of, or to forget – part of a recurring theme in human history (animal history too: but that’s outside my brief), ever since the first humans came out of the Rift Valley of Kenya to populate nearly everywhere else, and our particular breed of humanity somehow displaced the Neanderthals in Europe. (Who were, I’ve been told, despite their reputation, rather nicer.) Since then we have had huge population movements on all continents, and often between continents, with one group of people being displaced or complemented by another: in Britain by Romans, ‘Saxons’, Danes, Normans, Irish, Huguenots, French refugees, Jews, West Indians, Asians, Russian oligarchs and foreign footballers; and out of Britain by the English, Scots and Irish settling overseas, wherever the indigenous peoples let them, or were too technologically backward to resist them, in the movement known as ‘colonialism’. Elsewhere there was the German Drang nach Osten in the Middle Ages, and then revived under the Nazis; succeeded by Poland’s ethnic cleansing after 1945 of its western provinces of the Germans who had settled there (not often mentioned today); America’s and Russia’s colonising of their western and eastern frontier regions; and similar movements in the Balkans and the Middle East in recent years. I’m sure the same applies everywhere else. The Australian aborigines must have come from somewhere. According to recent scholarship, Native Americans were not originally ‘native’, but displaced an earlier population. In fact it is difficult to find truly ‘indigenous’ peoples anywhere, outside, I guess, the Rift Valley. The broad history of humanity has been one of migration; very occasionally into empty territories – terrus nullius – but more often into lands already claimed and populated, however thinly, by others.

This great recurring movement hasn’t always involved tension between the invading and receiving populations. Native (north) Americans apparently got on pretty well with their European immigrants early on, helping them, indeed, to survive the first winters in the latters’ new land. In Britain’s case, after the original waves of invasions, which usually – in typical mediaeval fashion – involved pillage, rape, slaughter and worse (Romans against the original Britons, Saxons invading what was left of the Britons, Vikings terrorising the Saxons, then the Normans brutally suppressing both), many of the later incomers were tolerated pretty liberally, with much less persecution of the Jews than in most European countries, and political refugees (my area) received tolerantly, at worst. By and large modern Britain has been, I believe, surprisingly successful in integrating ‘blacks’ into her society, although that has been largely due to those ‘blacks’’ being willing to integrate themselves; and of course it takes time, and can be endangered by religio-cultural antagonisms, on both sides, as we see in the case of some Muslim incomers today. On the whole, however, Britain has shown how even fairly large-scale immigration can be adjusted to, over a short period of time. The United States  also prides itself on this – the ‘melting-pot’ – but has been only patchily successful in the cases of African and Hispanic Americans. Even the history of Islam – one of the most exclusionist and intolerant cultures in the world, judging by its practice over the centuries (and by bits of the Qu’ran) – throws up some examples of different cultures living together in amity, and to everyone’s mutual benefit; in Spain, for example, and much of the Middle East before Bush and Blair stirred up that particular hornet’s nest.

I’m sorry: I have no particular lesson to offer from this. Although mass migration has always been with us, it has been in a variety of circumstances, none of which is strictly comparable to the present day. The solutions seem to be pretty obvious, but no less intractable for that. (1) Stop the war in Syria. That would cut off the supply at a stroke. (2) Increase the compulsory minimum wage in Britain, which would stop Eastern European migrants (another category of immigrant entirely) from simply undercutting workers here. Alternatively, restore intra-European border controls. (3) Share out the (accredited) Middle Eastern refugees fairly among the members of the EU, so that almost the entire burden isn’t borne by Germany and Sweden, thus undermining their generosity by stimulating nativist movements there. (4) Institute proper government programmes for the housing, feeding, training and employment of the refugees, with a regard to (a) the employment needs of each receiving country, and (b) whether or not they intend to stay after the crises in their own countries are over. But everyone knows this.

In the particular historical example of immigration into Britain I’m most familiar with – nineteenth century refugees – none of this was done. It couldn’t be; it required government intervention, and Britain was too ideologically laissez-faire for that. But history isn’t always a good guide for later times.

Nonetheless it’s worth bearing in mind from history  that migration isn’t new; and indeed has been one of the main threads running throughout the history of the world, with arguably more positive effects than negative, in the shape of the kind of cultural cross-fertilisation that is necessary to progress, in most circumstances.

This ‘liberal’ view of mine may be influenced by the recollection that as a postgraduate student at Cambridge I lived amongst an astonishingly varied collection of foreign nationalities, faiths and ‘races’ – Indian, American, Australian, New Zealander, South African, Brazilian, Ethiopian, Sri Lankan, Canadian, Irish, Nigerian, Egyptian, even a couple of Scots – in what I think was the most stimulating time of my life. I’m not naive enough to think that because I got on so well with all these other nationalities, others should also be able to. We all shared a common cultural ‘identity’ as scholars, after all, which trumped all the others. It must be more difficult for an unemployed man in Rochdale to feel a common identity, as a worker, with the Pakistani round the corner who has got a job. And in Cambridge the foreigners didn’t (quite) outnumber us natives. Numbers are crucial. That’s why they need to be shared out. If only the EU were the kind of organisation that could do this.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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