Orwell on immigration

August 6, 2013 at 10:30 am (Anti-Racism, Europe, history, immigration, Jim D, literature, Orwell, reformism, TUC, workers)

In the course of preparing the last-but-one post, I searched the net for an article on immigration by Orwell, that I had a vague recollection of. The best I could find was a brief extract on Google Books, which wasn’t much help except to remind me that it came from Orwell’s ‘As I Please’ column in Tribune, 15 November 1946. I finally tracked down what seems to be a nearly-complete extract, as published in Penguin’s Orwell and Politics (2001, ed: Peter Davison).

The piece starts and ends with a brief discussion of the post-war Labour government’s problems, which is of historical interest but not of any particular relevance to our present situation. Similarly, the passing mentions of the reactionary roles played by the TUC and the Communist Party. The argument about a labour shortage doesn’t apply in the immediate situation, either (though it ‘s likely to reassert itself in the longer term). But the meat of the article is highly pertinent to the poisonous contemporary ‘debate’ on immigration and, indeed, on Britain’s relationship with Europe. The reference to events immediately prior to the creation of Israel is also of some contemporary interest:

Attitudes to immigrants

As the clouds, most of them much larger and dirtier than a man’s hand, come blowing up over the political horizon, there is one fact that obtrudes itself over and over again. This is that the Government’s troubles, present and future, arise quite largely from its failure to publicise itself properly.

People are not told with sufficient clarity what is happening, and why, and what may be expected to happen in the near future. As a result, every calamity, great or small, takes the mass of the public by surprise, and the Government incurs unpopularity by doing things which any government, of whatever colour, would have to do in the same circumstances.

Take one question which has been much in the news lately but has never been properly thrashed out: the immigration of foreign labour into this country. Recently we have seen a tremendous outcry at the T.U.C. conference against allowing Poles to work in two places where labour is most urgently needed – in the mines and on the land.

It will not do to write this off as something ‘got up’ by Communist sympathisers, nor on the other hand to justify it by saying that the Polish refugees are all Fascists who ‘strut about’ wearing monocles and carrying brief-cases.

The question is, would the attitude of the British trade unions be any friendlier if it were a question, not of alleged Fascists but of the admitted victims of Fascism?

For example, hundreds of thousands of homeless Jews are now trying desperately to get into Palestine. No doubt many of them will ultimately succeed, but others will fail. How about inviting, say, 100,000 Jewish refugees to settle in this country? Or what about the Displaced persons, numbering nearly a million, who are dotted in camps all over Germany, with no future and no place to go, the United States and the British Dominions having already refused to admit them in significant numbers? Why not solve their problems by offering them British citizenship?

It is easy to imagine what the average Briton’s answer would be. Even before the war, with Nazi persecutions in full swing, there was no popular support for the idea of allowing large numbers of Jewish refugees into this country: nor was there any strong move to admit the hundreds of thousands of Spaniards who had fled from Franco to be penned up behind barbed wire in France.

For that matter, there was very little protest against the internment of the wretched German refugees in 1940. The comments I most often overheard at the time were ‘What did they want to come here for?’ and ‘They’re only after our jobs.’

The fact is that there is a strong popular feeling in this country against foreign immigration. It arises partly from simple xenophobia, partly from fear of undercutting in wages, but above all from the out-of-date notion that Britain is overpopulated and that more population means more unemployment.

Actually, so far from having more workers than jobs, we have a serious labour shortage which will be accentuated by the continuance of conscription, and which will grow worse, not better, because of the ageing of the population.

Meanwhile our birth-rate is still frighteningly low, and several hundred thousand women of marriageable age have no chance of getting husbands. But how widely are these facts known or understood?

In the end it is doubtful whether we can solve our problems without encouraging immigration from Europe. In a tentative way the Government has already tried to do this, only to be met by ignorant hostility, because the public has not been told the relevant facts beforehand. So also with countless other unpopular things that will have to be done from time to time.

But the most necessary step is not to prepare public opinion for particular emergencies, but to raise the general level of political understanding: above all, to drive home the fact, which has never been properly grasped, that British prosperity depends largely on factors outside Britain.

The business of publicising and explaining itself is not easy for a Labour Government, faced by a press which at bottom is mostly hostile. Nevertheless, there are other ways of communicating with the public, and Mr Attlee and his colleagues might well pay more attention to the radio, a medium which very few politicians in this country have ever taken seriously.


PS: on Monday’s edition of Radio Four’s ‘With Great Pleasure,’ Barry Cryer selected an excerpt from JB Priestly’s 1934 book English Journey, that makes many of the same points as Orwell in perhaps even more powerful prose. You can hear it (for the next few days) by following the link, and I’ll post it here soon.


  1. Andrew Coates said,

    The article is in Orwell and Politics (Penguin Modern Classics) – I re-read it after writing this: http://tendancecoatesy.wordpress.com/2013/08/02/mass-immigration-or-the-welfare-state-a-reply-to-james-bloodworth/ I got so absorbed I re-read the whole book!

  2. Pedanto the Great said,

    “average Briton’s”, not “average Britain’s”

    • Jim Denham said,

      Thanks, Pedanto: obviously, that was my mistake, not Orwell’s. It’s now been corrected.

  3. Sue r said,

    Did they have zero hours contracts after the war?

  4. Peter Burton said,

    What do you think is the best biography/material of/on Orwell?


    Date: Tue, 6 Aug 2013 10:30:48 +0000 To: pburton300@live.co.uk

  5. Jim Denham said,

    Bernard Crick’s ‘George Orwell: A Life’ (1980) remains the definitive biography, but Christopher Hitchens’ ‘Orwell’s Victory’ (2002, published in the US as ‘Why Orwell Matters’) is pretty good as well, despite the sneaking suspicion that Hitchens was using Orwell to justify his own political evolution.

  6. R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    If you’ve read David Cesarani you’ll know that the CPGB’s paranoia about Polish fascists was not altogether delusional as the government was at this very time busily redesignating an entire Waffen-SS division of Ukrainian Qusilings many of whom had actually served as concentration camp guards and einsatzgruppen auxiliaries as Polish citizens so as not to hand them back to Soviet justice – and that this was actually justified precisely by reference to the labour shortage.

  7. Ben said,

    Orwell’s reference to letting in 100000 Jewish refugees needs to be understood in context.

    The Jewish Agency, which represented the Palestine Jewish community, was demanding that 100000 Jewish refugees in the displaced persons camps be admitted to Palestine. The British Government refused. The Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin charmingly said that the Jews were trying to jump the line, and made sure that they were pushed to the very back and remained there. The US and British Governments had throughout the war sabotaged efforts to save Europe’s Jews, and after the war the Marshall Plan provided nothing for the refugees, and offered everything to their persecutors and murderers.

    Anti-Jewish feeling among the allied leaders was rampant, and few protested that unwanted Holocaust survivours were still being held in the camps. The Jews there were lower than animals in the opinion of General Patton, who also accused them of planning revenge and thereby justified restricting their freedom. Many Jews who later returned to their homes in Poland, Ukraine, Hungary and Romania to try to reclaim them were driven away or murdered by their neighbours.

    Orwell’s comments were pretty anodine and cold considering the circumstances.

  8. jimmy glesga said,

    Well said Ben. I am not a Jew or follow any religion. Getting family property back for the decendants of Jews in the former Nazi territories was verboten. And yet the Western anti Jewish lobby still condemn the Jews over Palestine.

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