An absorbing tale of woe

Illuminating study of immigration highlights British attitudes to integration and national character


By Vernon Bogdanor, March 6, 2013
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Perfectly pucker: Dan Stevens in Downton Abbey, an outsider-proof image of  Britishness idealised by many

Perfectly pucker: Dan Stevens in Downton Abbey, an outsider-proof image of Britishness idealised by many

Those who came to Britain on the Kindertransports in 1938 and ’39 are now in the twilight of their lives and finding it difficult to come to terms with their memories. One beneficiary of the transports, Henry Grenville, has recently been able to achieve a sort of closure after being given definite evidence that his parents were murdered at Auschwitz.

We are accustomed to congratulate ourselves on the Kindertransports. But, as Tony Kushner points out in his timely and incisive examination of the refugee experience, while celebrating the rescue of the children, we too often forget about their parents. We assume that the parents were doomed. But of course, with a more liberal immigration policy, they also could have been saved.

We think of the Kinder as having been granted permanent residence. In fact, they were admitted only on condition that they would emigrate when reaching the age of 18, and Home Office policy was that “no encouragement [must be] given to them to qualify for the professions or for ‘black-coated’ occupations.” The vast majority of the 80,000 adult Jewish refugees admitted in the 1930s were also on temporary visas.

Of course, few could foresee the Holocaust, and Britain was more generous than many other countries. The United States and Canada, for example, refused to allow the entry of unaccompanied children. Canada admitted just 5,000 Jewish refugees between 1933 and 1938, the lowest of any Western country. One study of Canadian immigration policy during this period is aptly entitled, “None is too many”.

It would be good to believe that the story Kushner tells is of merely historical interest. Sadly, however, policy towards immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, has become, if anything, even less liberal than it was in the 1930s. But the self-congratulation remains. A Home Office document of 1998, cited by Kushner, declares proudly that Britain “has a long-standing tradition of giving shelter to those fleeing persecution in other parts of the world”. But that same Home Office, primed by its political masters, continues to implement a highly restrictive system of immigration control.

This year has seen the beginnings of a moral panic concerning immigration from Romania and Bulgaria, which, under European Union rules, becomes unrestricted from January 2014. Moral panics not only damage those seeking to enter Britain; they also damage our own interests, since immigrants contribute far more to the economy than they take out. Above all, moral panics damage our universities. No country can hope to retain great international universities if it restricts the inflow of students and academics.

The Battle of Britishness is a fine study of the place of migration in the construction of British identity, from Huguenots to West Indians and Asians, and a most valuable contribution to the current debate. It could be read, with advantage, by every MP and Home Office official — as well as the editor of the Daily Mail.

Vernon Bogdanor is Professor of Government at the Institute of Contemporary British History, King’s College, London

Last updated: 3:32pm, March 6 2013