Recent reports have shown the contradictions that immigration raises for our rulers.
They are happy that recent immigration has generated an estimated
£40 billion a year for Britain’s economy, but unwilling to spend the millions required to provide decent housing, education and services.
Britain has always been populated by immigrants, from the first wanderers to discover it, through to the Romans who founded London and the waves of people who followed.
This is not just a story of poor people on the move.
The ruling classes have travelled too. These include the Normans who established the aristocracy, the Germans who came with the Hanoverian monarchs in the 18th century and the economic migrants among the international rich who come now in search of low taxes.
Though they have always been quick to scapegoat, rulers tended to welcome additional labour and skills, which they rightly saw as a source of wealth.
It was industrialisation in the 19th century that began the greatest migration of people in history.
People moved because they were pushed off the land or were simply looking for work and a better life. The scale of movement was made possible by developments in transport, particularly the railway and the steamer.
The biggest migration to Britain was from Ireland. Large scale permanent migration started after the famine of the mid-1840s. Those who could afford it fled to the US but others were forced to travel to Britain, whose rulers’ actions had caused the famine.
In ten years the Irish population of Britain doubled. By 1861 25 percent of the population of Liverpool were Irish, along with 18 percent of Glasgow and 5 percent of London.
By the 1880s some 1.5 million people of Irish origin lived in Britain – about 3 percent of the population.
Those who resented them blamed immigrants for their own poverty. Bigots portrayed the Irish as a separate race, reduced in caricature to apes.
Irish workers lived in the worst housing and bosses attempted to use them to undercut other workers’ wages.
The way Irish immigrants were blamed for the unsanitary, overcrowded housing they were forced to inhabit has particular resonance today.
Although it was immigrants who suffered the worst housing, British born workers also suffered appalling conditions.
Karl Marx’s analysis of the divisions between British born workers and Irish immigrants has never been bettered:
“This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes.
“This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation.”
Whenever the working class was strong and united, the conditions of both Irish and British workers were strengthened.
The Chartists were the world’s first great working class movement.
They announced: “Irishmen resident in London, on the part of the democrats in England we extend to you the warm hand of fraternisation – your principles are ours, and our principles shall be yours.”
The national Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor was Irish. William Cuffay, chartist leader in London, was both an immigrant and black.
Unfortunately the Chartists were defeated, and racist ideas were able to fester.
The New Unionism of the 1880s brought a new wave of Irish activists into politics.
Many of the leaders of the new movement were of Irish descent, including Will Thorne of the gas workers and Ben Tillett, who was one of the leaders of the great 1889 London Docks strike.
By 1871 changes in the labour requirements of capital internationally meant Britain had become a net exporter of population, but issues around immigration would arise again and again.
Ireland was officially part of Britain at this time so there was no issue of immigration controls – it was not controls that lessened the flow.
Irish immigration was encouraged by the effects of imperial policy, which created conditions of starvation in Ireland, and by the enormous need for labour in Britain.
It shows clearly the general dynamic of immigration – it has always followed the availability of work.
Next week’s column will look at Polish immigration after the Second World War.