Easy to overdose on orthodoxies. One such is the notion that throughout its history, Britain has an honourable record in absorbing newcomers, providing refuge to refugees and gradually becoming a diverse society. That’s pretty much my take on things, but it’s good to receive a contrary view, if only for the purposes of stress testing.
Such a challenge recently came my way in the form of a broadside from Pavle Popovic, a masters student at the University of Leiden in Holland, whose thesis concerns the exodus of Sino-Vietnamese refugees and the reluctance of Margaret Thatcher to open the door to them. Your view of things is too rose-tinted, he said. Everyone talks about happy endings, but not about the official hostility that always greets any actual or pending influx, and the racism many groups have encountered on arrival.
“Thatcher was wholly uninterested in the asylum seekers,” insisted Pavle. “When ministers proposed resettling the refugees to her, she infamously remarked that it was: ‘quite wrong that immigrants should be given council housing whereas white citizens were not’. When Britain finally became fully involved in the Indo-China crisis, it was not due to humanitarian motives but because its colony, Hong Kong, had become overladen with asylum seekers and ‘illegal’ Chinese immigrants.”
Self-interest was the driver, he said, and the same motive lay behind Britain’s decision to accept Ugandan Asians expelled by Idi Amin. “Their eventual resettlement in Britain was only because the attorney general reminded the incumbent Conservatives that they had an obligation to; many of the Ugandan Asians held British passports. The government selected the most skilled for resettlement and considered sending the unskilled and elderly to India.”
We need to be more honest about our actions and motivations in the past, he said, because they affect how we deal with these things in the present day.
He’s right in his way. The national interest does inevitably drives decisions. The issue is what constitutes the national interest. I like the quote from Edward Heath as he explained why his government decided to receive the Ugandan Asians: “We hold that it is in the interest of the British people that the reputation of Britain for good faith and humanity should be preserved,” Heath said. As to how we reach that point, I always quote Churchill, on America: they do the right thing having exhausted the alternatives, he said.