It would be fair to say that British attitudes to immigration are mixed. Some consider immigrants to be an important part of the UK’s vibrant cultural mix, whilst others consider immigration to pose a threat to the British way of life.
History of UK Immigration
For thousands of years the UK has welcomed, or at least received, large numbers of immigrants to its shores. Despite being an island nation – with all the difficulties that poses for immigrants – the UK has always been a destination for foreign nationals either fleeing persecution or simply looking for a new life. Even people who consider themselves to be 100% British are likely to find that they do not have to go back many generations before they find foreign ancestors.
Prior to 1066 people from countries all over Europe including Germany, Denmark and the Roman Empire invaded and settled in what is now the UK. Many consider the UK, as we know it today, to have first started to take shape when William the Conqueror became king after vanquishing Harold at the Battle of Hastings. William was, of course, a French Norman. This most quintessentially British historical date concerned foreigners taking over the country.
During the hundreds of years that followed 1066, refugees from many countries, notably those of Jewish heritage and other religious refugees, sought sanctuary in the UK.
From the middle of the second millennium A.D. the British began in earnest their own conquest of other countries. Ultimately this would lead to the British Commonwealth and large numbers of potential immigrants who had been brought up to think of the UK, or England, as the motherland. In addition, the slave trade brought many, reluctant, immigrants to the UK.
20th Century Immigration
Around the time of the Second World War the UK accepted many refugees from Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe. After the War a new wave of immigration began from countries that had recently been granted independence from the British Empire as well as further immigrants from throughout Europe.
New immigrants were invaluable in plugging gaps in the labour market and helping to rebuild a country which had almost been brought to its knees by Hitler’s Germany. However, some British citizens were fearful or disdainful of the large numbers of immigrants – especially of those who seemed so obviously different due to the colour of their skin.
British people had suffered during the Second World War, and the years following the War were far from prosperous. It was sometimes thought that immigrants were sapping valuable, finite resources.
In the 1960s restrictions began to be placed on those who held a British Commonwealth passport to limit the numbers of those who had the automatic right to live and work in the UK. However, immigration continued throughout the second half of the 20th Century – both in the form of economic migrants and refugees.
Rivers of Blood?
A focal point for many people when considering British attitudes to immigration is Enoch Powell’s notorious “Rivers of Blood” speech, warning of the perceived dangers of unchecked immigration. This speech achieved widespread renown. It fed into right-wing, white and, largely, working-class fears of those from other countries – and of different races.
2008 was the 40th anniversary of Powell’s warnings that a so-called multicultural Britain would lead to violence on the streets. Some British citizens find the speech as repellent today as when it was first given. For others it remains a common sense appraisal of the dangers of immigration. In the light of recent concerns about “home-grown terrorists” and their attacks on British targets, some British citizens who are inherently opposed to views such as those expressed by Powell nonetheless find that the speech has a disturbing resonance for 21st Century Britain.
In the early part of the 21st Century many immigrants have, once again, come from Europe with a particular influx from new members of the European Union. Race is usually less of an issue with immigrants from these countries. However, the feeling that they are taking homes and jobs from British citizens sometimes persists – even amongst those whose parents may themselves have been immigrants.
Immigration remains a very hot topic and strong views are held on both side of the argument. UK immigration rules are currently being modified to make it more difficult for foreign nationals to come to the UK to work or study and to acquire UK citizenship. Whatever the future trends for immigration, the fact remains that – like it or not – the UK is already a country of immigrants.