The Robert Tombs book on the English and their history is every bit as good as John Rentoul said it was. This summer John kept tweeting extracts from the text, and what a treat it was. I am rereading Tombs now and it is even better the second time. The account of the civil wars on these islands in the 1640s in particular is worth more than ten full-scale doorstop volumes on the subject, and he nails the Stuarts, fairly. The insights at every stage throughout fourteen hundred years of history are astute and at points when the reader might fear that the narrative of monarchy and war is taking over – history, one bloody thing after another – Tombs sweeps in and pulls together the threads impressively.
It is impossible to miss the influence of immigration from around the world and cross border pollination within the UK and Ireland. English history is peppered with bursts of immigration and internal migration, often taking place against the backdrop of war or economic upheaval. Foreign arrivals and influences were essential to the rise of the City of London and the peculiar position of wider Britain – part of Europe but domestically peaceful for several centuries and protected from invasion, and historically lucky compared to Germany, Poland or Russia – have made it a magnet for the aspirational. Happily, Tombs not only rejects English declinism, he provides an account of English distinctiveness without falling for the myth of glorious English exceptionalism. It is beautifully done.
The publication of the English and their History in 2014 was timely. That year Scotland voted to stay in the UK, but not by much, and it seemed the overdue assertion and exploration of English identity first discernible in the mid-1990s (and most famously on show at the Euro 96 football championships held in England) would require a new political outlet in response to the growth of Scottish nationalism. Then Brexit happened, delivered by the English outside London, a capital which increasingly sees itself as an international city state set apart from the rest of England. Why that result? Some Bexiteers say that concern about uncontrolled immigration was a marginal factor in the referendum vote, but the polling suggests otherwise. A recent poll suggested that 70% of voters in the UK think there has been too much immigration in the last decade. It was at least a significant factor, alongside dislike of the EU project.
One reading of the English and their long story suggests that because there has always been immigration there should be no limits on it now, or very few limits. That is to completely misunderstand the scale and speed of what has happened to Britain in recent decades. Nothing comparable has occurred in recent English history. The welcome arrival of the Huguenots in the early 18th century added perhaps 1% to the population. England is being transformed to an extraordinary degree this time.
Immigration can and should be accommodated as a positive force, of course, but if voters feel that it is taking place on such an epic scale that it disrupts social norms and threatens public services and the quality of life then they will rebel, indeed they very clearly are rebelling. There will be a great deal of immigration, of course there will, although most people make it clear they want to know that there is a decent degree of control.
You can try to put this stuff on a spreadsheet or explain these feelings with reference to precise figures on the impact on the low-wage employment market, but it is deep down about something much more intangible, related to national identity, perception, security and fear of excessive change, all of which ebbs and flows throughout history, as Tombs shows.
And no wonder voters are concerned. The population of the UK in 2001 was estimated as being 59.1m. A decade later in 2011 it was 63.2 million. In 2015, around 65 million. Immigration and births to foreign-born mothers are claimed to account for 85% of that increase. If this continues, at the high end of projections, the population will be 73m by 2030. In under three decades the UK population will have increased by more than 20%, or almost 14m people. That’s almost two and half Scotlands or thirteen Birminghams.
So what? say the groovy advocates of entirely open borders and the metropolitan lifestyle. If I want to eat Brasilian barbecue at 3am in the morning in Shoreditch it’s all good. Enjoy. (Or “Totally Mexico” as they used to say approvingly in Nathan Barley, the wonderful Chris Morris programme which predicted the rise of the hipster.)
In the Brexit referendum in June that mode of thinking had a hard collision with the majority of people living and working in England. Theresa May has decided, rather wisely, to take up the cause of the majority who think uncontrolled immigration is not a good idea. She can expect a great deal of criticism, partly because her record on immigration as Home Secretary was flawed and partly because open border advocates are disproportionately represented in the middle class media.
At the UN this week she is warning about the dangers of uncontrolled mass migration. Thanks to improvements in transport and technology the world is on the move. This understandable migration has become inter-mingled with those fleeing conflict, to the extent that we must make a better effort to distinguish between genuine refugees who need help and economic migrants, or risk voters refusing to the see that there is a difference. As I said, this defence of borders will be fought hard by the open borders lobby, but it will be very popular with many voters outside London who have had enough.
In National Review this week, Michael Lind provides one of the best accounts yet of what has been going on in the West.
“The liberalization of international trade and investment following the Cold War and the abandonment of Communist and Third World import-substitution polices led rapidly to the development of genuine transnational firms — most of them headquartered in North America, Europe, and littoral East Asia — which coordinate regional or global supply chains. At the same time that national capitalism was giving way in part to transnational capitalism, European countries became, for the first time, countries of mass inward migration. Meanwhile, following a legislated cessation of large-scale immigration from the 1920s to the 1960s, the U.S. was transformed by a new wave, dominated by Latin Americans who qualified for family-reunification quotas or who took up residence in the U.S. illegally. The combination of low native fertility and high fertility on the part of some, though not all, immigrant diasporas has led to dramatic ethnic and cultural change on both sides of the Atlantic.”
These developments have suited those working at the most senior levels in high-end service industries and luxury services in the densely populated global centres, such as London. They have been enriched by global markets “beyond the dreams of avarice”, as Lind puts it, and to protect their gains have formulated an open-borders “liberaltarianism” ideology which is fused with trendy urbanist hype. Lind singles out writers on the website Vox who promote an aggressively anti-borders approach and refuse to see the paradox of their position.
“The social liberalism of these high-end service meccas cannot disguise caste systems reminiscent of Central American republics, with extreme wealth and income stratification and a largely immigrant, impoverished menial-service class whose complexions differ from those of the free-spending oligarchs. The gap between richest and poorest in New York City is comparable to that of Swaziland; Los Angeles and Chicago are slightly more egalitarian, comparable to the Dominican Republic and El Salvador.”
This is really a battle within national states between elites that self-identity as global and the bulk of the population that accepts notions of nationhood and the desirability of community and national obligation, as Lind says. Only a small number of those super-affluent or rich who brand themselves “citizens of the world”, and spend a lot of time in airport lounges and business class, really spend serious time rooted in other timezones. They fly in and out to cities for meetings in hotels and indistinguishable offices, and perhaps aspire to Davos-man status or international man of mystery status, but they – and we hacks who do a bit of it too – are mere foot soldiers. The truly globalised off-shore super-rich elite is tiny. In Britain the situation is complicated by many people on the middle class liberal left being in favour of wide open borders because it sounds nice, signifies cosmopolitanism and seems to reconcile markets (cast as a bit sinister) with helping people (good). Pointing out the problem with open borders is deemed nasty and bad form at dinner parties. Again, such voters were involved in a painful collision with the majority of their fellow Britons in the EU referendum.
There is no majority for the open borders elite orthodoxy in the UK. Increasingly in parts of the EU too there seems to be a realisation that this mania for open borders is a social and political disaster, and that the “liberaltarian” dream is a nightmare. Either handle migration sensibly sharpish, by managing immigration at a democratically acceptable level, or gift an advantage to appalling extremists. May is on the right side of history here and must press on.