If you watch scenes of British life on television or if you stand in a street in central London you will be instantly aware of our mixed population. All capital cities like to represent themselves as cosmopolitan but there is one obvious difference between London and Kyiv today. The streets of London are full of white, black and brown people, who originated from all over the world. Forty years ago London was much more like Kyiv: as a child I remember that seeing a black man on a bus was a rare excitement. The influx of non-white people into Britain has had very striking effects on our attitudes, culture and values.
In our protected corner of Europe, less immediately affected by some of the wars, we have been able, and until recently, willing to accept refugees from conflicts on the European mainland. Large groups of Protestants from France and the Low Countries in the seventeenth century, small groups of French Royalists after the Revolution, and individual radicals and revolutionaries of all kinds in the nineteenth century have settled here. Irish Catholics emigrated in their hundreds of thousands to Britain after the Great Famine of the 1840’s bringing with them a Catholic culture which is quite different from English Protestantism in its traditions, values and family patterns of upbringing. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries many Jews from Poland and Russia came here, often working as whole communities in the clothing trades of east London Britain had previously had few Jews. Anti-Semitism was endemic, as in the rest of Europe, but at a low, grumbling, sneering level which very rarely erupted into violence. Nevertheless, it was possible for educated people to write contemptuously about the Jews in pre-War Britain in a way which would be impossible today. Our Jewish population is largely assimilated, mostly professional, and does not (as in the United States) represent a powerful ‘interest group’. There are no ‘Jewish
polities’ as such. There is of course no concept of a “Jewish nationality”. You are a Jew, presumably, if you think you are one – but you will probably define yourself as an ‘English Jew or a “Welsh Jew”. Even the refugees from Nazi Germany have by now been assimilated, and their children and grandchildren have ceased to have those strong central European roots which enlivened our universities just after the War.
After 1945 Britain suffered from a shortage of labour, especially in unskilled, poorly-paid jobs. West Indians, and then Indians and Pakistanis were invited to come and work in our country. Between 1955 arid 1962 about a quarter of a million West Indians and rather fewer from the Indian sub-continent arrived in Britain on British citizen passports. Such numbers alarmed many of the white population, partly because they feared for their jobs and housing, partly because they disliked these non-white people coming into ‘white’ Britain. In 1962, the Government, in response to this panic, passed the first of a series of laws restricting right of entry into Britain and changing the status of British Commonwealth citizens. Commonwealth immigration was much reduced, though the families of those already here continued to arrive throughout the seventies and early eighties. Small groups of Hong Kong Chinese, Africans and Vietnamese were also accepted into the country during these years. But as people move around all over the world, Britain, has become notably less welcoming. The island is heavily populated, and our obligations to Commonwealth citizens are complex.