What Does It Mean To Be English?

The history of the British Isles is a history of invasions. The Celts, who originally lived in what is now known as England, were driven west two thousand years ago by the invading Romans, some of whom remained when the Roman Empire collapsed. They were followed by the Angles (from Schleswig), the Saxons (from Saxony), the Danes (including Canute, who defeated Edmund at the battle of Ashingdon in 1016), the Vikings, and the Normans.

Our national heritage comes from all over Europe.

More recently, we have welcomed the Huguenots, Jews, and other victims of religious persecution. We have a commendable history of tolerance.

We record – we even celebrate – our mongrel past. Sweyne and his father, Robert FitzWimarc, have both left their names as Rayleigh landmarks. The Normans and Saxons both have local roads named after them, and there is even a Canute Close in Canewdon.

In the 1950s, we recruited workers from the West Indies and other commonwealth countries to become hospital porters, bus drivers and street sweepers – vital jobs with no workers to take them on.

We have always been a nation of immigrants.

But at some point in the last couple of decades we seem to have decided that we could tolerate no more immigrants or asylum seekers. We have become a mean and intolerant society, even to the point that some call for the children of those we begged to help us in the 50s to be sent back to the land of their parents.

The Labour Government and the Tories have been vying with each other recently for the title of bigot of the year. Only the Liberal Democrats have spoken up for our history of tolerance.

United Nations figures show that Britain is ninth in Europe in terms of the numbers of refugees we accept. From 1990 to 1999 the UK received 374,100 applications for asylum. Germany received almost two million. Over the last fifteen years, the UK has granted refugee status to barely one half of one percent of the total refugees in the world.

But when goaded by the Tories for encouraging a ‘flood of bogus asylum seekers’, Labour didn’t mention this. Instead, they proudly boasted that they had introduced a mean and petty voucher system for asylum seekers.

Under legislation introduced by the Labour Government, asylum seekers receive £10 in cash and (for a young single asylum seeker) £18.95 in “vouchers” to buy food and other essentials.

Just under £30 per week in total. The Netherlands offers almost £50 per week to asylum seekers.

The vouchers can only be used in designated supermarkets. If there is any spare change left from unspent vouchers, it is taken away from the asylum seekers. Asylum seekers are dispersed around the country, usually separated from family and friends, and housed often in sub standard accommodation. Other asylum seekers are simply kept in detention centres.

In the local elections last year, the Tories paraded the same policies as the BNP. With local campaigning pandering to prejudice over asylum and section 28, the party revealed itself as the right-wing rump it has now become. The Conservatives are now so extreme, they have been accused by the BNP of stealing their xenophobic and racist policies on Europe and asylum. No wonder Michael Heseltine has accused William Hague of being a ‘Little Englander’, suffering from ‘nationalist xenophobia’.

I was cheered by the fact that last May the good people of Romsey rejected this kind of intolerance and voted in a Liberal Democrat MP, Sandra Gidley.

I was also cheered this week to hear a Labour minister, Barbara Roche, call for an intelligent discussion about the future of immigration into our country. She has asked first that we distinguish between asylum seekers and immigrants – an important distinction which neither Labour nor the Tories have been particularly interested in until now.

She has also suggested that we might benefit as a country from a sensible and controlled intake of new immigrants in the future.

Our economy has benefited in the past from innovative ideas brought by newcomers, and the same could happen again, if we are open to the possibilities. The Ugandan Asians expelled by Idi Amin established many flourishing enterprises here, as the Ugandan economy they left behind imploded. Asian countries are threatening to overtake the UK in industries based on new technologies. So we can either import some of their expertise – or we can export some of our prosperity.

A sensible immigration policy, continuing our history of tolerance, would allow us to benefit from the innovative zeal of young people from other parts of the world, whose energy and enthusiasm could generate the wealth to pay our pensions in the next several decades.

Or we could continue our recently discovered mean streak, and retire in poverty and intolerance, while the rest of the world prospers.