Migration Pulse

The ‘white working class’ and ‘migrants’: moving beyond myth busting

Ahead of the COMPAS breakfast briefing Ben Rogaly and Becky Taylor write on the impact of migrants on the ‘native’ population, and the scope for changing the terms of the prevailing debate. By studying detailed oral histories of 'native' people they reveal the extent to which the lives of British people are imbued with internal and international migrations. Through highlighting the migration histories and ‘indigenous’ transnationalism of the long-settled majority ethnic population they seek to break down the false opposition between ‘British’ and ‘immigrant’ groups.
March 23, 2011
Ben Rogaly and Becky Taylor

Ben Rogaly is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography and a member of the Sussex Centre for Migration Research. Becky Taylor is a Lecturer in History and is the Academic Manager of the History Certificate Programme in the Faculty for Lifelong Learning at the Birkbeck University of London.

Recent years have seen much research showing that the impact of migrants on the British economy has been positive and small. But presenting the evidence is not enough to tackle preconceptions about the impact of migrants on the ‘native’ population. We need to change the terms of the debate. Questioning the stark division between ‘migrants’ and ‘natives’ and finding common links in the movements and migrations of all those living in Britain today is one way to do this.

‘Natives’ move too

The impact of migration on the “white working class” has been the focus of much policy and media interest in the UK over the last five years. ‘White working class’ people are represented in two main ways in the media – the ‘chav’ and the ‘beleaguered native’. In these depictions they are seen as ‘stuck in place’, set in opposition to either the multi-culturally sophisticated middle classes or to (often implicitly black) immigrants. In neither case are they seen as having their own connections to minority and immigrant populations.

Street in Britain with a postbox

The fact that British people move too is missing from the public discussions. There is a preconception that migrants are moving around, settling into and impacting upon ‘British’ communities. This is then contrasted starkly with British people, ‘natives’, who stay put and are impacted upon. However, the very idea that net immigration figures contain within them emigration from the UK, by British born people, British nationals and others is overlooked.

Using oral histories

Our research, published in Moving Histories of Class and Community, included conversations with 73 mostly white working class residents of a social housing estate in Norwich. The historical focus meant that older people looked back across their whole lives. We found that many people who did not consider themselves to be migrants, had in fact experienced living abroad or had family members living abroad. Take Flo Smith, with her strong Norfolk accent, living only streets away from where she was brought up. But also the daughter of a Geordie mother and Texan father, who had lived in Cyprus, Singapore and in different parts of the UK.

Foregrounding forms of transnational life that involve long term settled majority ethnic residents of England can be used to help move beyond the idea of an ‘indigenous’ Englishness. There is after all, as Robert Young has shown, no intrinsic, essential Englishness (let alone Britishness), but rather an identification that can be learned and adopted and changed in the process. In this respect migration out of the UK is as important as migration into it in the making of its constituent nations and the idea of ‘Britishness’.


Detailed oral histories actually reveal the extent to which the lives of ‘native’ British people are imbued with internal and international migrations. Through highlighting the migration histories and ‘indigenous’ transnationalism of the majority ethnic population we can significantly shift the terms of the debate and break down the false opposition between ‘British’ and ‘immigrant’ groups.

You can hear Ben Rogaly and Becky Taylor talk about "What does migration mean for the 'white working class' in the UK?" at the COMPAS breakfast briefing on 1 April 2011.


I find the attempt to "change the terms of the debate" rather arrogant, and sadly in keeping with such debate as there has been about immigration in the seven decades I have lived in England. At no stage since the war, when large-scale immigration really began, have the English (or British for that matter) ever been offered a referendum on immigration. The reason they haven't is that every government has known fine well what the result would be, at least while the indigenous English (a concept in which some of us still believe) remain the majority.

It is sad that we have been denigrated as racist, or ignorant, or both for having the temerity for wanting to preserve our way of life. It is doubtful that immigration has been of great economic benefit - there are studies leaning either way on the subject. But it isn't something that should be judged in purely economic terms. Fiji has suffered two and a half decades of turmoil because the indigenous people felt they no longer had a voice in their own country. Other Pacific Islands had similar experiences. The fact is that, however accommodating they might be to outsiders (and the English have been far more accommodating than most), it is a natural human trait to associate with those to whom people feel a cultural affinity. That, after all, is how cultures develop in the first place.

Moreover, mass immigration followed by the disastrous policy of multicultralism (which ironically in Irish translates as "Sinn Fein" - "ourselves alone") caused racial divisions and precluded integration which might otherwise have occurred. Many came to this country, and still do, because of the English language. And yet upon arrival local authorities translate everything for them and put them in segregated communities with segregated schools.

Of course race relations have been better than Powell predicted - but given that he had witnessed Partition and the US Civil Rights clashes it wasn't an unreasonable prediction for him to have made (and I don't blame the British for Partition violence, I blame those who committed it). But mass immigration should not have been up to Powell, or me, or British governments. It should have been up to the British people as a whole. That's called democracy.


Do the conditions of democracy continue to hold when the people who vote to end migration have been duped into believing a monstrous lie?  Are we expected to celebrate the outcome of a popular vote when all that is shows is that a demoralised and frightened people have suspended their own good judgment and chosen to believe that the foreigner, supposed so uniquely different from themselves, is the cause of so much of all their troubles?

Across 2500 years the English people have emerged from precisely the processes of migration and cultural fusion which makes your analogy with the Fijian example so completely specious. It is the intuitive understanding of this fact which is the real source if the 'accommdating' attitudes of the English which you clearly find so surprising.  If violent, overt racism hasn't been the dominant reflex of the majority that is largley because the majority has always known that, when push comes to shove, the immigrant is what most of them where only a generation or so back. That, it seems to me, is essentially the point being made by Rogaly and Taylor.

If this mature cultural reflection on what the English (British???) people actually are, articulated by just a few but shared as a value judgment by much larger numbers, were ever to be overthrown by a stampede into a referendum aimed at ending migration, that would not be democracy but the triumph of a big lie. When a lie come out on top, the very hope of democracy is crushed under its iron heel. 

The authors are absoultely right to demand a rewriting of the debate, and indeed it is a vast improvment on the limited discourse of 'haves and have nots', however relying on the romantic nostalgia offered by oral histories ( and I say that as a trustee of the leading community heritage organisation in the counry). We also need to consider the fact that the act of migration in between cities is completely different to beteen countries, and of course the still very serious intersection of migration and race, not to mention intercommunity tension between established communities and newly arived migrants - I agree whole heatedly that we need a new framework of reference, I am just not sure that we are there yet. Two white working class young women from RAMFEL will be attending the COMPAS briefing next week, and it will be interesting to see what they make of it all as they blog their response afterwards.

I would say that this is a worthy attempt to shed some light and evidence on the 'corrupted' collective memory of the nation. The oppositions are ideologically neccessary constructs of nationhood, but attempts to deconstruct them should be applauded even if they fall a bit short of actually shiftinng the debate.
Can't resist not to mention Midsummer night murders. If it is really the last bastillion of Englishness as the writer claims, I find it amusing that the village is full of coldblooded murdering psychopaths.
Unfortunatelly I'm not from London so won't be able to come to the lecture, but will definitely pick up the book to see what Ben and Becky have to say on this.

Ah, I see. Can't have democracy if it gives the wrong answer. This is precisely the reasoning of the EU when it comes to referenda on Europe and the Lisborn Treaty. We were lied to by Ted Heath and we've been lied to many times since. Labour lied by saying it was getting strict on immigration when it was actually doing the opposite, for two reasons. First, the system was hopeless beyond repair (ie the Home Office and its governing legislation). Second, they knew enough new immigrants would "rub the right's nose in diversity" and, hopefully, all vote Labour as migrants historically have done.

I don't deplore cultural fusion. I do, it is true, deplore many cultural practises - the Hindu Caste system, African female genital mutilation, many cultures treatment of women generally, the Dutch Reform Church, etc. But I am in favour of controlled migration - the key being controlled, which of late it has not been.

Funnily enough it is my first generation immigrant friends who are most against large scale immigration ...

Never watched Midsomer, no interest in it. But no one objects to Asian radio, Rastamouse etc, so I don't have a problem with it, and yes the joke about murders has done the rounds.

Very important contribution to this debate by Ben Rogaly and Becky Taylor. We are at a moment in British history where there is a crying need for a new narrative on immigration - not one based on the veiw of the world from the 60's and 70's.
Check - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tHEafSO6E40

We certainly need to move on from the hapless multiculturalism of the past few decades, which has impoverished many immigrants and compelled them to live in ghettos. Trevor Phillips, one time high priest of multiculturalism, has been making this argument for several years now.

Instead we need to reaffirm the values that this country once stood for - honesty and standards in public life, instead of the vulgar crass and materialistic obsessions of recent times that have left us morally and fiscally bankrupt.

I am glad that we have sparked some debate on this issue. I think both Ben and I hope that our work might be the beginning of a new way of thinking about migration, rather assuming that we have all the answers.

I was particularly interested in Rita Chandha's comment about the potential pitfalls of using oral histories in this way. The production of 'affirmative narratives' through community history projects is clearly a major issue - personally I have found Kevin Myers' writing on this particularly helpful. But in fact, I believe that critical engagement with a research participant's life history in fact allows for an opening up rather than a closing down of debate. I am thinking here of an interview done by Ben, in which the participant had spoken of her Irish father's life in England. At a later point in the interview she started making generalised comments about the difficulties caused by 'immigrants'. Ben then said, 'but your father was an immigrant, wasn't he'. This is then followed by a long pause, and then 'I'd never thought of him in that way before'. I think what we are trying to do is to get people to reflect like this on their own stories, encouraging them to see connections with others, rather than focussing on the aspects of their lives which emphasise the disjunctures.

Thank you for all your comments. Don't forget that Ben and Becky will be speaking at the COMPAS breakfast meeting this Friday.

In the mean time this blog published today might be of interest to people invloved in the discussion.

The Problem with Fear and Hope


Just following on from Becky's comments, I agree that there is absolute merit in looking at the points of connection as opposed to disjuncture between individuals, however as a trustee of an community heritage based organisation in East London and chief executive of a Refugee and Migrant community organisation, I have always felt slightly uncomfortable at the use of personalised histories.

Oral histories represent to me one moment in time of a person's perception of themselves, that can be skewed by a whole range of influences and forces.
I can provide you with a very similar story about an issue locally of racism between communities ie individuals from the Asian subcontinent and the local Roma community. When we have used oral and community histories to draw on comparable life choices and courses, we have met with some very stern views from the estbalished Asian community who have continued to focus on the difference rather than the similarities.
Oral histories can be used as an interesting starting point, but they cannot be the ultimate destination, we need to create a political and social climate that also enables people to assert their right to not be racist or have prejudicial views. As we said in our last blog of 2010,
it was the year when it became acceptable to be racist.

Unfortunately I can't be at the briefing on Friday, but two of my colleagues will be, who in many ways also epitiomise the essence of the debate, two young women born and brought up in the heartland of the BNP in Barking & Dagenham who over the year have radically changed their views and understanding of migration matters by working with us as an organisation. This has drawn on aspects of their personal and family history but also had to be supplemented with the ability to create a safe space for a wider and broader discourse.