A Tolerant Country?

W.J. Fishman | Published in History Today
  • A Tolerant Country? Immigrants, Refugees And Minorities In Britain
    Colin Holmes - Faber and Faber, 1991 - 127 pp. - £5.99

Towards the end of the Second World War, historian Herbert Butterfield noted: 'We teach and write the kind of history which is appropriate to our organisation, to the intellectual climate of our part of the world'. In this context many of our chroniclers have portrayed Britain as an open society, historically a haven for foreign refugees fleeing from economic and political oppression, whom, we have on balance, treated with liberal-minded tolerance. Colin Holmes, pioneer historian of immigration into this country, essays to dispel such illusions by presenting a more realistic appraisal of government policy and host attitudes towards the incoming 'alien' during the recent past.

He reveals actual responses to the immigrant 'invaders' from the 1870s onwards. First the Irish workers, albeit British citizens since the Act of Union of 1801, were regarded by both government and indigent folk as cheap, competitive and, therefore, unwelcome labour and polluters of urban life. From Continental Europe came an influx of Germans (the 1911 census records 53,324) who followed diverse trades from sugar workers, bakers, waiters, clerks and governesses to an upper echelon of bankers, financiers and industrialists. There is evidence of continual hostility towards them, reaching a crescendo at the outbreak of the First World War with the incidence of widespread anti-German pogroms notably in London and Keighley. The greatest antipathy was directed towards the German gypsies, when, between 1905 and 1906, hundreds of them, with actual government connivance, were sent hack to Europe where, a generation later, they would certainly have ended up in Hitler's gas chambers.

A parallel story of hostility is recorded against the Eastern European Jews, 120,000 of whom, fleeing from Tsarist persecution, entered Britain between 187O and 1914. By the late nineteenth century Jews, already settled here, were legally emancipated, certainly freed from all political disabilities. Disraeli, born a Jew, but early converted to Christianity, had even achieved the ultimate in becoming a British prime minister! Nevertheless, the newcomers, after an initial sympathy, were soon at the receiving end of widespread hostility accruing from increased competition in the housing and labour markets. Notwithstanding the so-called liberal emancipation anti-Semitism revealed itself in stereotype images of the Jew in print, and, at times of economic recession or patriotic xenophobia (such as during the Boer War), acts of violence in the streets. Anti-Jewish propaganda was reflected both in contemporary literature and popular music hall songs, hostility peaking during the course of the Marconi Scandal of 1911 and the India Silver exposures of that year, in which some prominent Jews were involved. Events, before and after the Second World War, suggest that similar attitudes endured. Jews, escaping from Nazi persecution, were reluctantly admitted in limited numbers, and although obviously antipathetic towards a regime that had dealt with them so harshly, were interned after the outbreak of war as possible enemy agents! And even though the Allies were fighting against Germany, 'a country where anti- Semitism had become a salient feature of public policy', it 'persisted throughout the war to affect the lives of Jewish refugees and extended to those Jews who had been born in Britain!' So Holmes insists, with a catalogue of incidents to prove it – that the longest hatred is still with us today.

The post-1945 years brought in a new, mixed crop of strangers within the gates, presenting an additional 'problem' to the hosts – that of colour. To a point it was action replay in the range of responses to them, although the levels of violence perpetrated against the West Indians in Notting Hill and Nottingham in 1958 and the Asians in the East End of London in the 1970s and 198Os, have far surpassed those against their predecessors. So has government legislation been more forcibly aimed at curbing the influx of numbers, in effect, based on the colour of their skin.

The author explores the patterns of hostility towards the immigrant and refugee alike, and with acute perception does attempt to analyse the course and causes of antipathy towards them. In explaining the complexity of feelings and circumstances that made for prejudice he does not attempt to excuse. On the contrary he emphasises the dangers to all if the problems are not tackled honestly and firmly, and that the 'celebratory myths' of past British tolerance are not laid to rest. This is essential reading for all those practically involved in the hard labour of improving race relations.

  • W.J. Fishman is the author of East End: 1888 (Duckworth, 1988).
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