"Buying a Stamp? Sorry, We Only Serve Asylum-Seekers." This headline indicates the kind of prejudice incurred by the latest batch of immigrants to Britain. A Dover newspaper described them as "the scum of the earth". Elsewhere they were accused, wrongly, of spit-roasting royal swans and eating donkeys. And, as Robert Winder points out, The Sun's campaign against "the grasping nomads of Eastern Europe" is reminiscent of that directed against Jewish refugees during the 1930s.
Worse still, politicians are colluding with the populist press to portray Britain as "a soft touch for the organised asylum-racketeers who are flooding this country with bogus asylum-seekers". William Hague proposed to keep all such migrants "under lock and key". Opposition to new arrivals seems to be their own fault. After the Oldham riots, David Blunkett, himself presiding over a Kafkaesque entry system, recommended that immigrants should learn English. The implication was clear: their poor grasp of the language had been responsible for the violence, not racist thugs.
Of course, xenophobia is always with us. It was said of the diplomat Sir Horace Rumbold that if the Last Trump sounded, "he would gaze unperturbed through his glass eye and wish there were not so many damned foreigners about". Or, as Lord Redesdale put it, "Abroad is unutterably bloody and foreigners are fiends."
Nevertheless, Winder's narrative history of immigration could hardly appear at a more opportune moment. Its special merit is that it traces the saga from its roots in a style that is both passionate and dispassionate, enlightened and illuminating. Winder's book is a liberal trumpet-call, a cogent polemic against the demonisation of aliens and a masterly attack on the obscurantist mythology surrounding immigration.
He starts from the impeccable premise that we are all immigrants and all mongrels. "The True-Born Englishman", as Defoe said, was a fiction. He was a "heterogeneous thing... in whose hot veins new mixtures quickly ran". The blood came not just from Anglo-Saxons (a term misleading in its implication of uniformity) but from the first Celts, from Romans, Danes, Normans and so on. What is more, they enriched our race, transfusing fresh energy and enterprise into our island.
The most common fear about immigrants is that floods of them will "swamp" the native community. When Margaret Thatcher used this word she more than doubled the number of people haunted by that fear. Winder suggests a more realistic image: Britain is a lake constantly refreshed by a stream of immigrants.
He illustrates this metaphor with an episodic account of their advent and reception. Jews benefited the medieval economy but they were persecuted, made to wear yellow patches, massacred and (in 1290) expelled. One English sea-captain left some to drown on a Thames mud bank, advising them to seek help from Moses. Flemish weavers were better treated, producing cloth on a semi-industrial scale when "Englishmen knew no more what to do with wool than the sheep who wear it".
Other incursions caused more anxiety. In 1500, there were 3,000 foreigners in London, 6 per cent of the population, and it was said that "Tottenham has turned French". In 1530, Henry VIII passed the first law against Gypsies, who were supposed to be disruptive and disease-ridden. Foreign workers, merchants and refugees continued to cross the Channel in such numbers that it seemed as though the hive would prove too little for the swarm. But Sir John Woolley told one of Queen Elizabeth I's last parliaments, in what might stand as an epigraph for Winder's book: "They are strangers now. We may be strangers hereafter. So let us do as we would be done to."
His exhortation was seldom heeded. Londoners had some sympathy for the Huguenots - the row of teardrops on Wandsworth borough's crest symbolises their sufferings. But the exiles soon aroused envy on account of their technical skills and industry. Threadneedle Street and Petticoat Lane owe their names to the Huguenot weavers who settled there. Claiming they were causing poverty, rioters smashed their looms. Meanwhile, their fellow Protestants from the Palatinate were ejected as "scum". The High Church Tory Bishop Atterbury said they were a "base species" who threatened to dilute "the old honest English stock".
The 19th century saw a huge inflow of Irish, Jewish, German, Italian and other immigrants. This is more familiar territory and Winder has no trouble in describing the gross antagonism they encountered, sometimes from compatriots who had preceded them, and the incomparable contribution they made to British life. To eliminate "inferior races", DH Lawrence wanted to "build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace".
Luckily, the British authorities were still wedded to liberalism. When the Prussian prime minister informed them that Karl Marx was plotting to assassinate Queen Victoria, they ignored him. The "miserable downside of liberalism", as Winder notes, was British reluctance to eradicate evils associated with immigration - from sweatshops to Rachmanism.
After flirting with the importation of cheap labour, 20th-century governments made sporadic and mealy-mouthed efforts to restrict coloured immigration from Britain's former empire. Attlee was typical in praising the tradition of free admission and warning against a "great influx of undesirables".
Labour vied with the Tories in mouthing the rhetoric of egalitarianism while discriminating against dark-skinned people, who in due course became the victims of "black-burying" Teddy Boys and "Paki-bashing" skinheads. Home Secretary James Callaghan's Kenyan Asians Bill (1968), which welcomed whites "home" and kept out brown holders of British passports, was a masterpiece of hypocrisy.
Yet, as Winder shows, the Bill became law in the middle of a 20- year period when Britain was a net exporter of people, most of the million who left the country being economic migrants. Moreover, the Asian immigrants themselves performed economic miracles: you are seven times more likely to be a millionaire if your name is Patel than if it is Smith, even though Smiths outnumber Patels 10 to one. Britain was less generous to Hong Kong's Chinese than Portugal was to those of Macao; and our loss was Vancouver's gain.
Winder argues to win, which means that he sometimes fudges complex issues. He doesn't say whether there should be limits on immigration and, if so, how they should be imposed. He seems to regard it as an unmixed blessing when, as any Palestinian would attest, this is not always the case. He talks about a "rich plurality of lifestyles", which might be cant for halal butchery, bagpipe music or female circumcision.
Still, Winder's argument is fundamentally sound. He has produced a humane and sophisticated study that goes a long way towards defining what we are as a nation.
Piers Brendon's 'The Dark Valley: a panorama of the 1930s' is published by PimlicoReuse content