Guest Writer, Tara Jones, considers Britain’s legacy of Empire, War and forced migration and asks if it still colours our attitudes to immigration today.
Modern multicultural Britain is home to a diverse and vibrant array of communities and ethnicities. But as the current debate around
immigration rages on it seems that some of the key factors at the heart of the story have been forgotten.
If we were to believe the reactionary headlines trumpeted by parts of the press, we could be forgiven for thinking that the inhabitants of the British Isles had been living in quiet seclusion for centuries, minding their own business (perhaps drinking tea and Morris dancing unassumingly) until recent invasions by swarms of marauding freeloaders from overseas.
‘..much of immigration to the UK has its roots in our colonial past’
Nothing could be further from the truth. Actually neither Morris dancing nor tea originated in Britain at all. In fact, so many of the things we think of as being quintessentially British have been borrowed and absorbed from other parts of the world, but that’s another story.
The very fabric of British history and culture is a rich and varied one, and one of the most prominent threads running through it is immigration. From the earliest days of the Celts, the Picts, the Romans, the Jutes, Angles and Saxons, to the Normans and beyond, our population, language and culture has been shaped, expanded and enriched by settlers from beyond our shores.
But this is very far from being a one way street. Missing from the tabloid view of a Britain under siege is the fact that much of immigration to the UK has its roots in our colonial past. It only takes a brief look back through history to remind us that we Brits haven’t just sat back playing reluctant host to a stream of visitors from far flung lands.
‘..the notion of imperialism as a noble quest often persists in corners of the collective British psyche.’
Britain has done more than its fair share of globe-trotting, and certainly made its mark in the process. The British Empire’s reach was vast,
spanning a quarter of the world’s land area at its height around 100 years ago, and earning it the title “the empire in which the sun never set”. Today’s multicultural Britain owes itself in part to that heritage.
Since human beings first evolved we have been on the move. Migration has been a constant theme throughout human history. It has also been a fundamental element of the survival and advancement of the species. Recent genetic research suggests that we are naturally predisposed to seek partners with genes unlike our own. This mixing of genes better enables us to fight infectious illnesses and makes us less susceptible to genetic diseases.
Trade, exploration, industrialisation and more recently, globalisation, have all contributed to the Britain we know today. But the darker legacies of war and colonialism, and the forced migration of millions through the slave trade, all had their part to play as well.
It’s interesting how the notion of imperialism as a noble quest often persists in corners of the collective British psyche. This take on colonial history overlooks the uncomfortable matter of the seizing of land, wealth, natural resources and labour. Instead, it reinvents it as a sort of benevolent jaunt around the globe with the generous purpose of sharing the merits of etiquette, English grammar and afternoon tea (with just a little bit of Christian guilt thrown in for good measure).
What was often known as the ‘civilising mission’ wasn’t always all that civilised. Whether we like it or not, there was a dark side to the story of empire (and unfortunately I’m not talking about Darth Vadar). There usually is when power, greed and notions of racial superiority are involved. Ignoring this constitutes a sort of selective amnesia.
Because whilst the British Empire brought railways, roads and education to many, it also brought slaughter, displacement and tyranny. I’m not suggesting that we should now be squirming with self-loathing at the sins of the fathers, but airbrushing them from history doesn’t do us too many favours either.
‘Those that wish to shut our borders and close their minds to ‘foreign’ influence are overlooking our very mutual relationship with the outside world..’
And we can’t really justify saying something along the lines of “don’t darken our door with your foreign ways, funny lingo and spicy food” when we’ve only recently (in the greater scheme of things) finished a few centuries-long worldwide tour of conquest and pillaging. It’s just not cricket.
The thing is that nothing much happens in a historical vacuum. There is always a context, always a path to trace back from. The British
Empire wrought huge changes overseas, and so it also follows that it would inevitably change Britain too. We can trace the signs of British influence around the world through language, architecture, religion and even sport. But there has also been a complex cultural exchange and this reciprocal relationship is reflected in the genetic make-up of modern Britain too.
We have so much to be proud of in the UK, not least our rich cultural diversity, which is constantly evolving. Those that wish to shut our borders and close their minds to ‘foreign’ influence are overlooking our very mutual relationship with the outside world, and how much that has contributed to the Britain we know and love today.
Tara Jones is a freelance writer from North London with a special interest in cultural studies and equality issues. She has contributed extensively to leading parenting websites and produced research that was instrumental in influencing government policy around equal opportunities. She has a passion (although regrettably not a talent) for music and writes her own music blog.
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