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.