Britain Is an Immigrant Nation

The Romans, who arrived in Britain in 55 B.C., introduced paved roads, walls (including Hadrian’s Wall in the North of England, shown here), central heating, plumbing, coins and bureaucracy. DeAgostini/Getty Images
The Romans, who arrived in Britain in 55 B.C., introduced paved roads, walls (including Hadrian’s Wall in the North of England, shown here), central heating, plumbing, coins and bureaucracy. DeAgostini/Getty Images

The central exhibit of the Museum of Immigration and Diversity is the building itself. Located in London’s East End, it straddles the Docklands to its east, where new arrivals to Britain once hit dry land, and to its west the city, whose shiny office towers stand as the symbols of wealth and opportunity that have attracted so many newcomers.

This unassuming Georgian building on 19 Princelet Street has migration written into its bricks and mortar. Built in 1719, the house was once home to Huguenots fleeing persecution from Catholic France, and then to families forced to leave Ireland during the potato famine of the 1840s. Later in the 19th century, Jewish refugees from pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe turned the garden into a small synagogue. In the 1930s, the Jewish East Enders used the basement to hold meetings for the movement that faced down the fascist Blackshirts in the famous Battle of Cable Street.

The period that followed bequeathed one of the nation’s most enduringly positive immigration stories. Just before World War II, Britain took in some 10,000 mostly Jewish children through the Kindertransport rescue program. Last year, one of those children, Alf Dubs, a Labour member of the House of Lords, won popular support for his campaign to bring 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees into the country.

In the postwar period, the Princelet Street house and surrounding streets were home to new migrant communities — from Bangladesh, the Caribbean and, most recently, Eastern Europe. Much like New York’s landmark Lower East Side Tenement Museum, the Museum of Immigration and Diversity intertwines all these strands. Each room showcases a different aspect of the immigrant experience, narrating histories through objects, diaries and recordings.

In a larger way, of course, the very story of Britain has always been one of migrants. Poke around behind Britain’s currently rigid surface of chauvinism and a composite picture emerges — of Romans, Vikings, Celts, Normans, Jews, Indians, Chinese, Africans and more. The whole country is a living museum of immigration — if only its people would acknowledge it.

But Brexit Britain, you might suppose, is not a country much inclined to hear migration stories. Whatever else can be read into the referendum vote to leave the European Union, it was characterized by hostility about the flow of people to Britain and campaigning that played heavily on fears of immigration.

Indeed, Brexit follows years of pandering to fears over immigration, cast as legitimate concerns, with polling consistently placing the issue at the top of the public’s list of concerns. As in the United States and much of mainland Europe, Britain — or more accurately, England — is going through a period of resurgent nativism. The telltale signs are imprinted on the national conversation, with its undue preoccupation with cultural differences. A sharp division is drawn between the left-behind and a cosmopolitan elite, a too-fast influx of young, flexible workers versus rooted, traditional families trying to get by.

This ominous tone, with its rejection of rootless outsiders, is easily picked up by those sensitized to its message. And it comes from the top. In a speech to Conservatives last year, the prime minister, their party leader Theresa May, proclaimed, “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” Last month, against a public outcry, her government canceled its support for the Dubs Amendment, a deal on bringing in child refugees, named for the Labour politician. This week, a parliamentary vote narrowly failed to reinstate the policy, despite the support of some Tory rebels.

Unlike America, and some European countries, Britain does not have a national museum of migration. There is no Ellis Island, nor anything like France’s National Museum of the History of Immigration. The paradox is that Britons hold more positive views about diversity and integration than the citizens of other European countries do, yet migration is a curious blank in the history that the country tells itself — a version that emphasizes the outward travels of empire, allowing for only a brief spate of postwar immigration in this tale of an otherwise homogeneous island.

This split national consciousness abides today. Even as the national mood sours toward able newcomers taking British jobs, there is widespread support for the immigrant workers who keep the National Health Service running. In part, this is because the N.H.S., the great institution of Britain’s postwar welfare state, has taken its place in national mythology. But in part also, it is because the health service is so integral to British life. From birth, through life, to death, everyone at some point comes into contact with the service’s legions of caring, dedicated doctors and nurses from around the world.

All of which provides good reason to inject more of Britain’s motley history into its apparently resistant idea of itself. There is a clear need to tackle what the writer Robert Winder, in his chronicle of the country’s immigration history, “Bloody Foreigners,” describes as the “amnesiac streak” Britain has “when it comes to acknowledging the immigrant blood in her veins.” As he narrates, migration legacies are inscribed in quintessentially English cathedrals; in the nation’s historical figures and place names; in the English language itself, so full of nuance precisely because it is a rich amalgam; and in all those imported customs and values now deemed British and ordered to be rote-learned by newcomers.

Mr. Winder is also a trustee of the Migration Museum Project, a charity that seeks to create a permanent historical collection. The project recently secured a central London location to use as a pop-up space, but the idea is to build a base in the capital and also partner with other museums across the country, so that its collections themselves would be migratory.

Just when they’re needed, such historical exhibits may find funding harder to come by — so politicized is the subject, and the country so polarized on the issue. The Princelet Street building lacks the capital for the major repairs that would allow it to open full time. But politically amplified hostility may be obscuring more sympathetic public interest: On the days the museum can open, the line of visitors snakes far down the street.

Since Brexit, the country has seen a spike in hate crimes and racist abuse. Those who are dismayed by this xenophobic turn often say, “This isn’t who we are.” It is meant as a reminder of the British values of generosity and openness, even the vastly underestimated quality of indifference — prerequisite to a live-and-let-live society — in a country called home by so many, from so many parts of the world.

Of course, that is only part of the story. Historically, as now, the national response to migration has always been a mix of kindness and suspicion, hospitality and resentment. But the claim works as a rebuttal of exclusionary, nativist definitions of British identity. It only takes a stroll down Princelet Street to learn that this is not who Britons are. Nor who they ever have been.

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author.

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