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