What does Britain expect from the refugees and immigrants who come to this country?by / 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” emigration, there was another very different group of refugees: the Red emigration, Socialists like Miliband, EJ Hobsbawm and Isaac Deutscher. They covered a wide spectrum: from social democrat economists like Balogh and Kaldor, who advised Wilson in the 1960s and 70’s, to Marxists and Communist Party members.
They too were formed by their experience, but it was a distinct experience from White émigrés like Berlin and Gombrich. Miliband was the son of a Polish Jewish leather worker. In his notes for a “political autobiography” that he never published, he wrote: “The political climate in our house was generally and loosely left: it was unthinkable that a Jew, our sort of Jew, the artisan Jewish worker, self-employed, poor, Yiddish-speaking, unassimilated, non-religious, could be anything but socialistic.” No piano in the “salon” here. From a completely different background in central and east Europe, these Jewish left-wing refugees brought their left-wing politics with them when they came to Britain.
This is the context for the young Ralph Miliband writing his notes about Britain when he arrived in 1940, before his wartime service and his distinguished academic career. It was not base ingratitude, as The Daily Mail, suggests. It was a moment of transition for a schoolboy, trying to make sense of the two worlds he knows: the one he left behind, of Yiddish-speaking, Jewish-Polish leftwing politics, and a new country whose political values he was just coming to understand.
Miliband changed his name when he came to Britain (from Adolphe to the very English Ralph), but he didn’t change his politics. He remained a lifelong socialist and a critic of aspects of parliamentary democracy. A key figure in left-wing debates about the true way to socialism in Britain in the Wilson years, he is barely remembered today except as the father of two of Labour’s leading politicians, who have chosen a different political path to that of their father.
That is one irony in Miliband’s story. Another is the differing experiences of the Red émigrés in Britain. At first sight, refugee intellectuals like Miliband, Deutscher and Hobsbawm had much in common. All three were central European Jewish refugees, born either side of the First World War. All three became, in Deutscher’s famous phrase, “non-Jewish Jews”. All three had distinguished careers in post-war Britain. And, crucially, all three were on the Left. Deutscher remained a lifelong socialist and champion of the Russian revolution and its legacy, Miliband was a Marxist critic of parliamentary democracy and Hobsbawm was the most famous Marxist historian of his generation.
Hobsbawm was the only one who was a member of the Communist Party and remained a party member after 1956 and ’68. At the end of his life, he still argued that had the 1917 Revolution delivered “a radiant tomorrow”, it would have been worth the sacrifice of millions. Yet, it was Hobsbawm, not Deutscher or Miliband, who received all the acclaim when he died. It was the Communist Party member who became Fellow of the British Academy, Companion of Honour, best-selling author, long after the others were largely forgotten.
Ralph Miliband’s story is complicated, more than The Daily Mail realises. Jewish refugees were never treated the same, even those on the Left. They came from different backgrounds; they had different values. However, so many of them made a huge contribution to this country and were always grateful to Britain for saving them. But how do we define gratitude? What does Britain expect from its refugees and immigrants? To begin such a debate, we need to acknowledge how complicated this history is and that to treat it as a political game, or an opportunity to hurt and rubbish other people, is not the way to start.