My father was born in 1904 to Russian-Jewish refugee parents. They had fled one of the repeated and murderous Russian and Eastern European pogroms carried out in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The following year Britain enacted its first real immigration legislation with the Aliens Act. This had been specifically drafted to deal with the Jewish migrations. Prior to that there was no official barrier to migrants and the country had received, (though without enthusiasm) the Huguenots in the C16th and the Irish following the famines. We managed to accommodate thousands of Poles and Hungarians in the post-war, Cold War 1950s and Ugandan Asians in the 1960s – though again to popular disapproval.
Our welcome to migrants has always been grudging, although – as with our resignation to loss of Empire – based on some pragmatic fusion of recognising the inevitable and ‘doing the right thing’. And for many of our immigrants like my father, life has turned out fine, although qualified by struggles and a pervasive sense of being seen as (or perhaps continuing to feel) ‘different’, however assimilated or socially elevated they may have become.
These are disturbed times: some of the world’s most significant nations are led by men of questionable sanity, humanity or competence. Refugees and economic migrants clamour to reach safe havens in Europe and North America. COVID19 has created not merely fear but economic uncertainty. For Britain, Brexit may appear to return ‘control of our borders’, but at an unknown price.
Colin Yeo’s book Welcome to Britain is published in a social and political climate where case-making for more liberal immigration policies is likely to cause even greater controversy than it usually does. Yeo is a barrister and edits the Free Movement website. His focal argument is that migrants should be treated as ‘citizens in waiting’ and in a much more thoughtful and humane way. His core prosecution case is that our current immigration management system is ramshackle, deliberately over-complex to the point of being Kafkaesque, cruel and consciously racist in design and execution. These charges are comprehensively exemplified and fluently expressed. They stand up, and if I were this Government’s defending counsel I would urge a plea of guilty and hope to make a case for mitigation stick
The relevance of drastic immigration reform to present social issues is clear. There are an estimated one million ‘unauthorised’ or ‘illegal’ migrants resident and for the most part working in the UK. The great majority will be in lower paid (but socially valuable) and less secure work. A high proportion will have a different skin colour to the ‘native’ population. Many of these people (legal or otherwise) will be front line in our health and social care services and will have suffered disproportionately during the COVID crisis – largely through overexposure and under-protection. The Windrush debacle shows the callous incompetence of the Home Office in relation even to our own long resident citizens. The unfinished business of the Grenfell Tower tragedy highlights not merely the poverty of our social housing provision, but the decadence and corruption of our building industry.
The Black Lives Matter resurgence has further highlighted the issues faced by our black community in terms of social and economic disadvantage caused, at root, by racial prejudice. It is to be hoped that the iconoclastic dramatization of slavery and colonialism does not over-reach, becoming a law-and-order and cultural war which diverts government and social attention from the national need for major changes in housing, education and access to equality of opportunity. The identification of a BAME populace reminds us that whilst black people have some very particular issues to resolve the problems are wider. At root is poverty, and poor whites are advantaged only by their skin tone.
Yeo’s work is good and important. Of course we should treat migrants humanely and remove the most punitive measures employed. The recent Glasgow hotel stabbings are a good example of how application of these can take vulnerable people over the edge. But until we have made better progress on the basic circumstances of the poorest of our current populace –whatever their colour or citizenship status – simply having some of them relabelled as ‘citizens in waiting’ is merely to re-badge the problem.
Offering solutions to our racial prejudice and social welfare crisis is beyond my pay grade and the scope of this book review. As the son of a fully assimilated and non-practicing Jewish father (and Cockney mother) I can tolerate the odd snide reference to my ancestral race. The test for me is: would I rather have a Jewish background or be black? As a white Englishman I have then to ask, why is all this necessary? We have so many black people of merit and achievement to admire and Marcus Rashford showed how much could be done by simple leadership. We need more of them to speak more loudly and more white voices to join them.