PERSPECTIVE: A British Identity Crisis: between Multiculturalism and Nationalism

The Polish plumber, who haunted many debates about the 2004 enlargement, has apparently decided to go back home… Image made available under Creative Commons licence by Consulat de la Boirie

Following EU enlargement in 2004, the UK opened its employment market to citizens of the newly joined member states. Despite initial government reassurances that there would no influx of migration, Central and Eastern Europeans were soon arriving in their hundreds of thousands. The government insists that the new migrants have had a net positive impact on the British economy, however socially their arrival has been greeted with mixed emotions. Interestingly, the European origin of these new immigrants has blurred traditional lines of debate about migration in Britain and has had a significant impact on politics and on perceptions of the European Union.

Immigration is not a new phenomenon in Britain and since the 1970s successive governments have sought to promote equality and forge an integrative multicultural policy. Annual carnivals and festivals celebrate Britain”s diversity and official documents uphold its successes. Why, then, the huge interest in this most recent wave of immigration?
 
The arrival of the ‘Eastern Europeans” (a catch-all term used to refer to the new migrants, much to the chagrin of many a Central European) has stood out from previous immigration in its scale. Previously, immigration was primarily an urban issue, however this time around many of the new immigrants have taken up rural employment and the British countryside has had to adapt to its first taste of immigration. The failure of the British government to accurately predict numbers of immigrants has meant that public services were not adequately equipped. Surgeries, schools and housing authorities have struggled to accommodate the new arrivals, creating tensions even in communities previously exposed to immigration.
 
As with all incidences of immigration in Britain, society”s reaction has been far from uniform. Many Britons continue to proudly uphold the long-celebrated principle of multiculturalism, praising the increased diversity and benefits the new immigrants have brought with them. The middle classes profit from their skilled labour; churches have seen their congregations swell and Polish delicatessens have thrived, being frequented by native Britons as well as Polish expats.
 
On the other hand; studies suggest that the only group to suffer economically from the new wave of immigration is low-skilled native workers, who have seen slight wage decreases. Correspondingly, it tends to be the working classes who object most to this newest wave of immigration. The rhetoric of ‘foreigners stealing our jobs” is an ever-present theme, although in reality immigrants tend to be employed in jobs rejected by native Brits. Anti-immigration newspapers and populist, nationalist parties such as the British National Party have latched on to this issue and the fear is that populist concerns will drown out any real debate.
 
This lack of consensus is characteristic of Britain”s attitudes to immigration. Since the start of mass immigration following World War Two, British society has been divided.
In the past any debate about immigration was haunted by the ugly spectre of British racism. The novelty of the current debate is the removal of the race issue, given the ethnic profile of most of the new immigrants. Accordingly, critics of immigration do not usually target the immigrants themselves, but attack the British authorities and by extension EU membership, for having made immigration more difficult to regulate. However the debate is not simply one of pro-Europeans against Eurosceptics. Instead, the debate has divided social classes. In a society already marked by strong class divisions, this is not an issue that Britain can afford to take lightly.
 
Find Out More
 
The Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank has recently published a report about the effects of immigration from Central and Eastern Europe following the 2004 accession.
 
The Poles are Coming”, is a BBC documentary looking at the impact of immigration from Central and Eastern Europe on British society. It was part of ‘The White Season”, a series of programmes examining the growing sense of marginalisation amongst certain sections of Britain”s white working class.
 
An academic article by Steven Vertovec at the Centre on Migration Policy and Society at the University of Oxford. The author looks at the evolution of policies on multiculturalism in Britain and the impact of today”s ‘super diversity.”
 
Katherine Morris

Catégories : Archives · À qui profite l'Europe ? Identités, classes sociales et représentations