Immigration is always in the news. It is one of the hottest political topics, and arguably the one that most quickly sends people to extremes of opinion. One reason for this may be that we are lacking context. By this I mean we lack genu- ine historical context of immigration into Britain over time.
So it is pleasing that the plans my exam board, OCR, recently announced to include the study of immigra- tion into Britain since Roman times as a strand of GCSE History from 2016 have been applauded from all an- gles. The Daily Mail, in direct response to the proposals, acknowl- edged that ‘from the earliest times, immigration has played a central role in shaping the story of our mar- itime nation. Indeed there can barely be a British citizen alive without ancestors from overseas – whether Saxon, Roman, Jewish, Irish, Indian, African or from anywhere else’. This is very true: ad- mittedly I would always go for ‘stories’, rather than ‘the story’ of our maritime nation – there can be no single narrative – but the rest is undeniable.
That the study of the movements of diverse groups of people – their motives, their experiences and their impact – can tell us a lot about the major events of England’s past is clearly true. The World Wars of the twentieth century are perhaps the most obvious example, but the Crusades and their aftermath for the Jewish communi- ties, particularly the events at Clifford’s Tower in York in 1190 for example, stick in my mind. This kind of thematic approach is being commended by commentators as a new way for GCSE stu- dents to understand the past. The theme of migration to Britain is a perfect lens through which to explore historical concepts of continuity and change, cause, consequence, and significance. It is not about politics or about preaching a particular view. But actually it can do more than that; it can reveal hidden histories and it can challenge our notions of identity.
A recent leader on immigration in this magazine (17-23 October 2014) praised the ‘vibrancy, diversity and cultural richness of Britain’, attributing this to immigration and ‘our astonishing imperial history’. I wouldn’t argue with that. But our diversity far outreaches our im- perial past. Awareness of that – and of hidden stories – could provide a more useful basis for current debates. Recent research has found that the ‘resi- dent alien presence’ in England in 1440 was likely to have been similar to that in 1901.
Of course migration to Britain has contin- ued to change since 1901 with the end of Empire and our chang- ing relationship to Europe. But to analyse that impact, and the changes of the recent past rigorously, and embed it with substan- tive context, the longer history needs to be taught in our schools. At the moment, school history barely scratch- es the surface.