Outsiders in London


Vilification of Nationalities

Important Note: This article concerns the vilification of a number of nationalities,(where nationality signifies the citizenship of a sovereign state);  this is not to be confused with the vilification of ethnic groups, such as Romani, Jews, Basques etc, a topic already covered in another article, nor the vilification of peoples of colour (racism) which is to have its own dedicated article.   It should also be emphasised that, while this article deals specifically with some aspects of the vilification of nationalities within the UK, this is not in any way to suggest that the same kind of vilification does not take place in many other countries - what follows is written from the personal perspective of the photographer who is himself an immigrant to this country. 

Newly arrived from what was then thought of as ‘the Continent’ to the London of the 1970’s, and trying to find somewhere to live, I was surprised to see notices on the doors of rental properties that read:  “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs”.   Over time, I was happy to see these sorts of notices gradually disappearing but one strongly suspected that the landlords who put them up continued to harbour the same feelings that motivated them in the first place.   As a newcomer to what was even by then a very multicultural city, I felt that Irish influences were discernible everywhere:  Irish culture, music, traditions, and humour seemed almost woven into the very fabric of society in England.   Of course, this is hardly surprising as the twelfth-century Norman invasion of Ireland marked the beginning of what proved to be over 700 years of English and British involvement in the fate of its nearest island neighbour.   Nor, sadly, was this engagement mostly a benign one;  while it has sometimes been crudely seen through a twentieth-century lens as a simple struggle between Catholicism nationalism and Protestantism unionism, of course historically, there were a host of other complex territorial, security and strategic motives at play too.  Ever since the Plantagenet Kings of England added the Lordship of Ireland to the many territories that comprised their Angevin Empire, England perceived Ireland to be part of its fiefdom and its people to be subjects of the English crown.  

Over the centuries of conflict between the Irish and the other peoples of Britain, Ireland was settled by thousands of English and Scottish Protestants and many landlords and aristocrats not only owed loyalty to the English crown but had their family roots in the mainland too.   It is hardly surprising that the two peoples did not just engaged in conflict but also commingled their trade and their traditions, even uniting occasionally when faced with a common external danger.  It is an ineluctable fact that millions of UK citizens are either from Ireland or have Irish forbears - indeed, over 6 million Britons (8% of the UK population) have an Irish grandparent.   The greatest exodus to Britain occurred following a terrible series of failures in the potato crop that culminated in the Great Famine of 1845-52, when one million people died of starvation and roughly the same number arrived in Britain seeking jobs and survival, leaving the population of Ireland some 20-25% smaller.   These arrivals not only furnished mainland Britain with a significant, peripatetic labour force, available to build canals, railways and other infrastructure, but also brought in new creative talent, culturally enriching England and Scotland in a significant way.

The Irish, of course, remained subject to English chauvinism which surfaces occasionally even now.   In 1973, with the start of ‘The Troubles’, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) began a campaign of bombing in London and I remember noticing how the mood towards the Irish changed.   Almost overnight, anyone with an Irish accent, or anyone with an Irish name or background, irrespective of how long they had lived in the UK, was treated as a suspect.   The tabloid newspaper headlines were almost as destructive of Anglo-Irish relations as the IRA’s explosives that ripped through London, killing and maiming innocent Londoners.   They fuelled a repugnance towards anything Irish and encouraged a vilification of all irish citizens that was almost universal - the whole nation was seen as suspect.   While the police, the army and the judiciary succeeded in identifying and prosecuting some of the culprits who had participated in the IRA attacks on the mainland, in the super-heated atmosphere of the time, it is perhaps unsurprising that there we some notable miscarriages of justice and a number of wholly innocent individuals were arrested, interrogated, tried, convicted and imprisoned.   Most notorious was the Birmingham Pub Bombing of 1974 and the subsequent case of the ‘Birmingham Six’, six innocent Irishmen who were sentenced to life imprisonment in 1975 and who spent the next 16 years in prison until their conviction was declared as unsafe and unsatisfactory by the Court of Appeal in 1991.   It as a chilling example of how, in extreme circumstances, the intense vilification of a nation can lead to grave consequences for many individuals of the denigrated nationality.

London, Edinburgh, Glasgow and many other of the UK’s major industrial centres attracted enterprising traders and artisans, talented artists and craftsmen, as well as the intelligentsia from across continental Europe and further afield.   This country also accepted and gave welcome to many individuals fleeing from poverty, tyranny and persecution, and to some of those who were simply running away from their inner demons;  they settled and set about reconstructing a life in a broadly accepting Britain.   Many Italians settled in Glasgow and other parts of central Scotland;  Dutch traders settled and established businesses around the major ports;  and London attracted possibly the greatest range of people from around the world, people who would live, work, manufacture, trade and generally prosper in this land of diverse opportunities.   Thus, over the centuries, Britain’s conurbations became melting pots of multifarious cultures, races, religions and trades and this diversity undoubtedly contributed to the subsequent expansion and prosperity of the Empire. 

Of course, France had for centuries been regarded by the English as their ‘hereditary enemy’ and there was certainly a great deal of strategic, economic and military rivalry between the two nations who together seemed hell-bent on colonising the entire world.   Though Spanish and Portuguese traders were very much a part of the ‘trading landscape’ of Britain, these countries’ mostly Latin American colonial expansion seemed to have run out of steam long before the Anglo-French ‘dash for Africa’, so while these two nations’ colonial interests were at times in conflict with Britain’s, they were recognised as being in the ‘same game’ and therefore treated with a degree of respect. 

Leaving aside the infusion of Norman French and the changes thereby wrought upon Middle English, the Anglo-Saxon English belong primarily to the Germanic family of peoples and right up to the twentieth century, Prussia and later the unified Germany were perceived as natural allies - Germany was, after all, the cradle of Protestantism, where a vigorous freedom of thought made it a major power in the arts, in science and in literature;  a fortress and hotbed of high thought, Germany was, in the words of Andrew Dickson White, “a guardian of civilisation and a natural ally of every nation which seeks the better development of humanity”.   The German intelligentsia, and the artists and thinkers of that nation undoubtedly played a prominent role in the shaping of Imperial Britain.   However, following the completion of German unification and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and more particularly from the early twentieth century and the emergence of the 1904 Entante Cordiale, an Anglo-French alliance formed against Germany, with the result that attitudes in Britain towards all things German slowly began to change.   Ultimately, as the events of the 20th century wore on, they changed beyond recognition and the Germans were systematically portrayed as a robotic, goose-stepping, authoritarian, militaristic and bellicose nation.  

With Germany brought economically to its knees after the First World War and the vindictive settlement of the Congress of Vienna, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, founded in 1920, sought at least to give the whole nation some hope for its future but behind the rousing slogan, “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer” which helped to energise millions of Germans and to lift them from the gloom of defeat and the appalling effects of hyper-inflation, it also began to lay the foundations of those attitudes that would encourage acquiescence in the eventual process of ‘cleansing’ the Third Reich of Jews, homosexuals, Romani, Communists, the disabled, all kinds of ‘degenerates’ and any other sort of political opponent.  Goodly numbers of the persecuted managed to flee to Paris, London and the USA before the borders finally closed.  

Many German citizens, amongst whom there were leading Intellectuals, political activists, freethinkers - many of them Jews - fled to London and to other parts of Britain.   In the 1930’s, German citizens who had fled to London from the impending nightmare in their homeland were allowed into the UK but even then, some were vilified from both sides in Britain, from the anti-German factions who saw Hitler as a tyrant and a threat to civilised Europe, but also from amongst the admirers of Germany and those who were sympathetic towards the vibrant new German order, sympathies that remained strong almost until war broke out.   This escalating vilification of German nationals became a very harsh reality at the outbreak of the Second World War:  official statistics indicate that there were around 80,000 ‘potential enemy aliens’ domiciled in Britain when war broke out, mainly Germans, Austrians but later Italians too, and thousands of these aliens were rounded up and sent to camps on mainland Britain, and the Isle of Man.  

Conditions in these camps ranged from grim (eg at Bury near Manchester ) to almost acceptable but, unsurprisingly, it was principally the loss of freedom, the separation from their families, and the lack of virtually any contact with the outside world, yet at the same time having nothing to do, that made internment a deeply scarring experience for many of the individuals concerned.   Ironically, many of those sequestered in the British Internment Camps were Jewish refugees from Austria and Germany who, having just managed to escape the Nazis and get to the UK, found themselves labelled as suspects and were thrown into camps here.   Almost eight thousand of these internees were deported to Canada and to Australia, an exile with often disastrous consequences.   A liner, the Arandora Star, heading to Canada with German, Italian and Austrian internees on board,  was torpedoed and sunk in July 1940 with 714 lives lost.   On other ships, such as the Dunara, internees often had to suffer appalling humiliations with most of their possessions either stolen or thrown overboard by the British military guards escorting them to Australia.   Whilst the vilification of Germans, Austrians and Italians continued amongst the general public, perhaps a natural wartime phenomenon, official British policy relaxed as the war progressed and many internees were allowed to take part in the War effort on the Home Front - some even served in the British armed forces.

In the more recent past, in 1982, when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands (to them, the Islas Malvinas) I personally witnessed the ‘disappearance’, almost overnight, of two distinguished scientists from the scientific institute with which I was associated at that time.   Neither of them had any political affiliations with the military junta that then governed Argentina;  indeed, they were strong opponents of it and their opposition had been one of the main reasons for their coming to the UK in the first place.   Neither of these scientific colleagues was interned;  they were simply politely informed that they might be interned, that they were no longer welcome at the institute, and that it would be better for all concerned if they left.   A similar fate befell the famous Argentinean footballer, Ossie Ardiles, who played for Tottenham Hotspur.   Virtually overnight, all the Argentineans living peaceably in this country were vilified and who can forget the appalling Sun headline following the (questionable) sinking of the Argentine cruiser, the General Belgrano:  “Gotcha ! ... 1200 Argies drown”.   It is a profound irony that very many of the Argentinians living in London and other parts of Britain were refugees from a merciless and murderous military junta back home - they had fled to save their lives and the lives of their families and used London as one of the centres for conducting an active campaign against the Argentinian regime, exposing and publicising the junta’s flagrant disregard for human rights and their wanton extermination of the political opposition.

Polish people working and living in Britain are frequently in the news nowadays, but before we address this topical example of vilification, we need to remind ourselves that a major settlement of Poles in the UK happened during and just after the Second World War.   In 1940, with Poland occupied by Germans, the Polish Government went into exile and, together with the President, relocated to London, together with 20,000 soldiers and airmen.   By 1945, almost a quarter of a million Polish troops were serving under the command of the British Army.   Even earlier, during the Battle of Britain, Poles were the largest non-British contingent of airmen in the RAF, and,  thanks to these refugee Poles and their knowledge of ‘Ultra’, the Enigma Code was finally cracked at Bletchley Park.   Once World War II was over, and Europe was once again ‘carved up’, many Poles felt deeply betrayed when their homeland was allowed to become one of the satellites of Stalin’s Russia.   Thousands of  Poles fled to Canada and Australia but also to Britain.

Poles in Britain played a very active role in the life of every neighbourhood they settled in:  they built their own churches, established cultural clubs and set up youth centres so as to maintain and promote Polish traditions, but at the same time they integrated into the British way of life with remarkable ease.  They maintained their pride in the Polish motherland but were happy to play an active role in the rebuilding of post-war Britain, enriching our country, making it more prosperous and helping make it what it is today.   The respect these hardworking and cultured people had secured from their host nation was to give way to vilification upon the arrival of the second wave of largely economic migrants.   Some Poles came to Britain after 1989 and the fall of Communism and, without papers, many of these entered the so-called ‘grey economy’.   But Poland became a full member of the EU in 2004 and, as soon as they were able, seemed enthusiastic in taking advantage of the freedom of labour to travel from one EU member state to another.  

It is estimated that over half a million Poles have arrived to Britain since the EU provided them with the right to relocate and these migrants have joined those who settled here after World War II.   Poles are now the UK’s third largest foreign-born community after people born in Ireland and British India and the Polish language is now the second most commonly spoken language in England.   Like their antecedents throughout history, these new arrivals have tended to settle in places where they already had friends or family who had arrived in an earlier cycle of immigration.   This creates a ‘clustering’, some might say ghetto, effect, which is often seen as undesirable, but it has the advantage of providing newcomers with essential support systems, specialist services (like food shops) and makes it easier to find a job during the period when they gradually master the language and learn how to navigate local customs and regulations.   Outside London, the biggest Polish communities are now in Peterborough, Nottingham, Luton, Leeds, Birmingham and Southampton, though there are also over 50,000 Poles living in Scotland.  Polish shops, Polish social clubs, Polish restaurants and local Polish newspapers are in evidence in many places now.

These more recent arrivals did, of course, differ from those who arrived in the 1940s and it may be perceived that the longer-established Polish migrants have sometimes sought to distance themselves from the new arrivals.   But generally, this latest wave has comprised young men and women in their prime, many of whom were often highly educated and well-qualified, skilled tradesmen and accomplished artists and medics.   Of course, as one might expect, amongst such a large number of arrivals  there were also some who, for various reasons, just failed to fit in, failed to get jobs, spent time on the streets, and finally ended up in prison or found themselves deported because of criminality.   However, the majority of ‘new Poles’ very quickly gained a reputation for being hard workers, keen to adopt the highest standards, and with no difficulty fitting into multicultural Britain.   Behind the adage, ‘If you want a quality plumbing job done, call a Polish plumber’, was solid reality:  Poles have now built up an enviable reputation for enterprise, quality workmanship, creativity, initiative and  reliability.

But all is not well in some localities:  Poles are perceived to have swamped certain neighbourhoods, taken jobs away from local folk, brought in their own shops and other services, and generally gatecrashed the local way of life.  In Northern Ireland, the Polish flag has been burned, Poles have been attacked in the popular press in an often orchestrated way, with their community labelled with the pejorative and racist term, ‘Polaks’, and the BNP has actively campaigned for a ban on all Polish migrant workers in the UK.   Even multicultural London has witnessed the vilification of Poles, with xenophobic attacks on Polish people and their homes.   It is a source of deep regret and embarrassment that the Polish Ambassador in London is regularly obliged to write responses to hostile articles in the press, articles designed to vilify the people of his motherland, and to challenge the ‘facts’ offered in these prejudicial, fabricated stories that parade under the label of the truth.

Britain has now endured over half a decade of austerity, triggered by the near-collapse of the world’s banking system, a catastrophe directly caused by an orgy of unregulated ‘casino capitalism’.   Public funds had to be used to prop up the banks and to seek to stimulate economic growth and the vast expenditure involved has saddled many countries around the globe with crippling burdens of debt.   Britain was no exception, indeed this country’s banks were amongst the worst affected, but a distinct impression is now forming that this almost uniquely prolonged period of financial austerity has been used as a convenient excuse to scale down or dismantle what is now portrayed as an ‘unaffordable’ Welfare State and, more than that, to bring about a once in a generation reversal in the post-War settlement.   Unemployment continues to be high but not as high as the depth of the depression might have predicted and the fact that it is decreasing, certainly by statistical measures, might be because the unemployed are being effectively removed from this category, forced into part-time, low wage or zero hours contracts, or obliged to embrace beggaring self-employment.   While the rich prosper and the growth of luxury seems to have reached almost Edwardian heights, Britain has seen a growth in abject poverty and an expansion in food banks that is almost unimaginable.   Those who, in the past, were reliant on welfare to survive or who needed to supplement meagre wages, insufficient to live on, are now frequently categorised as ‘the undeserving’ or as ‘benefit scroungers’, both terms that have become, sad to say in a very short time, acceptable terminology, to be bandied about even in respectable newspapers and around the dining tables of the liberal bourgeoisie.

Despite what are the clearly visible benefits to Britain of the recent arrivals from Poland, these years of austerity have created such extreme pressures within our society that the rhetoric against further immigration to Britain has become as vitriolic as the long-cultivated hatred of the European Union itself.  However dubious or questionable the motives, Britain argued for, and promoted vigorously, the expansion of the EU into Eastern Europe - it was seen by some as a means of ‘diluting’ the impact of the Union - but now, when Romanians and Bulgarians have, through their membership, gained the right to work, own businesses and invest in property anywhere in Europe (they both joined the EU in 2007) the vilification of the citizens of these two countries has reached almost a frenzy of xenophobia in the UK.   (Some of these issues are so eloquently addressed in Anda Anastasescu’s story that there is no need to repeat them here.)   It must be noted, however, that newly arriving Romanians face a unique disadvantage:  Romanians are confused (quite often deliberately and maliciously) with Roma (or Gypsies) who as a people rival the Jews in being historically perhaps the most persecuted ethnic group in Europe, if not in the entire world.   There are Roma in Romania, of course, but they are a small minority, constituting just over 3% of the total population.   Yet every Romanian living in London, or England for that matter, is currently tarred with this brush of ancient anti-Roma prejudice, however unjust that may be, and many come to feel that they will always be outsiders.

The fear that thousands of Romanians and Bulgarians would swamp our country in order to live on benefit, exploit the resources of the NHS, then leave or stay on and take from the native population what scarce housing and few jobs that remain available has proved completely unfounded.   While the number of Romanian and Bulgarian citizens migrating to the UK rose from 12,000 to 28,000 over the year to last March, the total number of Romanians working legally in Britain actually fell from 125,000 to 122,000 after the seven-year period of transitional controls came to an end on 1st January 2014.   UKIP responded to these published figures by ignoring the fall in the number of Romanians and Bulgarians in the UK workforce and Nigel Farage tweeted: "Huge increase of 292,000 foreign workers in past year demonstrates that the coalition immigration policy has been an abject failure."  

The Romanian Ambassador here in the UK has his hands full trying to challenge and to counteract the anti-Romanian propaganda that is being disseminated, while at the same time trying to impress upon the ignorant that Romanians are not Romani (Gypsies) while some Romani are, of course, Romanian.   Many often highly educated and talented Romanians and Bulgarians have managed to get jobs in their fields of expertise, have managed to start businesses in Britain, where setting up a business is much easier than in many countries of continental Europe, and have established themselves as artists, creative professionals and performers;  however, many manual labourers have struggled to survive on minimum wage salaries or less and, faced with the UK’s very high living expenses, some have decided to return home or to move to Germany and other parts of the prosperous west.   Of course, the arrival of some Roma people from Romania, and the other countries of Eastern Europe now in EU membership, did arouse a great deal of negative publicity and generated some political storms - these issues are covered in a separate article, Vilification of an Ethnic Group - The Romani People.

The vilification of foreigners living as citizens in one’s own country has always been with us and in that respect, Great Britain is unexceptional.   As we have seen, such broad-brush denigration and hatred of others often flows from chauvinism, prejudice and intolerance, often fuelled by ignorance, fear and insecurity.   Xenophobia thrives most when countries are at war or heading towards conflict, when socio-economic tensions within society are high, and when the ubiquitous fear of foreigners is deliberately fanned by nationalistic movements.   Without exception, the indiscriminate victimisation of other nationals who live amongst us is wrong and almost always leads to alienation, pain and destruction.   One would like to think that humanity learns from its past but observation of the world today would suggest that we learn nothing from experience.  

Being a Naturalised British Citizen myself, I am highly sensitive to the notion that one day I might suffer the same fate and become an internee, irrespective of my full allegiance to the UK and the many years of labour I have devoted to bettering this country.   A change in circumstances can transform one overnight into a member of a vilified minority, someone to suffer the terrible fate of becoming hated and suspect, a despised alien to be incarcerated or deported.

Page updated 9th September 2014

The purpose of these notes is, in the spirit of education, to provide the reader with some additional information about specific topics covered in the sitters’ interviews and to draw together statistical, sociological and other relevant data which could not easily be incorporated into the records of the interviews themselves.

The notes are largely constructed from widely-available published materials on the topic in question and every effort has been made to exclude material which could be seen as spurious or contentious.   Of course, though care has been taken to draw only from bona fide sources, it cannot be claimed that these notes are authoritative;  for those who are already expert or who wish to delve further into a specific subject, cross-referencing with other reliable references is recommended.

While no material has been consciously included that might be deemed sexist, racist or offensive in some other way to a particular minority group or to individuals adhering to a particular religious creed or moral code, it is hardly to be expected that everyone will agree with every observation and conclusion.