How far is the recent immigration to Britain a new phenomenon, which is transforming the country's character? Or is it only the last chapter of the long story of our ability to absorb foreigners, and draw new strength from their energy and enterprise? It is a highly topical question, and in this timely book Robert Winder provides a wealth of background information to try to reassure contemporary alarmists. He briskly traces the history of immigration, from the Normans to today's asylum seekers, showing how each wave of foreigners provoked a new scare before they became accepted as a permanent part of the British scene. He tells the story vividly, with fascinating contemporary quotations describing the impact of each new group of immigrants, from Jewish moneylenders to Huguenot weavers, from Irish labourers to Indian shopkeepers - until it seems hard to imagine Britain without these stimuli. He contends that we owe much more to immigrants than we think, and he hopes that by understanding the benefits "our own national pride can feel less clenched, less besieged".

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Long before Simon Schama and Linda Colley began to set us right, the job of a popular historian was to celebrate Britishness as a historical constant. Other cultures changed in their essence; ours somehow remained the same. But there were always dissonant voices often foreign ones to remind us that things might not be so simple, and that we might even own a past as riven and complicated as those of our continental neighbours.

But he came to this conclusion ruefully, knowing it would be rejected by any self-respecting Brit. Robert Winder's splendidly researched and subtle history of immigration tells us that the old myths persist, driving whatever is complex about the British past to the margins. We may be part of a culture to which the concept of race has never been applicable, but some crucial circuits of the national consciousness have failed to absorb this information.

British exceptionalism survives in our tortured attitudes towards foreigners. Traditionally, the British ambivalence towards foreigners has been attributed to geography.

Winder believes it has just as much to do with the memory of having been repeatedly invaded. Whichever it is, the sense of being pitted against interlopers occurs to Britons very early.

As early as , an Elizabethan official, surveying the ragged French and Lowlanders who crossed the Channel, made a firm distinction between those come 'for conscience's sake' and those 'come onlie to seeke worke', who were sent back with a decisiveness that the Daily Mail would have found admirable. No one was welcomed, but those who behaved themselves earned a more than grudging tolerance. Huguenots and Jews were urged to 'demean themselves peaceably and quietly'.

They did so, becoming bankers to the Crown, making paper or weaving; and within a generation or so they had settled into the English mould, acquiring coats of arms or country seats, and marrying into the aristocracy. But the newcomers never wholly lost their vestigial culture.

It is nice to think that a small part of Eddie Izzard's marvellous costume comes from weaver Huguenot ancestors. As the Hungarian George Mikes understood, foreigners are there to supply exotic splashes of colour in the national grey. Those who ran Britain were aware of the usefulness of immigrants, as a means of enriching the national product; but they were conscious, too, of what the native English would, or wouldn't bear.

It is redundant to speculate when the first 'race riot' occurred. At the slightest provocation, mobs would take to the streets, breaking foreigners' windows and stealing. The British aversion to 'swamping' exists way before our archipelago could be thought of as crowded.

In the s the sudden arrival of Italians with street organs in London caused an outbreak of national indignation, whose opponents called them 'instruments of torture'. Perhaps we still do want to be what we never have been.

But what foreigners once called phlegm, and we would now think of as indifference, plays a major part in this story. Engels surveyed the appalling conditions of the Victorian poor, but he also loved hunting and married an Irishwoman. Like many immigrants, Engels viewed British tolerance with mistrust. Later, the story becomes darker. Winder is justly scandalised by the meanness of spirit with which some German Jews were refused entry to this country in the Thirties. In the years following the first Caribbean arrivals to Britain, the imperial tradition of free citizenship was rapidly dismantled.

There is nothing to be proud of about the way in which 'illegal immigrants' are shipped around the country, and mostly ejected. But no country, even the United States, qualifies as an immigrants' utopia. Britain has probably been slightly less bad than other places, which is no mean achievement. Topics History books The Observer. Immigration and asylum reviews. Reuse this content.

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Bloody Foreigners : The Story of Immigration to Britain

Immigration is one of the most important stories of modern British life, yet it has been happening since Caesar first landed in 53 BC. Ever since the first Roman, Saxon, Jute and Dane leaped off a boat we have been a mongrel nation. Our roots are a tangled web. From Huguenot weavers fleeing French Catholic persecution in the 18th century to South African dentists to Indian shopkeepers; from Jews in York in the 12th century who had to wear a yellow star to distinguish them and who were shamefully expelled by Edward I in to the Jamaican who came on board the Windrush in


Not all black and white

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Not from round these parts, are you?

A compelling and level-headed account of immigration to Britain, the book was first published in And it was reviewed for EIN's Headlines publication in , so it's a good excuse to dig out my old review for the blog. The review mentions the oft-used maritime metaphors for immigration and it's fitting that the significant new addition to the book is a chapter entitled Choppy Waters. As Winder told the Guardian, the last decade or so of immigration has seen some turbulent times, with the enlargement of the EU and the cultural fallout of the 'War on Terror'. I think that is what has shocked people into a pretty old-fashioned, nationalistic mindset," Winder says.


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