How Britain can help Poles

If Britain helps Poles see themselves as one group among many, with no pretensions to special status

The young Poles stacking the supermarket shelves before dawn or cleaning offices after dark may well have their own perspective on the proposal that we should celebrate Poles’ contribution to Britain by taking a day off. But they are not the only foreigners who work while natives stay in bed; nor were their ancestors the only foreigners who helped defend Britain during the war, the contribution around which Daniel Kawczynski pitched his Bank Holiday (Contribution of Polish Citizens) Bill under the Ten Minute Rule in the House of Commons yesterday.

To that extent, his speech was straight from the standard script used by British MPs with Polish connections or constituents. The obsession with the war plays well upon British nostalgia – and it is fundamental to the raison d’etre of the oldest stratum of the Polish presence in this country: the Second World War servicemen and their descendants. Their purpose was to keep Polishness alive in exile while the homeland was under Soviet domination: the fathers’ contribution to the defence of Britain gave them the right to do so.

Kawczynski’s recitation of enemy aircraft kill statistics might seem excessively detailed in 2008, but those figures were part of a community’s catechism.

The second part of Kawczynski’s short speech also had a familiar ring to it: the resentful plaint of conservative grievance, in this case against the ‘liberal elite of the BBC’ which ‘focuses on white, Christian Poles because it is politically correct to do so'.

Kawczynski offered no examples from the research he claims to have amassed in support of this odd claim. His own bill was mentioned a few days ago at the end of an indignation-stirring story about children in Poland receiving British child benefit, but that was in the Daily Mail.

Although the buzz-words are the bread and butter of right-wing British political rhetoric, Kawczynski gave them a distinctly Polish inflection as he went on to claim that if ‘what is being done to Poles was being done to a black or other ethnic minority group, it would simply not be tolerated’, and that the BBC is to blame for an increase he alleges in violence against Poles. The House of Commons has witnessed an illustration of the paranoid style that animates conservatives and nationalists in Poland, marked by an obsession with the media and a visceral loathing of liberalism.

Few British listeners would be aware of that eastern front of conservative cultural struggle; nor would they be aware of the power of the linked themes of heroism and victimhood in the Polish imagination. Nor would they have any reason to know, or care, how fundamentally the established Polish communities in Britain have been committed to preserving Polishness as it was in 1938. There were grave historical reasons for that; but another phase of history started some time ago.

Unfortunately, Poland’s isolation under communism kept the home population’s horizons narrow too. It is sad but not at all surprising to hear of Polish children refusing to sit next to non-white children in British classrooms. Other young Poles speak positively of living among people of diverse backgrounds, however, and they will take their lessons home. If Britain helps them come to see themselves as one group among many, with no pretensions to special status as victims or embodiments of moral virtue, that will do more for Poles than all the money they save or send home. It will help get Polishness out of the early 20th century and into the 21st.