I was born in England, part of Great Britain and the United Kingdom. Generally I have little time for nationalism in any form, but convention and a variety of regulations require me to describe myself as either British or a citizen of the United Kingdom depending on which bit of bureaucracy I am wrestling with at the time. But I am also English if current geographic accuracy is considered and that, perhaps, brings into question my ethnic background for mine is a very Welsh surname so maybe this is time to come out of the closet.
My name may be Welsh, but there are a lot of my namesakes in Ireland where we migrated centuries ago, pushed westwards perhaps by invaders from mainland Europe or imported as part of one of the Irish settlements in subsequent years and my paternal family line extends back into what is now Eire. Then nearly three hundred years ago we came to England to dig canals and haven’t, so far, left although digging big ditches went out of fashion and we turned our hands to other things along the way.
In the strictest sense that doesn’t make us immigrants either for the Irish were all British back then, at least in the sense of the way the map was drawn in those days, but if we move across to my mother’s side of the line we have a murkier, and perhaps more sinister, past. Mum’s family name can be traced back to mercenaries from the Germanic tribes who came over with Normandy Bill in 1066 and so we are not just immigrants, but invaders. Yes, perhaps we came here to overthrow the English king (even if he wasn’t really English any more than William was really French for they both came from Norse and northern European stock) or maybe we come from one of the subsequent migrations of Germans to the UK. There have been several and some of those Germans were, or became, rather important people here; three hundred years ago we provided Great Britain with its royal family and a line that can be traced through to the current incumbents of Buck House. Even my own, humbler, family can boast of a Knight of the Realm within the last hundred years.
The true story of British people is that we are all descended from migrants and are a mongrel race. The nations of Europe that we know today, let alone many of those in other parts of the world, have only existed in relatively recent times. Germany only came together in the late eighteen hundreds and some of her borders have been rather flexible since. France perhaps goes back a bit further, but large chunks of that land were under English rule for years for one example. Poland and most of the former Soviet satellite states have all had somewhat flexible boundaries too, so where does all this nationalism come from?
Many years ago I knew a gentleman who was, to me, seemingly from India. When I finally plucked up courage to talk to him he told me that he was British because here was where he had made his home and that he had chosen to live like those that he had come to live amongst. That by birth he was Bengali, but his nationality had been officially Indian because of a line on a map drawn by people who had invaded his country until someone drew a different line on that map and made him a Pakistani. I was sixteen when he told me these things and that knowledge had a profound effect on me. It put into perspective some of what I had learned in history and geography at school about the way that national boundaries come into being, especially those that had been drawn after the two world wars which I had studied in some depth.
It was at this time that I began to regard myself as European and I still do. Not that this feeling makes me a fan of the EU; it doesn’t for I am fundamentally opposed to much of what emanates from Brussels, but I think that a lot of the Britishness that so many of my countrymen prize is little more than a Victorian illusion that was cemented and perpetrated by two world wars. The extreme right Englishness that is so often bandied about under the flag of a Roman soldier who was born around the border of what we now call Turkey and Syria (and never came anywhere near the UK) just shows it up for the nonsense that it is.
I understand the logic for desiring to fence off a bit of the world and claim it as your own. That is a basic tribal instinct and cannot be ignored nor, in my opinion, should it be. Anywhere that you go in the world there is a suspicion of strangers amongst some and an open welcome amongst others; incomers bring good and bad and what is good for some is bad for others and vice versa. I have worked in most parts of the British Isles for example and whilst most are very hospitable there is also a level of hostility from others, something that is less evident when I have worked abroad.
I don’t understand the political left’s rabid enthusiasm for open borders any more than I understand the extreme right’s desire to close them tight and I abhor the dogma of both sides especially the hostile leftist shrieking of racist towards anyone who disagrees with their thinking. What we need is intelligent discussion about immigration policies not name calling.
Some immigrants contribute, some don’t. Not all immigrants are criminals, but some are. The same can be said about the rest of us here in the UK though; it’s about people’s behaviour not where they come from and it is an age old problem (although we can no longer solve it the way that we used to thanks to things like the human rights legislation). Immigrants bring good and bad, but they also bring change and perhaps that is the greatest fear factor.
So no, I am not an immigrant, but if it was not for immigrants I would not be here and the same applies to all British people. Maybe if we could all accept that we might be able to do a little better.