What does Britain expect from the refugees and immigrants who come to this country?by David Herman / October 3, 2013 / Leave a comment
The past is never done with. It keeps turning up in unexpected places. Above all, it is complicated. The debate about The Daily Mail’shatchet job on Ralph Miliband is fascinating in many ways. It says so much about the present: a new edge in the right-wing press after Ed Miliband’s conference speech; anxieties about Englishness and patriotism as part of the debate about immigration; the first signs in a generation of an ideological divide between Labour and Conservatives.
But perhaps the most interesting part of it all is what it tells us about our relationship with the past. The past of The Daily Mail and the Rothermeres in the 1930s and their vicious attacks on Jewish refugees, fleeing from the very regime which Rothermere applauded; Labour’s ever-anxious relationship with aspects of its Socialist past; and, finally, Britain’s relationship with refugees and what it expects from immigrants and refugees, then and now.
Jewish immigrants in the 1930s have been generally thought of as a homogenous group, victims of Nazi persecution finding refuge in Britain. However, in a seminal essay, first published in The New Left Review in 1968, Perry Anderson made a fascinating distinction between the White emigration and the Red. The intellectuals who settled in Britain, he wrote, “were essentially a ‘White’, counter-revolutionary emigration.” This included key liberal and anti-Communist voices in the Cold War, such as Friedrich Hayek, Karl Popper and Isaiah Berlin. They appreciated the welcome they received from Britain. But, more importantly, they were drawn to British values – its stability, liberalism and tolerance, so different from Bolshevik Moscow or Nazi Vienna.
In his biography of Isaiah Berlin, Michael Ignatieff describes how after having had his first meal in England (bacon and eggs, of course), “Isaiah got up, went over to the piano in the salon and, with one hand, picked out God Save the King.” There is something too perfect about this story, but it captures how for Berlin, as for a whole generation of refugees, belonging mattered. It wasn’t just the stability. It was a compatibility between what Anderson called the “white” émigrés and British cultural and intellectual values: empiricism, distrust of wild speculation and theory, and, above all, a dislike of dogmatism and ideology.
However, in addition to this “white”…