Monday, 1 October 2007

Whiteness and Britishness

What do Tracey Ullman, Lou Macari, Sharlene Spiteri, Noel Gallagher, Liam Gallagher, Cliff Richard, Roger Whittaker, George Michael, Daniella Nardini, Tom Conti, Ronnie Ancona, Dominic Matteo, Armando Ianucci, Lena Zavaroni, Lawrence Dallaglio, Anita Roddick, Joe Calzaghe, Dario Gradi, Cherie Lunghi, Michael Greco, Helen Mirren, John Lukic, Imre Varadi all have in common?

One answer is that they are in, one way or another famous. Another is that they are all considered famous British people. What's more, they are all famous British people who's parents migrated here from another sovereign nation since the end of world war two. And what is more there is very little recognition that any of that list are anything other than British.....oh and by the way they all happen to white.

Yet despite this very few people would have these people in mind when considering post war immigration to Britain. In fact if you asked the average 'man on the street' to name someone born in Britain to immigrant parents it is possible that the names of Lenny Henry, Frank Bruno, Cyrille Regis, Floella Benjamin or Sir Trevor McDonald may have been ahead on the list. Post-war immigration does come colour coded in most people's minds, and why? because most immigrants during this period were black? Well no, for most years post WW2 immigrants were usually white - the original immigrants in the 1940s were the displaced from the European Volunteer Workers Scheme from places such as Poland or Italy. There were many who came from the old commonwealth and former colonies in political turmoil, such as in East Africa. The biggest ethnic minority group in Britain throughout this period are the Irish.

So what can we conclude from this? When we wash away the lip service of political correctness can only white people be 'British'? Why after all can the second generation Gallaghers drape their guitars in the union flag, yet black groups like Soul II Soul or the So Solid Crew who's parents were here before Tommy and Peggy Gallagher never could? Why is New York born Boris Johnson in the running for London Mayor, despite those non-whites born in our capital city nearing 50% not getting a sniff? Why was it hard for John Barnes to convince England fans of his Englishness, yet not so hard for Owen Hargreaves?

Well one look at the history of white immigration, either past of present would tell you that being a member of the white club has certainly never been such a certainty for inclusion into 'Club Britain'.

One consideration that needs to be taken into account is the degree to which a 'white' race is one that is as socially constructed as that as 'Asian' or 'Black'. This is a point which is made by Alastair Bonnett in his essay 'constructions of whiteness in Europe and American Anti-Racism', when he stated that 'whiteness is addressed as an unproblematic category, a category which is not subject to the constant processes of challenge and change that have characterised the history of other 'racial' names…..this myth views 'being white' as an immutable condition with clear and distinct moral attributes, which often include: being racist, not experiencing racism, being an oppressor, not experiencing oppression, silencing, not being silenced. People of colour are defined via their relation to this myth….the characteristics of white people are removed from social context and set outside history and geography' (Werbner and Modood, 1997:177-8).
There must therefore be recognition that as with, for example the term 'Asian' carrying many sub-categories within it (e.g. Indian/Pakistani/Hindu/Muslim), the term 'white' carries no less uniformity.

An example usually held up by sympathisers of migrants and asylum seekers, as well as those subscribing to the school of British tolerance is the migration of Huguenots from persecution in Catholic Europe. According to Gilda O'Neil in her book 'My East End' the Hugenot migrants 'assimilated comparatively quickly such was the extent of their intermarriage with the host nation' (O'Neil 1999:18). Although the Hugenots shared a common religion with the host nation, they were not exempt from hostility. The Huguenots brought weaving skills to Britain when they arrived however the onset of the industrial revolution had made those skills obsolete due to technological advancement and competition from Mills in the North of England. The Huguenots had joined the growing ranks of low skilled workers in the East End and 'the once sought after weavers protested, their grievances spilling over into anger and eventual rioting and they became, like so many immigrant groups before and after them during tough economic times, targets for threats and violence. The tragic result of one altercation was two men being sentenced to hang outside the Salmon and Ball pub in Bethnal Green' (O'Neil 1999:19).

Britain had also experienced a number of migrants from Germany throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century. A major influx occurred between 1708-9 of around 13-15,000 Palatinate Germans who arrived in London, however many faced widespread persecution and left for Southern Ireland and North America. An example of such hostility is from newspaper reports of the era complaining about 'several poor Palatines begging about the streets….begging from door to door'

By the time of the 1891 census there were 27,000 German born London residents. Anti-German sentiments however, were still evident over a century later. When Beckton Gasworks had opened in the late nineteenth century there was much protest that a considerable number of jobs had been taken by German migrant workers. At the start of the twentieth century in Stepney (know locally as 'little Germany') there had been the formation of the 'British Brothers League' who had referred to themselves as 'a tiny band of East End Patriots'. The stated aim of this group was to 'stem, if possible the great flood of alien immigration that threatens to wash all remnants of previous English occupation of East London'.

However according to Panikos Panayi 'no immigrant minority in nineteenth and twentieth century Britain has had to endure the level of hostility faced by the Germans during the first world war'. Government and public opinion was at this time geared to 'eliminating German communities from Britain'. As the Great War escalated to the great carnage that it was, the British government had 'eventually imprisoned all German males between 16 and 70. Many were deported back to Germany, so that people who had lived in England for 50 years or more were suddenly sent back to a Germany disrupted by war. Even British wives and children were deported, although they knew no German, and had no family there!' (

The Irish had also experienced discrimination during this period, although not physically different to the indigenous population of the U.K., Irish immigrants were overwhelmingly of the Catholic faith, as opposed to Britain whose state-endorsed religion is of Protestantism. It is also fair to say that in two constituent parts of the U.K. - Scotland and Northern Ireland - who have experienced a relatively low amount of non-white migration, this sectarian divide is more socially dividing than racism. In Scotland this sectarian divide is most famous for the formation of Irish immigrant Football clubs, such as Glasgow Celtic, Dundee Harp (renamed as Dundee United) and Hibernian in Edinburgh, as a result of exclusion from indigenous clubs, particularly Glasgow Rangers.

Rangers, particularly had pursued a discriminatory policy of not employing Catholics as late as 1989, the club had signed Mark Walters - it's first non-white player eighteen months before lifting the ban on Catholics, signing former Celtic player Maurice Johnston.
Sectarianism in Scotland had much deeper social roots than separate Football clubs, the descendents of Irish migrants in Scotland were considered 'Irish' rather than Scottish or British as recent as the second world war and considered 'disloyal, disruptive, inferior and untrustworthy….in Scotland they appeared to have struggled longer than those who settled anywhere in the English speaking world' ( Irish migrants were scapegoated during the inter-war depression. The creation of the Irish Free State during this period, led to the Church of Scotland to call for the deportation of unemployed Catholics, despite many having never visited Ireland.

The Irish experience south of the border had been not much less hostile, they had been portrayed by members of the host nation as ill-mannered, less intelligent, drunken and lazy. The height of Anti-Irish sentiments had culminated in the Spitalfield Riot of 1736, in which 'poverty stricken workers were pitted against one another by employers wanting to pay the lowest rates, when the Irish under bid the locals, rioting broke out' (O'Neil 1999:56). The irony was not lost on the author of 'My East End' who stated 'the Irish were not labelled drunken lazy wastrels this time, but accused of being hard workers prepared to labour for a pittance'. The effect of Irish migration had been the accusations of keeping wages low though the desperation of poverty lead to exploitation by employers.

Throughout the post-war period, there had been a thaw in relations between white immigrants and indigenous Britons, because of the increase in non-white immigration in Britain during these years. Prakash Shah in the book 'Refugees, Race and the Legal Concept of Asylum in Britain' notes that 'Eastern Europeans in the 1950's and 60's who came to work in the U.K. were considered 'potential Britons'. The political opposition to the Eastern Bloc and 'racial acceptability' of European refugees in Britain combined to inform the reactions to further refugee movements and the institution of a further western led international agenda for refugees' (

The reaction of acceptability towards Eastern bloc asylum seekers and even regarded 'potential Britons' contrasts sharply with that of British Asian citizens from East Africa in the late 60s/early 70s, who sought refuge from the 'Africanization' policies of Kenya and Uganda. It must be noted though that there has been an increase in hostility in the post-cold war years, towards economic migration and asylum seekers from Eastern Europe, especially since the accession of Eastern European nations to the EU in 2004. Whether such hostility will outlast a generation however, or whether their offspring will be termed a 'second generation migrant' is another matter entirely.


Toque said...

Hi John,

an interesting article. I wonder, would you be interested in writing an essay on 'What England Means to Me'?

Professor John Warwick said...

Yes Toque I would love to write an essay on what England means to me.

Toque said...

Excellent, I look forward to reading.

Bert said...

Im sorry Professor, but your research and your quote about Maurice Johnston being the first catholic to sign for Rangers is false.

The First catholic to play for Rangers was actually in 1882 (Before Celtic were formed may I add) his name was Patrick Lafferty.

How much research did you do? where are your sources and references.