Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Immigration - Who Are The Foreigners?

A lot is made in Britain of the influx of the Polish into the UK. It is interesting to note however that the number of Britons who are immigrants into Spain far outnumber the Poles who are immigrants into the UK, and it is always worth keeping in mind that we are just foreigners to everyone else.

Of course we are not alone in moments of thoughtless hypocracy but it is striking that so many Britons take such a strong view on the idea of continential Europeans and others coming into our island, given our history. The idea of "a Briton" or "the English" is so complex that many comments on modern immigration are slightly ridiculous, since we are born from wave after wave of immigration reaching back three thousand years.

For a start, the word "English" originates from Germany. My town has a Viking name. My surname is of Swedish origin. My best friend at school's surname was of Dutch origin. My girlfriend's surname is Irish. And locally, it was the Irish who made the biggest recent impact.

My nearest big city is Liverpool, a key location in the creation of the British Empire. At the time this city was pouring money into the Industrial Revolution, a massive percentage of the population wasn't English. By 1850, a quarter of Liverpudlians were Irish - something which is heavily underlined by the fact that until that period the Scouse accent did not exist. The distinctive slurring consonants of the maritime city were born out of the influx of the famine-struck immigrants and the blending of dialects from further afield. Until the 19th century, a Liverpool accent was the same as many other Lancashire brogues - until immigration created the Liverpool we know today.

Probably the most shocking example of social remodelling in our island's history came at the hands of France - not only in the hundreds of years of nobility and cultural influence we absorbed when we became a French nation, but in one awful act which came three years after conquest. William, Duke of Normandy ensured that the English could never raise an army against him by annihilating villages, crops and animals across hundreds of miles of the country. Directly and indirectly, an estimated 100,000 Britons were killed in the north of England.

The void left in authority was filled by the Norman administration, whose DNA permeates the English aristocracy to this day. The settlers which were brought in to fill the towns were from far and wide and the linguistic impact of this continental influx can be registered in the fact that a third of the words used in English today are of French origin.

The endless invasion of Britain down the centuries makes it impossible for most individuals to know who were the Goodies and who were the Baddies in any battle in our history. As a Englishman, I've always had the notion that William was the Bad Guy when it came to Hastings, but the reality is that the society we now live in was forged by three hundred years of Norman rule.

So when you meet someone from abroad, are you really a Briton observing a foreigner? Or are you in fact the fruits of the invader, standing in the land conquered by your unwelcomed ancestors?

Just prior to his infamous defeat at Hastings, King Harold of England had repelled some other foreign invaders. At Stamford Bridge the King of Norway, his Icelandic allies and others came to challenge the English King but were ultimately defeated.

Another great victory for the English, right? It doesn't seem quite so straight forward when you realise that one of the defeated foreigners was King Harold's own brother, Tostig, and our great English Harold was actually of Germanic stock, and his father was a powerful lord under the Danish King Cnut.

In the late 9th Century, the vast easterly swathe of Britain was a Viking nation - known as the Danelaw. Since the year 800, attacks from Scandanavia had befallen the coastlines of Britain but a longer-lasting impact was made by the succession of peaceful Danish settlers. Through means of war and political manoeuvring as much as their number, roughly half of modern England fell under control of Denmark and Cnut the Great.

This Viking state clashed repeatedly with the kingdom which lay to the south and west: Wessex. Wessex was a Saxon Kingdom which with which a modern Englishman is likely to side when discussing Saxons versus Vikings. But the idea that the Vikings were "kicked out" by our heroic Saxon ancesors doesn't seem quite so relevant if you live in the north.

The modern Geordie accent's sing-song intonation mimics the Scandanavian language which spawned it, and anyone living in town or village ending -by, -thorpe, -toft, -holme, -kirk or -thwaite is writing a Scandanavian suffix every time they give their address.

But even if you defer to the idea that at heart, you're a Saxon, then you have to address the fact that the Saxons were themselves immigrants, the first of whom came in the 5th century under invitation from - who else? - the British.

The British needed help because they were under attack and lacked military support from the central government. Where was this central government? Rome - because at that time "the British" were Romans, and had been for four hundred years. The Romano-British feared foreign attack and brought in Saxon mercenaries to defend the island, but they ended up out-staying their welcome.

Rome's occupation of Britain may feel like it's in the intangibly distant past, but their legacy is left in our road maps, our city layouts and our primary religion. Despite it happening two thousand years ago, the Roman immigrants fashioned our embryonic civilisation.

The Britain which the Romans entered was one dominated by Celtic culture - and who are the earliest Brits, if not the Celts? After all, the term "Briton" in a historical context refers to the Iron Age Celtic people as if they were the first.

The Celtic people seemingly have their most undiluted modern-day descendents clinging to their related languages in the England-shunning corners of Wales and Scotland. But unfortunately, even the Celtic culture is a foreign import. Britain started thousands of years before the Celt's ideas swept the land.

If there was any such thing as a native Briton, then perhaps we can pin that label on those men and women who lived here in Mesolithic and Neolithic times. There are very few big artefacts which tell the tale of our island before the waves of new ideas began. Those men and women who began the development of Stone Henge some 10,000 years ago are amongst the earliest people we might call "original" Britons.

Quite how much of their DNA is in us today, and how much foreign DNA we have is a question for another day, but the fact remains that Britain is a nation formed from the migration of new people, languages, technologies and philosophies.

It would be extremely unlikely if the 21st century was the era in which this stopped.