Over the last 18 years, Great Britain—more precisely, England, a distinction we’ll get to soon—has been in the grip of the most profound social transformation since the Industrial Revolution. Neither the upheavals attendant on the world wars nor the dislocations triggered by economic depressions nor the changes wrought by the attenuated breakdown of a social order rooted in a feudal past have so fundamentally altered England’s civilization as will the impact of mass immigration.
When in 1941 George Orwell—social conservative, Little Englander, intellectual cosmopolitan—hopefully envisioned an English socialist revolution, he assured his readers (and himself) that such a mere political event, like all such past convulsions, would prove no more than a surface disturbance. Yes, England’s class system would dissolve; yes, the nation’s economy and social relations would change radically as authority and privilege was wrested from the figurative “irresponsible uncles and bed-ridden aunts” who held the levers of power—England, after all, was “a family with the wrong members in control”—and yes, accents might even alter. England, however, would “still be England, an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past, and, like all living things, having the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same.”
But the mass immigration that Britain has experienced since 1997—the year Tony Blair’s New Labour government radically revised the immigration laws in a deliberate effort to transform Britain into a multicultural society—has had an effect wholly different from that of all previous political and social disruptions. Mass immigration hasn’t merely embellished, changed, or even assaulted the enduring, resilient national culture that Orwell adumbrated. Rather, by its very nature—by its inherent logic, and by the ideology, aspirations, and world-historical forces from which it springs and to which it gives expression—it perforce obliterates that culture.
This essay attempts, in an admittedly eccentric way, to support that sweeping assertion. But it does not—it cannot, given any realistic confines—offer a history and systematic analysis of such a complex and convoluted subject as Britain’s experience of mass immigration. (Academic studies on specialized aspects of this subject abound, but no synthetic analysis and comprehensive history has yet been published. The best book-length treatment—although one that pursues a definite line of argument—is David Goodhart’s exceptionally cogent The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-war Immigration.) Still, the first steps must be to define terms, and to place the argument in some historical context.
Britain is the common name for the sovereign state of the United Kingdom, the political entity comprising England, Wales, Scotland (which make up the island of Great Britain) and Northern Ireland. The overwhelming weight of mass immigration has fallen on England, where fully 90 percent of immigrants to Britain have settled. Far too few assessments of the “devolution” of political power to Britain’s constituent nations and the constitutional future of the United Kingdom consider the implications of this salient fact. Because the British state has determined policies toward mass immigration, and because nearly all official figures and studies put immigration in a British context, in discussing policy and politics, I do the same. But because mass immigration’s social and cultural impact falls so disproportionately on England, whenever possible I try to examine that specific nation—a nation that has always been the dominant member of the multinational state of Britain. (Because of that easy hegemony, the English have in many circumstances felt comfortable espousing a British identity when, strictly speaking, they mean an English one.)
Anyone examining the impact of mass immigration on Britain who is at all attendant to right thinking opinion may well wonder what all the fuss is about. After all, hasn’t Britain always been a multicultural society, “a gathering of countless different races and communities, the vast majority of which were not indigenous to these islands”—as then-Foreign Secretary Robin Cook averred in 2001 in New Labour’s most famous pronouncement of its vision of the mass immigration society it was creating, the so-called “Chicken Tikka Masala Speech”? Indeed, in a process that can best be described as Orwellian, advocates of mass immigration and multiculturalism in contemporary Britain have pushed a mantra that, by virtue of insistent repetition, has settled into common knowledge, slackly intoned by politicians, government ministers, and Guardian opinion writers and lazily slotted into White Papers, government leaflets, and advocacy group reports. Britain, so the refrain goes, has always been a “mongrel nation” of immigrants. To buttress this article of faith, the bien pensant trot out Jute and Pict clan folk, Angle and Celt settlers, Roman legionnaires, and Norman barons in a know-it-all fashion to silence doubters.
That this idea is so dependent on population movements in the dim reaches of prehistory reveals both its weakness and its irrelevance: ultimately, of course, every people had to come from somewhere else. Moreover, while mongrel-nation sloganeering is based in part on an appeal to a supposed genetic reality—“It is not their purity that makes the British unique, but the sheer pluralism of their ancestry,” as Robin Cook declared—in fact the genetic evidence compels a different conclusion. The tiny number of Roman and Norman conquerors were the thinnest veneer over the native population and have left virtually no genetic trace. Furthermore, based on DNA sampling of contemporary native Britons and of the mitochondrial DNA recovered from the teeth of prehistoric human skeletons, the emeritus professor of human genetics at Oxford, Bryan Sykes, concludes that “by about 6,000 years ago, the [matrilineal genetic] pattern was set for the rest of the history of the Isles, and very little has disturbed it since.” At least three-fourths of the ancestors of today’s Britons were already in the British Isles then. A final influx of Angles, Saxons, Frisians, and the like—which brought no more than 250,000 people over a period of several centuries—essentially completed the genetic mix. Thus, the evidence demonstrates the striking fact that, genetically, the population of Great Britain has been essentially frozen in time and place since at least the Dark Ages—indeed, settlement patterns from that period emerge clearly on contemporary genetic maps.
As the dean of British geneticists, Oxford’s Sir Walter Bodmer, explains, the country’s genetic history reveals “the extraordinary stability of the British population. Britain hasn’t changed much since 600 AD.”
In itself, this relatively immutable genetic makeup and population distribution isn’t particularly important, but it is tremendously meaningful for the stability and longevity of the political and territorial arrangements that it signifies—arrangements that by turn bestowed early on a strong sense of a shared history and of linguistic and cultural continuity. “If a nation is a group of people with a sense of kinship, a political identity and representative institutions,” the Cambridge historian Robert Tombs writes, “then the English have a fair claim to be the oldest nation in the world.” England’s people have called themselves English since at least the 700s. The idea of an English kingdom and of an English nation with its own land dates to the 800s. The nation has been at least partially politically unified since the Anglo-Saxon kings and fully and permanently so since the Conquest. Since then, the English have shared the experience of living together on an unconquered island. Without doubt, the Normans enhanced and altered English culture—especially its architecture, the vocabulary of its language, and the manners and mores of the elite. But the Conquest was the last foreign admixture imposed on English culture. For nearly the next thousand years, that culture would be left to itself to evolve in itself and to adopt foreign cultural influences wholly on its own terms.
From even before the Conquest, the social, economic, and family lives of the English have been secured, sustained, and shaped by a system of common law, a system always understood to be peculiarly their own. (William the Conqueror was accepted as sovereign because he vowed to uphold English law.) Rooted, sedimentary, and organic—not devised and enacted—the common law worked its way into the English mentality. It established within the English a keen and jealous sense of the protections it afforded to the individual, and it engendered that distinguishing English attitude that has combined a veneration for proper authority with a hostility to, and disdain for, power. To be sure, those on the lookout for the sources of that hoary, much-vaunted virtue “English liberty” can find an important taproot here. But equally important is the profound way it shaped English social life, in both the wide and narrow sense of that term.
The common law, Roger Scruton writes,
becomes a familiar companion, an unspoken background to daily dealings, an impartial observer who can be called upon at any time to bear witness, to give judgement and to bring peace. … It was the root cause of the law abidingness of the English, and their ability to live side by side as strangers in a condition of trust. All communities depend upon trust: but in few communities does trust extend beyond the family; in almost none does it embrace the stranger, while conceding his right to remain a stranger, and to go about his business undisturbed. England, however, was a society of reserved, reclusive, eccentric individuals who constantly turned their backs upon one another, but who lived side by side in a common home, respecting the rules and procedures like frosty members of a single club.
The insinuating effect of the common law helped forge a distinctive temperament across centuries and class lines. Common law, then, at once clarified a collective identity while, in both its direct and indirect effects, it circumscribed the sway of that identity. Long predating the nationalism of the modern state, this national identity exercised a profound, even instinctual, hold over the English mind and imagination. But it didn’t make demands and was resolutely un-communal.
Within their stable perimeter the English developed a remarkably persistent, shared demotic culture: in the 1960s, for instance, the indefatigable researches of Iona and Peter Opie established that English children had been continually playing many of the same games since at least the 1100s. And of course the English have developed and shared an enduring language. Since Chaucer, they have recognized that its conspicuously rich vocabulary, idioms, and metaphors at once wrought and reflected a peculiar mentality, intellectual style, aesthetic approach, religious outlook, even humor. That common linguistic identity, by turn, engendered in the English an intense and historically very early sense of national distinctiveness—a mutually reinforcing political, cultural, and linguistic identity—that Edmund Spenser in 1580 called “the kingdom of our own language.”
Paradoxically, this deep-rooted awareness of collective identity, although born of insularity, probably permitted England to develop a strong sense of itself not as a nation of immigrants but as a nation with (some) immigrants. Of course, historically England never resembled the sort of 1900-Lower-East-Side-writ-large of multiculturalist fantasy. In fact, Britain today receives more immigrants in a single year than it did in the entire period from 1066 to 1950. Over those nearly thousand years, the country took in two sizable influxes, each spread over a lengthy period of time and each, even given England’s far smaller population during those times, on an incomparably tinier scale than the post-1997 immigration wave. Some 50,000 Huguenot refugees arrived in two phases, the first in the 1500s and the second in the 1600s. And some 200,000 Jews came—one stream of about 150,000 fleeing Tsarist persecution from the years 1881 to 1914, and then another, of about 50,000, fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
In addition to those influxes, from the 16th to the mid-20th centuries England received a more or less steady dribble of individual foreign settlers, a dribble that was demographically irrelevant though culturally momentous. The nation’s defined, assured cultural identity gave it a unique absorptive capacity: It could tolerate a discrete number of wholly alien émigrés—Mazzini, Kossuth, Herzen, Lenin, and Marx (who lived the final 34 of his 64 years in London) spring to mind—and more important, it could assimilate, entirely on its own terms, and be enriched by its minuscule number of immigrants.
Here are some prominent immigrants and children of immigrants, all intensely, identifiably English, all of whom arrived long before Britain’s postwar immigration waves: Hans Holbein, George Frederick Handel, Frederick William Herschel, Isaac and Benjamin Disraeli, Christina Rossetti, Gustav Holst, Augustus Pugin, Louis of Battenberg and his son Louis Mountbatten, Hilaire Belloc, Joseph Conrad, George Louis du Maurier, Winston Churchill, Leo Amery, T.S. Eliot, Lewis Namier, Learie Constantine, Alexander Korda, Michael Pressberger, Nicholas Pevsner, Isaiah Berlin, Geoffrey Elton, the two Michael Howards, Solly Zuckerman.
This list illuminates a fundamental point: although these figures immensely enhanced English life, they did not make their adopted nation cosmopolitan; their adopted nation made these cosmopolitans English. The keys, then, to England’s successful, if very limited, history of immigration were the small scale and gradual pace of entry; a confident, well-defined, and long-established national culture; and the ability and willingness of the newcomers to integrate fully into that culture. None of these conditions obtain today.
No discussion of mass immigration to Britain can avoid the terms “non-white” and “visible” minority, the meanings of which are interchangeable. A great many facts and figures, official and academic, tether themselves to those designations—official data use “non-white ethnic,” “white ethnic,” and “white British”—and so those facts and figures cannot be deployed without the terms attached to them. These designations can be useful in drawing cultural distinctions, especially since they were and are often applied to differentiate between, say, on the one hand, immigrants from Canada, Australia, and Ireland (all of Ireland, of course, was part of the UK until 1922)—places with strong kinship, historical, and cultural ties to England—and on the other, say, immigrants and the British-born children of immigrants from Muslim, rural, clan-dominated Kashmir or Bangladesh. But they can prove a too-crude shorthand in efforts to convey the relative compatibility of ethnic and immigrant groups with English culture.
Take a black immigrant from Jamaica in the 1950s. He—the first New Commonwealth immigrants were overwhelmingly men—was probably Anglican, likely cricket-playing, and quite possibly a wartime veteran of the British armed forces or merchant navy. Had he been schooled, he would have learned England’s history and been introduced to its literature. (Probably owing to these commonalities, today’s black Caribbean population has the highest rate of intermarriage with British whites of any minority group.) The cultural distance that separated him from a white British native was almost certainly smaller than is the chasm that today separates a white British resident of, say, Sheffield from her new neighbor, a Roma immigrant. Yet that immigrant, having almost certainly arrived from Bulgaria, Slovakia, or Romania, would be classified by UK immigration authorities as a European Union migrant—EU citizens enjoy the unfettered right to live and work in Britain—and would therefore be presumed “white” by researchers making extrapolations from immigration data. (Although immigration of Roma has aroused considerable anxiety and controversy in Britain, their number remains a mystery; conservative estimates put the Roma population at 200,000, but it could be as high as half a million.)
For all their limitations, “non-white minority” and “visible minority”—terms that take in both immigrants and British-born members of ethnic groups—are more illuminating categories than “immigrant” or even “ethnic immigrant.” This is because an essential feature of the society that mass immigration has created in Britain doesn’t only, or perhaps even mostly, involve immigrants. Several largely unassimilated, in fact often rigidly self-segregated, ethnic groups, members of which may be the British-born children or even the grandchildren of immigrants, form geographically distinct enclaves throughout urban England. To cite extreme examples, British-born children of immigrants make up most of the estimated 3,000 British Muslims trained in al-Qaeda camps, most of the estimated 500 British citizens fighting for ISIS, and most of the 300 known or convicted British Islamist terrorists—including three of the four bombers responsible for the 2005 “7/7” attacks, the coordinated series of bombings in London that killed 52 people and injured more than 700. (Those three, by the way, were all of Pakistani descent.) A majority of the rapists and procurers—almost all ethnically Pakistani or Bangladeshi—in the sexual “grooming” crimes that have plagued England’s North and Midlands are also British-born.
But “ethnic” can often obscure as much as it reveals, because some ethnic groups—such as the East Indians from Uganda, who fled Idi Amin in the 1970s—have proved far more assimilable than others. Even the widely used, somewhat euphemistic term “Asian” sweeps in, for instance, Sikh Indians who have largely integrated into British life with Bangladeshis and Kashmiri Pakistanis, groups that, as we shall see, haven’t. Any assessment of the problems mass immigration of ethnic minorities poses to Britain that, by virtue of slack nomenclature, lumps in the ethnic groups from which the Rotherham groomers sprung with, say, such members of “visible minority” groups as Trevor Phillips—the former head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, whose parents were Guyanese immigrants—and the Trinidad-born journalist Trevor Macdonald isn’t nearly fine-grained enough. No, this isn’t tantamount to arguing that all Kashmiri Pakistanis or Bangladeshis are jihadists or sexual groomers. But plainly, different cultural and ethnic groups have affected Britain in very different ways: it’s obviously unhelpful to probe for sexual groomers among Britain’s “Asian” population of Indian Jains. If certain minority groups, as groups, pose certain problems—and yes, even present certain dangers—any meaningful discussion must focus on those specific groups. To do otherwise misdirects attention and obfuscates analysis.
In 1948, Britain’s non-white minority population stood at the statistically insignificant number of about 30,000. But in that year, as a gesture of imperial solidarity, Parliament passed the British Nationality Act, which granted UK citizen rights to those colonial subjects—and, crucially, the former imperial subjects of newly independent Pakistan and India—who chose to settle in Britain. To the shock of politicians and civil servants, by 1962 about 472,000 people had taken up the offer, a number divided roughly equally between black West Indians and “Asians”—that is, Indians, who were mostly Hindu and Sikh, and Pakistanis, who were Muslim. Britons overwhelmingly opposed this “New Commonwealth” immigration. Opinion surveys at the time consistently demonstrated that 75 percent of Britain’s population supported the proposal in Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech to stop this immigration and to offer the new arrivals grants to return to their native countries. The controversy surrounding Powell’s speech revealed a class- and political-divide between mandarin elites—both Conservative and Labour—who found the speech repugnant, and the working class, backed by the provincial middle-class and Tory right wing, which overwhelmingly embraced it. (Although Powell’s supporters were obdurate in their opposition to mass immigration, the evidence does not support the elite’s caricature that the overwhelming popular support of Powell’s views was motivated by racial animus: 65 percent of the population favored laws that barred racial discrimination, and a mere 12 percent objected to non-white children being in the same class as their children at school.)
But despite the half-hearted efforts of a succession of Labour and Conservative governments to respond to this clear popular sentiment, the influx of New Commonwealth immigrants proved impossible to reduce below the rate of about 50,000 per year, a level that now seems minuscule, that prevailed into the mid-1990s. That fact reveals a stubborn reality: once the flow of mass immigration starts, it has consistently proved exceedingly difficult to stanch. Some of the reasons for this are explicable, if largely unanticipated: the upward pressure exerted by family reunions of members of foreign ethnic groups with their British-residing relatives and spouses-to-be have proven irresistible, for example. But other reasons defy explanation. For instance, when he was asked in 2003 why so many bogus asylum seekers remained in Britain illegally, the then-Home Secretary David Blunkett said, “I haven’t a clue, is the answer. I suppose that’s a lovely headline that my advisors will be horrified with, but I haven’t and nor had any other government.”
By 1997, Britain’s ethnic minority population had grown, thanks to immigration and the children born to immigrants, to about four million. That population had certainly leavened what had formerly been a strikingly ethnically and culturally homogenous country. Nevertheless, British—again, really English—society remained defined by a national culture that Orwell would have recognized. In that year, however, Tony Blair’s just-elected first Labour government launched a demographic—and, concomitantly, a cultural—revolution, a revolution that historians and commentators of all political stripes now recognize as by far Blair’s most historically significant legacy. New Labour greatly relaxed or entirely eliminated previous restrictions on immigration, with the aim to convert Britain quickly to a polity as fully exposed as possible to the apparent social, cultural, and economic advantages of globalization.
The government never systematically laid out its rationale for pursuing this radical policy. It emerged from a convoluted set of ideologies, shibboleths, slogans, and aspirations that celebrated the dynamism of global capitalism and that rejected what was regarded as a stultified and insular traditional British culture. Although rooted in an economic vision, the policy derived its energy and appeal from its cultural, even aesthetic aspirations: “diversity,” “inclusiveness,” and “vibrancy” were its watchwords. Cook’s “Chicken Tikka Masala Speech” was New Labour’s most famous pronouncement of its vision of this policy, a feat of social engineering designed to forge a new national identity by means of“the changing ethnic composition of the British people themselves.” In a fit of consumerist enthusiasm, Cook disdained the former “homogeneity of British identity,” dismissed older Britons who clung to that antiquated and stodgy identity, extolled the ways mass immigration had “broadened” lifestyles, and enthused over the prospect of a pulsating and ever-changing “immigrant society” that would continue “enriching our culture and cuisine.”
Although New Labour was the architect of this policy, Blair and his ministers were hardly alone in espousing its heady goals. But while the largely London-based progressive elite embraced New Labour’s vision, New Labour recognized that the Labour Party’s traditional constituency—the working class—abhorred it. On the issue of a mass-immigration society, however, as on a host of social issues, New Labour believed the wise course wasn’t to alter its policies to conform to the outlook and preferences of old-fashioned Labour voters—after all, where else would those voters turn?—but to forge a new constituency that embraced an economically entrepreneurial and socially progressive vision.
The scale, scope, and rapidity of Britain’s demographic transformation—the consequence of New Labour’s revolution—is unprecedented. Over the last 18 years, about twice as many immigrants have settled in Britain as had done so in the 49 years (1948-97) that constituted the first wave of mass immigration. About 80 percent of these have come from outside the EU, the greatest number from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Somalia, and Nigeria. In 2014, 636,000 migrants came to live in Britain, and 27 percent of births in Britain were to foreign-born mothers. Since 2001, Britain’s visible minority population has nearly doubled, from 8 percent to 14 percent today. Already “White British” residents are the minority in London, Luton, Leicester, Slough—as they are in large districts of towns and cities throughout England’s Midlands and North. The visible minority population is projected to rise to about 38 percent by mid-century and to over 50 percent by 2070, which will make Britain by far the most ethnically diverse country in the West.
The astonishing growth and unsettling impact of Kashmiri Pakistani and Bangladeshi settlers puts the consequences of New Labour’s revolution in stark—admittedly, perhaps too stark—perspective. Many in Britain, even a good number of fully credentialed Hampstead liberals, are plainly alarmed by this population’s large and growing numbers. Together the Pakistanis and Bangladeshis form the biggest minority population in Britain, and they share a similarly rural, intensely clannish, religiously fundamentalist background. (Bangladesh is the former East Pakistan.) They make up a little over half of Britain’s total Muslim population—more than 2.7 million people, slightly under 5 percent of Britain’s inhabitants, are Muslim, though that portion, thanks to high birth rates and immigration, will reach 8.2 percent by 2030.
In significant respects, the Pakistanis and Bangladeshis form a metaphorical foreign encampment, rather than an immigrant neighborhood, within a country in which a significant minority of them feels in fundamental ways incompatible. A Home Office report on the standoffish Pakistani and Bangladeshi districts in the northern mill towns found that “Separate educational arrangements, community and voluntary bodies, employment, places of worship, language, social and cultural networks, means that many communities operate on the basis of a series of parallel lives.” Less abstractly, Andrew Norfolk, the self-described liberal London Times investigative reporter who methodically uncovered the Rotherham sexual grooming scandal, concludes that “It is possible for a Muslim child to grow up—in the family home, at school and in the mosque and madrassa—without coming into any contact with Western lifestyles, opinions or values.”
The result, as Trevor Phillips asserted in a speech focusing on Pakistani and Bangladeshi neighborhoods, is that “Residentially, some districts are on their way to becoming fully fledged ghettos—black holes into which no-one goes without fear and trepidation, and from which no-one ever escapes undamaged.” Two-thirds of British Muslims only mix socially with other Muslims; that portion is undoubtedly higher among Pakistanis and Bangladeshis specifically. Reinforcing this parallel life is the common practice of returning “home” for a few months every two or three years and an immersion in foreign electronic media. Integration into a wider national life is further hindered—and the retention of a deeply foreign culture is further encouraged—by the fact that most Pakistani marriages, even if one spouse is born in Britain, essentially produce first-generation-immigrant children: the one study that measured this phenomenon, conducted in the north England city of Bradford, found that 85 percent of third- and fourth-generation British Pakistani babies had a parent who was born in Pakistan. (Incidentally, that study also found that 63 percent of Pakistani mothers in Bradford had married their cousins, and 37 percent had married first cousins.)
Notwithstanding the recent attacks in Paris, a minority within Britain’s Muslim population forms the most menacing jihadist threat in the West. Indeed, thanks to that minority, Britain in some respects forms a jihadist salient. And a minority among Pakistanis and Bangladeshis forms, indisputably, the largest number of British jihadists, and the largest number of a larger minority of British Muslims that can be loosely labeled radical Islamists.
Muslims, the refrain goes, don’t speak with a single voice. The particular makeup of Britain’s overall Muslim population, though, renders that population’s aggregate voice particularly harsh. Since 2001, news organizations, opinion-research firms, and groups such as the Pew Research Center have conducted surveys of the undifferentiated group “British Muslims.” Although any one survey can be misleading or poorly conducted, the findings of various such surveys over a lengthy span of years have regularly disquieted the British public and government because those surveys have consistently shown that a significant minority of British Muslims hold views that could be generously characterized as unsympathetic to the ethos of their adopted nation. Those surveys have found that 24 percent of British Muslims believe British security services played a role in the 7/7 attacks; that 23 percent believe the four men identified as the 7/7 bombers did not actually carry out the attacks; that 45 percent believe the 9/11 attacks were a conspiracy of the U.S. and Israeli governments; that 56 percent believe those identified by the U.S. as the 9/11 assailants were in fact not involved in the attacks; that 37 percent believe British Jews are “a legitimate target as part of the ongoing struggle for justice in the Middle East”; that 46 percent believe British Jews “are in league with the Freemasons to control the media and politics”; that 68 percent want the prosecution of British citizens who “insult” Islam; that 28 percent hope Britain will become a fundamentalist Islamic state; that significant majorities believe that the populations of Western countries—including the British—are selfish, arrogant, greedy, and immoral. These views, the Pew Global Attitudes Project found, were “a notable exception” to those held by Muslims elsewhere in Europe. And as the Muslim population becomes more established in Britain, these attitudes, the evidence strongly suggests, are becoming more intemperate, not less: the few surveys that have measured the attitudes specifically of young British Muslims consistently show that their views are more extreme than those of British Muslims as a whole.
To the substantial degree that the Pakistani and Bangladeshi population defines British Muslim opinion generally, mainstream Muslim opinion is far from moderate. Confronted with what amounted to the savagely un-British attitudes displayed by the majority of British Pakistani Muslims during the Rushdie affair, even Roy Jenkins—the epitome of the cosmopolitan elitist, who as Labour Home Secretary had defined the achievement of “cultural diversity” (a usage he seems to have invented) as a central aspiration of the British state—found that his commitment to liberalism could not be reconciled to his commitment to the mass immigration he helped create. He noted: “In retrospect, we might have been more cautious about allowing the creation in the 1950s of such substantial Muslim communities here.”
The upshot is that large minorities within the deeply rooted, largely inward-looking, in some ways markedly alien Muslim enclaves that now blot most of England’s cities and major towns embrace views that are at best at remarkable variance with, and at worst inimical to, those of their new countrymen—the native British. At the very least, this situation marks an astonishing and probably unalterable change in Britain’s social and cultural landscape.
The Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are the most conspicuous and perhaps worrisome facet of the post-1997 mass immigration wave. But it’s fair to say that, overall, that wave has brought to Britain culturally problematic populations. About 20 percent of immigrants since 1997 have come from EU countries, overwhelmingly from Eastern and Southeastern Europe. For the most part, these EU immigrants—especially those from Poland—have come not to settle permanently but rather to take advantage of Britain’s vastly higher wage levels and vastly lower unemployment levels compared to those of their native countries. They usually build a nest egg and then leave. (This pattern is almost certain to change, however, as a new set of immigrants from the more recently incorporated EU states such as Croatia choose permanent settlement in Britain over the economically wholly unenticing countries of their birth.) The preponderance of immigrants since 1997—three quarters of net immigration—has been from underdeveloped Africa and South Asia. Somalis are the largest group within this category. Only about 10 percent of them are in full-time work. Single-parent families make up about 60 percent of their households. The founding editor of the liberal magazine Prospect, David Goodhart, notes that
39 percent of Somali households claim income support (easily the highest claim rate for an ethnic minority) and 40 percent claim child benefit (again the highest for an ethnic minority). … And the community has a reputation, even among sympathetic Labour MPs and councilors, for gaming the welfare system.
Intensely clannish, the Somalis have proven somewhat resistant to British ways: an estimated 42 percent of British-born Somali girls have endured genital mutilation, a practice outlawed in Britain. (Families send the girls abroad or to illegal cutters in the UK.)
Most of the new immigrant groups don’t present the awesome cultural challenges that a great many of the Somalis pose. Nevertheless, at best, the substantial majority of them—the demographically-infinitesimal number of immigrants from the developed world employed in finance, business, high-tech, and the arts as much as the striving Poles and the enormous number of largely unemployed or underemployed Pakistanis and Somalis—share an attitude towards their new home that can fairly be described as instrumental. They see it as little more than an economic or legal convenience; they didn’t come to Britain to be transformed culturally. That outlook may be understandable, even inevitable, in a globalized economy. Nevertheless, over a span of less than 20 years, a vast, historically unprecedented, overwhelmingly culturally alien wave of immigrants—immigrants whose stance toward their new country ranges from the deeply patriotic (some), to the calculatedly pragmatic (most), to the inimical (a sizeable minority)—has inundated Britain. This very fact—the scale and character of the mass immigration Britain is grappling with and its long-term, implacable consequences—begets a social upheaval because it naturally, inevitably hollows out any meaningful sense of cultural consensus and social solidarity.
It renders unimaginable the kind of integrationist formula—“Full absorption is the condition of entry”—that the veteran Tory politician Quentin Hogg promulgated in 1947 in the face of immigration that was on a greatly smaller scale because, as the British multiculturalist Bikhu Parekh concludes quite reasonably, given that mass immigration of itself destroys cultural consensus, “it is not clear what immigrants are to be assimilated into.” With unassailable logic, Parekh’s ideological ally, the British academic Varun Uberoi, advances the argument
If the state only establishes this culture’s religion in its political institutions, teaches only this culture’s history, uses only this culture’s language… it is treating minorities inequitably because they too are citizens but their cultures receive no such support.
Of course, Enoch Powell recognized and pursued precisely the same implacable reasoning. (“Poor Enoch, driven mad by the remorselessness of his own logic,” as Iain Macleod put it.) But whereas that logic compels Uberoi—and, one suspects, at least a plurality within Britain’s media and cultural elites—to advocate that England essentially forsake its inherited national culture in the interest of its immigration-created minorities, that same logic pushed Powell to advocate that England essentially rid itself of those minorities in the interests of those who wish to preserve its national culture.
This upheaval has profoundly disturbed what Max Hastings—the journalist, historian, and former editor of the Daily Telegraph and the Evening Standard—aptly calls “Old Britain.” That group could be defined as those “White British,” as they’re designated by officialdom and academe, who are not part of the progressive elite. (Significantly, in practice the elites implicitly exempt themselves from this designation: a London-based media professional, say, who is white and British would probably recoil from being classified as White British, a pasty alien people ensconced in the shires, the tacky suburbs of Essex, and the drab council estates of the post-industrial North). Old Britain—a group that would include both the traditional working class and the broad middle class of Middle England—still forms the great majority of the country’s population. And a staggering 71 percent of the total voting-age population believe immigration is the most urgent problem facing the country; 76 percent want immigration reduced. Given that London is home to the preponderant share of the country’s progressive and professional-class elite, that city’s white population is by far Britain’s most immigration-friendly, yet still an estimated 40 percent of white Londoners—presumably mostly representing an astonishingly higher percentage of London’s remaining and ever-shrinking number of non-professional-class whites—would consider voting for the far-right, anti-immigration British Nationalist Party in protest.
Ultimately, I believe, the pursuit of a mass-immigration society has been rooted in the evolution of global capitalism, which has generated in the West a radical individualism destructive of traditional bonds and loyalties and has produced a cosmopolitan outlook, ever-expanding in its sway, within the dominant class. Leaving aside for a moment the ideological origins of the mass-immigration revolution, the purely economic rationale for mass immigration, embraced since the 1960s as an article of faith at least as much by Labour mandarins as by Tory, has been as pervasive as it has been strikingly superficial. It rests on two erroneous arguments. The first depends upon the obvious observation that an increase in population brought about by immigration will increase the overall Gross Domestic Product (GDP), largely in the form of wages paid to the immigrant workforce. But this argument ignores the crucial distinction between an increase in overall GDP with an increase in per capita GDP. Yes, with mass immigration GDP rises, but that increase merely matches the overall increase in population; immigrants do not add proportionately more to GDP—and this calculation fails to take into account additional infrastructure and social-service spending that mass immigration of necessity engenders. The second erroneous argument has essentially conflated the low level of labor flows, largely of and for the elite—those globe-hopping high-techies/bankers/medical researchers/sneaker designers/installation artists—that’s necessary for the optimal functioning of a post-industrial world economy with the mass migration of unskilled, poorly educated people from the underdeveloped countries to the economically most advanced ones, in this case Britain. At its crudest, this confusion has arisen from an economically anachronistic conviction that what Britain has really needed is a mass-production and mass-consumption economy stoked by an army of blue-collar workers to produce and consume the products of mills and factories. (Antonio Gramsci dubbed this economic formula “Fordism.”) But this Fordist vision foundered, and continues to founder, on the reality of Britain’s de-industrialization. The flood of cheap labor from Pakistan into England’s North and Midlands in the 1960s, for instance, helped generate short-term profits for mill owners and suit makers, but in so doing it also artificially prolonged the decline of the inefficient and untenable textile industry and delayed and made more painful the economic modernization from which Britain only emerged in the 1990s.
Since the early 1960s, far-seeing and compassionate politicians of both parties have known that Britain’s most pressing social and economic obligation would be to aid the victims of de-industrialization—the country’s demoralized and denuded traditional working class. The last thing Britain has needed—although the first thing that some employers continue to want, a political fact not to be ignored in any assessment of the push behind mass immigration—has been to swell the reserve army of industrial labor, as Marx would put it. (Of course, another way of putting it would be the reserve army of the unemployed.) However economically desirable to Britain a clutch of software engineers from Palo Alto or even Mumbai may be, a mass of semi-literate peasants from Bangladesh offers few attractions, and more than a few impediments, to an advanced economy. The imperatives of what is called “global competitiveness” may demand that the nation incorporate the former kind of workers, but those same imperatives would certainly dictate that it shun the latter. Indeed, the costs imposed by the overwhelming number of low-skilled migrants offsets the undoubted economic gains contributed by the tiny talented minority.
Thus, analyses of the economic benefit of mass immigration consistently conclude that its broad impact is neutral. Which isn’t to say that mass immigration hasn’t created clear winners. Immigrants, skilled and unskilled, have obviously gained, as have the employers of immigrants. For instance, although the once ubiquitous legion of servants that had bolstered and helped define British elite and professional-class life began to disappear after the First World War and had all but vanished after the Second, today cheap immigrant domestic workers and a gigantic immigrant-fueled domestic-service industry mean that professional-class home life has become in essential ways more similar to what it was in 1914 than to what it was in 1994. But while the professional class enjoys the benefits mass immigration has brought to Britain, it is largely sheltered from the costs—including the rapid transformation of the character of traditional neighborhoods, the downward pressure on wages, and the fierce competition for public services and housing—that fall nearly exclusively on the English lower-middle and working class.
Whatever its basis in global economic change, the ideology behind mass immigration long ago took on a life of its own and now reveals irreconcilable social and cultural attitudes and outlooks within Britain that largely reflect economic class divisions. Again, Britain changed because its opinion-forming elite—enraptured by the political and cultural, as much as the economic, promise of globalization—wanted to transform a grey island nation with the dreariest cuisine in Europe into a Cool Britannia, with an economy led by knowledge workers, characterized by a thrumming metropolitan life, and defined by a rich multiracial, multicultural society governed by tolerant democratic institutions. To be sure, it was New Labour—casting aside the Red Flag of (white, working-class) social solidarity as it hoisted the banner of “diversity”—that championed this vision and with stunning effectiveness realized it. But again, how one viewed this transformation depended less on party allegiance than on such factors as level of education. For instance, when in 2006 the revered sociologist Michael Young and his coauthors surveyed in their book The New East End the astonishing transformation of London’s former Bethnal Green borough (redubbed Tower Hamlets) from an exclusively white working-class neighborhood to an area dominated by Bangladeshi immigrants and adorned with a smattering of youthful bankers who worked in the adjacent financial district, Young and his colleagues noted that this university-educated elite welcomed the much-vaunted diversity the immigrants bestowed, which “gives the locality an exotic aspect and cheap, agreeable eating spots—rather like being on a permanent foreign holiday.”
Adhering to a familiar pattern, those left to deal with the nitty-gritty consequences of social change engineered by progressive self-regard saw matters differently from those who dictated the change and who benefitted from it in their indirect and self-regarding way. In what remains the most considered and detailed assessment of working class attitudes towards mass immigration, The New East End—which was in effect a follow-on to Young’s classic 1957 coauthored study of close-knit, female-dominated working-class life, Family and Kinship in East London—found that the strongest resistance to the mass immigration of Bangladeshis that had transformed the area came not from old people, who held the most retrograde attitudes towards racial difference, but from women, specifically mothers and grandmothers, who are those “most caught up in day-to-day family life.” They were the ones left to negotiate for the young children in their care, children who had to find their way in schools overwhelmingly made up of foreign-born students, and they were the ones who traditionally strove to keep intact the dense family networks that defined working-class life.
This latter task was made impossible by the politically savvy efforts of the Bangladeshi newcomers, who adeptly deployed the rhetoric of minority aggrievement to ensure that the adult children of long-time residents no longer received preferential consideration in the allocation of local public housing. (Fully half of all new public housing in London goes to foreign-national migrants, who are entitled to it upon entry into the country.) Inevitably, the working-class family networks unraveled, destroying the stable, long-established community. Just as inevitably, once the Bangladeshis, largely thanks to their efforts to end housing preferences for locals, established themselves as the overwhelming majority in the area, they employed their same well-organized political energies in a successful effort to re-impose housing preferences for locals. (Alas, as a host of official investigations and criminal convictions attest, the effectiveness of the Bangladeshis’ East End political machine is matched by its brazen corruption and extortionate electoral tactics.)
That the great majority of Britons oppose a development—mass immigration—that a mandarin elite has nurtured and applauds points to issues deeper than the allocation of council housing. Just as Orwell identified the metropolitan intelligentsia as the only group to contemn “the general patriotism of the country”—“it is a strange fact,” he commented, “but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during ‘God save the King’ than of stealing from a poor box”—so today the great and the good disdain the majority’s cry that mass immigration is destroying national identity, a concept those elites regard as at once fictitious and illegitimate and the embrace of which they chalk up to racism or, at best, to a misguided, anachronistic insularity. The charge of insularity—and the cultural attitudes it engenders—is largely true. Whereas less than 15 percent of the country’s population belongs to the mobile, university-educated elect, nearly half of Britons still live within five miles of where they spent their childhoods, a fact that, again, reflects the stability of the country’s population since the Dark Ages.
More important still, in the relationship it discerns between, on the one hand, a sense of national identity and a sense of national communitarianism—both of which it sees as mortally threatened by immigration—and, on the other, its own material welfare, the majority evinces a deeper understanding of history than that grasped by the elites.
The Industrial Revolution eroded and threatened to destroy England’s sense of national solidarity. As the culture, traditions, and economy of artisans, small producers, tradesmen, and the yeomanry gave way to wage labor, the factory system, and mass industrialization, industrial capitalism uprooted communities, devalued purposeful work, and corroded family life. Wealth, resources, and production became concentrated into what William Cobbett called “great heaps,” a process that created “but two classes of men, masters and abject dependents.” Lost were the traditional values of liberty and independence—and the open, confident, and generous approach to life those values engendered. In its place, market individualism emerged as the ruling ideology, an ideology possessed by a political vision not of a national society, however hierarchical, but of no society: that is, a utilitarian, ever more borderless world of atomized individuals maximizing their interests.
In this way, the “Two Nations” that Disraeli discerned was a misnomer. There were no nations. Rather, there was the small number of winners, and there were the common people—a mass of obsolete, interchangeable losers. Over the next century and a half England’s public imagination—including its politics, its political thought, its public policies—would be largely devoted to first reevaluating, then rejecting, and then replacing that ideology and that vision. The alternative visions ranged from the deeply conservative to the revolutionary, but all—Disraeli’s “One-Nation Toryism,” Randolph Churchill’s “Tory Democracy,” Baldwin’s “Industrial Democracy,” as much as the sentimental decency of Dickens and the romantic anachronisms of Carlyle, Ruskin, and Morris—embraced insistently, as the historian Robert Colls puts it, “the idea of the nation as corporate body with corporate interests and interdependencies. This not only included the common people but also, to a degree, it honoured them as well.”
Of course, this national coalescence around a sense of mutual attachment and shared identity was fitful and limited, even during such episodes of apparent national unity as the Blitz, and it could certainly be deployed in pursuit of a variety of political ends. But the left as much as the right recognized that the English—and, yes, to a large degree the British—shared a staggeringly long, uninterrupted historical experience. That experience produced a culture that was both national and familial, in that it had many shared features, but even those aspects that were limited to, say, one class were usually related and relatable to, and could be enfolded within, a core culture, as T.S. Eliot famously recognized in his definition of (English) national culture:
all the characteristic activities and interests of a people; Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, 19th century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar.
This awareness of a shared national identity created a sense of national commonality that, while hardly tending toward egalitarianism, did promote a sense of mutual obligation, strengthened greatly by the shared ordeal of the Second World War. Indeed, this sense of a national commonality that embraced all classes was so strong that, in a landmark analysis of British society in 1954, Young and his co-author, the American sociologist Edward Shils, found that that society had “achieved a degree of moral unity equaled by no other national state.” So a conviction that all Britons—as fellow Britons—deserved a decent life was by the end of the war all but universally embraced across the governing and opinion-forming elites.
Thus in its provision of many key aspects of the welfare state—the blueprint of which, the Beveridge Report, was the creation of Churchill’s wartime coalition—the postwar Labour government pushed through an unlatched door. In fact, for the most part the postwar welfare state didn’t create new entitlements but rather regularized and nationalized a hodge-podge of previously existing, if unevenly effective, charitable, state, and local institutions and arrangements. Clearly, then, a strong national identity—an identity rooted in the experience of a stable and largely homogeneous population long living together on the same island—engendered a national community. In the decades following the war, members of the working class benefitted hugely from this process, as the nation’s provision of a decent life for them became the cynosure of national pride and purpose.
The story of mass immigration in Britain is part of the larger story of the ways that global capitalism eroded that sense of insular national solidarity and concomitantly transformed the elites’ worldview from an inward-looking, communitarian orientation to an outward-looking one that embraced, on the one hand, individualist freedoms and meritocracy and, on the other, globalist political, social, and economic aspirations. For decades, that transformation largely manifested itself in the intra-elite conflict over Britain’s relationship with Europe, a struggle in which profound, even primordial, differences in temperament, philosophy, and historical imagination trumped party political allegiances—hence such Little Englanders as the left-wing Labourites Tony Benn and Michael Foot and the right-wing Enoch Powell were united with the huntin’ and shootin’ wing of the Tory party and the Labour Party’s rank and file against such tribunes of the new economy as Roy Jenkins, Ted Heath, Tony Blair, and the high-mindedly internationalist Ditchley set that encompassed the elite of both political parties.
In both the immigration and European controversies, the broad majority has grasped that what is really at stake is its sense of nationhood. In both controversies, the working class specifically has fathomed with exquisite sensitivity the relationship between that sense of nationhood and its place in the national life. In this respect, the working class has long intuitively understood a fact around which a social-scientific consensus has just recently formed: high levels of immigration and of ethnic diversity, the sociologists have with evident reluctance concluded, drastically inhibit social trust and social solidarity. Since these are the very qualities upon which welfare states are built, mass immigration thereby undermines the very basis of the decent life that, through a fraught and prolonged process, came to be regarded as the working class’s national patrimony.
Finally, in both controversies members of the majority, “Old Britain,” the “White British”—call them what you will—have keenly apprehended the power of the cultural and ideological logic arrayed against them. If they were at first condescended to as simple-minded folk frightened of change, they were soon dismissed as stubbornly backward-looking. From that point, they were inevitably condemned as xenophobic. And then they were easily detested as racists with bad taste and even worse diets. Hence the famous episode in which then-Labour Party leader Gordon Brown was caught privately scorning as “bigoted” a life-long Labour voter who, in complaining about the Party’s abandoning its traditional principles—“it was education, health service and looking after the people who are vulnerable,” as she put it—mildly raised her anxieties about mass immigration. Commentators recognized that Brown had made an electoral gaffe, but none expressed surprise at the loathing Brown betrayed toward what all recognized was a typical voter.
In the context of the enlightened cosmopolitan values that hold sway in Britain today, once the majority’s views are thus ruled beyond the pale, liberal democracy permits—in fact demands—that the majority be excluded from political consultation. At the very best, it is safe to say that the confines of acceptable public debate on culturally determined ethnic differences, national identity, and mass immigration are exceedingly narrow. The consensus of the bien pensant can, of course, be just as effective as outright censorship in its stultifying political effect, as Orwell explained:
At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing.
In the case of the political discussion surrounding the impact and ramifications of mass immigration, the result, whether one applauds or bemoans the situation, has been to exclude the majority sensibility from anything resembling full and free public expression and to deny the majority’s concerns and preferences anything resembling their full political weight.
The impotent seething abundantly in evidence among Old Britain is rooted in their disfranchisement, in the disdain with which their political and cultural leaders have forsaken them, and in their realization that those leaders, ensorcelled by fatuous slogans and intellectual fashion, in pursuit of vacuous and untested ideas, have irretrievably transformed an ancient nation.
Benjamin Schwarz is The American Conservative’s national editor.