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Response to Review of The Battle of Britishness: Migrant Journeys, 1685 to the Present

I would like to thank Lawrence Brown for his positive, sensitive and thorough reading of The Battle of Britishness. The book is an ambitious one in its chronological scope, range of groups covered and attempt at a multi- and inter-disciplinary approach, and I am delighted that the reviewer got to grips with its broader ambitions.

There are several important inter-related points raised by the reviewer which I would like to explore further. The first is its political context at a time of obsessive national and international concern about migration. This is, of course, not unprecedented both in the numbers migrating and in the attempts to create paper barriers to their entry. In the case of Britain it has been relatively rare, however, for migration to be perhaps the most important issue as presented by political parties and the media. How that filters down (and up) from a popular discourse is complex and multi-layered. What worries me is how little the historical profession is engaging in debates about migration. The reason for this is that few have expertise in this subject leaving the field open to those who want to exploit it with a restrictionist or discriminatory agenda.

I am thinking here especially of David Goodhart’s The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-War Immigration which came out a few months after The Battle of Britishness.(1a) My book may indeed as Lawrence Brown suggests provide a ‘much needed counterpoint’ to Goodhart’s ‘recent polemic’, but it is hardly an even contest in the public domain. Goodhart was banned from speaking at the Hay on Wye festival in 2013 but, as he sulkily responded, he had already received a vast amount of attention in the media before then.

Goodhart, as I highlight in the first chapter of my book, has an obsessive interest in migration and what he sees as the undermining of Britishness. On an academic level, his work does not need to be taken seriously other than it reflecting the intolerance increasingly to be found in progressive circles and manifest recently with Labour leader, Ed Miliband. What is especially dangerous about Goodhart’s work, however, is his assumption, based on sheer ignorance, that Britain had no real tradition of migration before 1945 and that the country was somehow mono-cultural before the arrival of the Empire Windrush in June 1948. Goodhart, like Powell before him, bases this on myth and not historical knowledge. He simply – one presumes by some process of race memory?! – knows that to be the case.

Here, historians have a role – professional and moral – to show that British history is about migration within its borders and also in relation to immigration and emigration. It is a history, like all national histories, that is about movement. For too long the study of migration in British history has been left to a handful of specialists – led by the father of immigration history at Sheffield University, the inspirational Colin Holmes – but ignored by the so-called mainstream. The result is that Goodhart can then get away with his nonsense.

And this brings in the second aspect raised by Lawrence Brown – the diversity of migratory patterns into and out of Britain. The reviewer highlights temporary sojourning, career migration, circular migration. All are touched on in The Battle of Britishness but he rightly points out that they need further attention.  Here I would see my book not in any way as the final statement, but as an invitation to a further opening up of the field. Migration is rarely if ever a simple process of going from ‘a’ to ‘b’. Past and present humans, even British humans, have been on the move.

Lastly, Lawrence Brown highlights how my book is ‘an intervention in national history’. I hope to by its very nature that it is also global history – it covers journeys such as the Volga Germans who had been invited by Catherine the Great to settle in Russia only to depart in the late 19th century for colonisation opportunities in Brazil. Failing there, they returned ‘home’, eventually, but via England and Germany. Their journeys thus incorporated old and new worlds as did so many in the early and late modern eras.  I have tried to visit as many places from which the migrants came or passed through in my study – including sites in Australia, South Africa, America, Hong Kong, the continent of Europe and others as well as the precise locations they were connected to in Britain: place and a sense of place matters. But juxtaposing global, national and local narratives over a four-century period is inevitably challenging. This does not mean it cannot be or should not be undertaken. The historian has to be bold and take risks, confronting histories that she/he is not always familiar with. In this respect, I am pleased that The Battle of Britishness will be paperbacked in the summer by Manchester University Press as it will be more accessible to students and others who might provide the next and much needed generation of scholars in this vital and still neglected field.

Notes

  1. David Goodhart, The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-War Immigration (London, 2013). For a joint review, see Robert Winder in The Jewish Quarterly , 60, 2 (Summer 2013). Winder, author of Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration to Britain (2nd edition, London, 2013) is one of the few non-academics to take seriously the history of migration in British history. With Barbara Roche he is at the forefront of the campaign to create a Migration Museum in Britain.Back to (1a)