Britain’s Misplaced Immigration Anger and the Vestiges of Empire

Jonathan Gornall

Image courtesy of Chris Jackson / Pool / AFP

Every 10 years, a census is carried out in England and Wales by the Office for National Statistics. Its purpose is to paint an accurate demographic picture of the population, to help with the planning, funding and running of public services.

The latest census, just published, shows that the percentage of people in England who identify as white is continuing to fall, while the number who identify with other ethnic groups continues to rise.

And, for the first time, less than half the population recorded their religion as Christian, while the number of Muslims has risen.

Cue fear and loathing as Britain’s opportunistic right-wingers, always ready to sow division in British society, played the race card.

Dog-whistler-in-chief is Nigel Farage, the Brexit architect who single handedly scared Britain out of the EU by convincing a sizable chunk of the electorate that all their problems could be attributed to immigrants.

In an incendiary video posted on Twitter, Farage claimed the census showed that “Birmingham, Manchester and London are all now minority white cities.”

Farage, for whom immigration is spelled “invasion,” added that, combined with the fact that “only 46 percent now identify as Christian … there is a massive change in the identity of this country that is taking place through immigration.”

The number of Muslims in the country has increased, but only slightly, from 2.7 million in 2011 to 3.9 million in 2021. The real issue is that white English people are turning their backs on religion in their droves. The number of Christians has dropped from 33.3 million in 2011 to 27.5 million, while the number of people who say they have no religion has risen from 14.1 million to 22.2 million.

Also, Farage was flat-out wrong about the whiteness of British cities – so wrong, that the ONS issued a statement about the “inaccurate claims.”

Of course, while it’s important to correct such falsehoods, there are really only two correct responses to anyone who raises the alarm because England is, slowly but surely, changing color.

The first is “So what?”

Instead of seeing people, the Farages of this world see only race, color, and religion, and consider each of those aspects of a person’s identity, if they differ from their own, as a challenge to their existence, which it is not.

And the second response is “Well, you had it coming.”

Remember the empire? The Brits went to faraway lands which they claimed and plundered. Later, they gave some of their newly acquired “subjects” British passports – not out of the goodness of their hearts, but because they needed cheap labour back home.

Accordingly, they came, did the jobs that no white person wanted to do, had children, and now their children are having children, which brings us back to that other response: “So what?”

No society is a museum piece, frozen in time and amber, to be protected against change as if it were a historic building. England is no exception and, given its history, nor should it expect to be.

Even before the great waves of immigration from former colonies that followed the Second World War, defining “Englishness” was always impossible.

The blend of DNA in the average Briton is among the most complex in the world, thanks to the blood of successive waves of invaders, traders, migrants, slaves and refugees that has pumped through the population from the Romans onwards.

But here’s the thing. Up until the Second World War, despite their diverse origins and reasons for coming to Britain, all these people had one thing in common: by and large, they all looked like “us.”

All that changed after the Second World War, when Britain, lacking the manpower it needed to begin rebuilding its shattered cities, looked to its colonies.

In 1948 the British Nationality Act granted the subjects of the empire the right to live and work in the UK. As a result, throughout the 1950s many hundreds of thousands came to Britain, chiefly from India, Pakistan and the West Indies.

Immigration has continued, and widened, ever since, with migrants happy to take on the low-paid jobs that no-one else wants.

For many, low-paid work is merely a stepping-stone. The first generation might have swept the streets and driven the buses, but their children and grandchildren are today’s doctors and lawyers. It is both remarkable and to be celebrated that today the UK has a prime minister of Indian descent, leading a cabinet that features other ministers of Indian, African and Iraqi-Kurdish origin.

“England” was never a static place, never home to a “pure” race of people. For far-right politicians and crowd-wranglers like Farage to suggest it was, is as cynical as it is dangerous.

And Britain needs immigrants now as much, or even more, than it did in the post-war years – and not just to replace the cheap seasonal workers from the EU who after Brexit are no longer allowed to work on its farms.

Yet Farage’s UK Independence Party blamed migrants for everything from a lack of school places and a struggling National Health Service to high prices and low wages.

It’s a stance that caught on and has been reflected ever since in the policies of governments scared of losing the support of right-wing voters.

Farage and allies have now found a new vehicle, Reform UK, a party focused on – you guessed it – immigration. Predictably, support for Reform is growing.

Only a fool or a racist – or someone cynically hoping to ignite and exploit the fears of fools and racists – could argue that immigration hasn’t been beneficial for Britain.

Unfortunately, neither “Fool” nor “Racist” were categories available for householders to tick in the most recent census.

Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK. Twitter: @JonathanGornall