I am Irish but I want to be British — is that bad?
I am a bad immigrant. At least according to a Guardian journalist called Nesrine Malik I am. After I recently wrote some critical pieces about the politics of victimhood, Ms Malik informed me that my parents ‘didn’t migrate from Ireland to England for you to use that as a way to undermine other immigrants’ kids by saying that you too could play identity politics if you wanted to, but you don’t because you don’t like to play the “victim card”’.
Well, there is truth to this, I guess. My parents didn’t migrate from Ireland to England so that I could talk about identity politics — neither I nor identity politics, at least in its current form, existed when they migrated. No, they migrated to escape serious economic difficulty. I am grateful to Ms Malik for Guardian-splaining my migrant story to me. Us thick Irish are always much obliged when well-educated people tell us why we do what we do.
It used to be racists who said the Irish were bad immigrants. Now it’s Guardian columnists. But the idea of a bad immigrant has changed in some very interesting ways. In the past the Irish were ‘bad immigrants’ because they were seen as a lazy, feckless, drunken, dim, pugnacious, priest-ridden people, probably disloyal to Britain (given they were Catholics as well as Paddies), and rather too subversive, too. That is, they were always on the outside, dangerously so, stubbornly refusing to love Britain, stupidly failing to adopt British standards of behaviour, irritatingly closer in their heart of hearts to Rome than to the UK. That’s how the prejudiced view went anyway.
Now, however, as suggested by Ms Malik’s outburst against certain second-generation Irish people in the media, the bad immigrant is the person who is the opposite to all of that. It’s the person who wants to integrate; who doesn’t want to drone on about how victimised he feels by his host nation and its history and habits, but who wants to feel part of that nation, in a real, grown-up way. In the past the Irish were bad immigrants for clinging to their identity; now I’m a bad immigrant because I refuse to do identity politics.
Not so long ago, good immigrants were immigrants who aspired to embrace the values of their adopted home. They were the immigrants who really wanted to, and really tried to, become citizens of their new place, with all that that entailed: developing a sense of national attachment; feeling part of a new people; feeling a warmth and eventually, hopefully, a commitment to their new nation’s core values.
Now, increasingly, the good immigrant is the immigrant who stays somewhat on the outside. It’s the immigrant who constantly caveats his national identity; who is never simply British, but Indian-British, or Irish-British, or Greek-British. It’s the immigrant who in the inevitable tussle between holding on to the values of his nation of origin or embracing the values of his nation of choice will do more of the former than the latter. It’s the immigrant who says things like, ‘I have many identities’. In this era of institutionalised multiculturalism, where cultural diversity is prized more highly than national identity, the good immigrant is the immigrant who remains ‘diverse’ — which is to say, on the outskirts, always a little sniffy about his adopted home, and in some cases even hostile to it. What Irish immigrants to Britain were denounced for in the past — skulking outside the mainstream of manners and values — immigrants are increasingly celebrated for today.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of my parents’ arrival in Britain. So my family are relative newcomers here, meaning I have some knowledge of what it means to become British, or to try to become British, rather than to be British. Like pretty much all other migrants to Britain, my parents have stories of hardship, of course. The arriving in a strange new country with one suitcase and hardly any money; the pokey council flats they lived in; the abuse they got from anti-Irish people. And all the rest of it. But victims? Never. Immigrants didn’t aspire to victim status back then. Their difficulties were to be surmounted, not dwelt upon.
In the second half of the 20th century, there were three significant exoduses of people from Ireland into Britain, and the different impact and problems these exoduses brought about tell us something important about the crisis of integration in the era of multiculturalism. The first exodus was in the 1940s and 50s. Vast numbers of people left Ireland in this period. By the early 1950s, 50,000 people were leaving Ireland every year, and the majority of them were arriving and settling in the UK. The second exodus, which was smaller, was in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which is the movement my parents were involved in: they left the unforgiving boglands of the west of Ireland as teenagers in 1968 and arrived in a Swinging London that perplexed them as much as it thrilled them.
And the third exodus, a huge one, was in the 1980s. The 1980s were an incredibly bleak time for the Republic of Ireland, economically speaking. The years of 1980 to 1987 in particular were a period of prolonged recession, falling living standards, and an alarming hike in unemployment. The result was another period of mass movement. Hundreds of thousands of people left Ireland in the 1980s. And it was a different kind of emigration. Where previously it had mostly been the poor who left — in the 1920s, for example, 70 per cent of Irish male emigrants were unskilled workers — in the 1980s the middle classes were leaving, too. In 1980, just eight per cent of college graduates were leaving the country to find work; by 1989 it was 30 per cent. A 1987 Irish government report caused great alarm when it revealed that 50 per cent of engineering students and 70 per cent of architecture students were emigrating within six months of graduation. Again, as in the 1940s and the 1960s, a majority of the 1980s emigres went to the UK.
What Irish immigrants to Britain were denounced for in the past — skulking outside the mainstream of manners and values — immigrants are increasingly celebrated for today
How the Irish arrivals negotiated life in Britain, and adapted to life in Britain, changed with each exodus. Those who arrived in the 1940s and 50s, and their British-born children who grew up in Britain in the 1950s and 60s, assimilated relatively easily. Their sense of Irish identity tended to dissipate as their direct contact with Ireland and their families withered (this is before the era when travel between Britain and Ireland became an easy, regular thing). What these arrivals tended to hold on to was not their Irish identity but their Catholic one. Over time, their great fealty was to the Church rather than to Ireland. And indeed, to the extent that they experienced difficulties in assimilating, it was this, their religious identity, not their national identity, that proved to be a block. A residual anti-Catholicism, long a feature of British polite society, could and often did make itself felt upon these Irish arrivals. In cities like Glasgow, Edinburgh, Liverpool and Manchester, where Protestant faith and institutions still had much purchase in the 1940s and 50s, these Irish newcomers might often feel that they weren’t truly part of this nation they had settled in. The instinct to assimilate, or the necessity to assimilate, was there, but the red Stop sign of anti-Catholicism sometimes complicated assimilation.
The Irish who arrived in the UK in the smaller exodus of the late 1960s and the 1970s had a harder time in terms of assimilation. Because now, not only was their Catholic identity a potential problem — though less of a problem than it would have been in the 1940s — but their national origins were an issue, too. Why? Because Britain, once again, was engaged in a war with Irish republicanism. For a period of time, the anti-Irish prejudices of the late 19th century — that they were disloyal, violent, unpredictable — made a comeback. The passing of the authoritarian Prevention of Terrorism Act in 1974 — by a Labour government, it must always be noted — further turned Irish people in Britain into objects of suspicion, legally decreed outsiders.
My parents’ generation of Irish emigres experienced much of this. They would tone down their accents in job interviews and they would instinctively keep within their own communities. When I was growing up we virtually never encountered non-Catholics. Where my parents settled and had their family, in a working-class part of north-west London, the double difficulty of being Catholic and Irish would often make itself felt. Robert Elms grew up in the same area, and in his excellent book The Way We Wore: A Life in Threads, he describes the oddity of seeing observant, smartly dressed, ‘monochrome’ Catholics stood like groups of ravens outside the local Catholic Church — the church my family attended. That was the Irish for much of this period: curiosities, white but not British, like ‘us’ but really not like us. And they were such curiosities not necessarily by choice but very often by circumstance and history — or the return of history, in the shape of the unresolved British-Irish conflict.
And then there was the 1980s. This was a curious moment in the history of the Irish in Britain because although this era’s mass movement across the Irish Sea caused more consternation in Dublin than earlier exoduses had — the Dublin elites were generally okay with unskilled workers leaving Ireland, but not their own middle-class sons and daughters — the experience of this generation in Britain was more relaxed. In the Eighties and even more markedly into the 1990s, there was a shift away from suspicion of Irish arrivals to celebration of their various supposed virtues. Prejudice gave way to a kind of paternalistic favouring. The Irish were judged to be good losers, good craic, good at culture (helped by second-generation Irish bands like The Smiths, The Pogues and Oasis and by a new vogue for Irish writers, playwrights, actors, and TV personalities). Significant political and social shifts transformed the fortunes of Irish immigrants to Britain. Anti-Catholicism pretty much faded away, in no small part as a result of the crisis of the Church of England: a church battered by a crisis of confidence and increasingly beholden to the cult of relativism was in less and less of a position to posture against the archaism and eccentricity and wickedness of Catholicism. The Celtic Tiger phenomenon meant the Irish were no longer seen as the poor relation to Britain, as reflected in the arrival of highly educated migrants (in contrast to my parents’ generation of immigrants just 20 years earlier, virtually all of whom were uneducated). And the peace process in Northern Ireland, starting in the late 1980s and becoming formalised in the 1990s, withdrew the tension from the Irish-British relationship. These enormous changes meant that the religious, economic and political blocks to Irish assimilation in Britain virtually disappeared.
And yet here is the curious thing: the new promise of accelerated assimilation, the removal of such blocks to assimilation as anti-Catholicism and fear of Irish republicanism, did not lead to a waning of Irish identity, but to the opposite — it coincided with an explosion of new and ever-more self-conscious and separatist expressions of Irish identitarianism in Britain.
Our parents and grandparents sought acceptance despite being constantly reminded of their separateness; we sought separateness despite it being pretty clear that we were now accepted
This was the era of the Plastic Paddy. And of Paddywhackery. Everyone, no matter how distant or tenuous their relationship with Ireland, wanted a piece of Irishness. Irishness became, and remains, a fashionable minority identity. To be Irish was, and is, to be romantic, emotional, sentimental, and of course a victim, too. In the 1980s and 1990s, my generation of second-generation Irish immigrants did things our parents would never have dreamt of doing: We Gaelicised our names (much to our parents’ bafflement); we talked about the oppression of the Irish (despite having suffered no consequences whatsoever as a result of being of Irish descent); we all read books about the Irish Famine, which was being institutionalised by then Irish president Mary Robinson as the defining Irish experience, far more important than the Easter Rising, apparently; and we campaigned for, and won, a new ethnic category in the UK census — Irishness. That was added to the census in 2001, and it spoke, quite profoundly, to the new confusions around assimilation and separateness for the Irish in Britain: just as we finally became accepted, just as our presence here was drained of most of its difficulties and controversies, just as we were invited to assimilate, we said: ‘We won’t assimilate. We want to be separate. We want to be different.’
The Irish ethnic category in the UK census was the chief accomplishment of the new Irish identitarianism. It confirmed that in the era of identity politics, recognition of one’s difference, and fundamentally of one’s alleged historic pain, trumped the instinct to integrate and to embrace national citizenship over historic origin. So even though the Irish and British are ethnically identical, and even though the Irish and second-generation Irish of the 1980s and 1990s achieved something our parents and grandparents could only have dreamt of — uncomplicated acceptance in Britain — still our impulse was to separate ourselves off. And in the firmest, most dramatic way, too — by saying, ‘We are a different ethnicity. We are virtually a different race.’ The thing that earlier Irish arrivals bristled at — the racialisation of the Irish, especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as an inferior, low-IQ, misshapen people — was now being embraced by Irish and second-generation Irish activists and organisers in the UK. Although this new process of racialisation was apparently a ‘good’ kind: the Irish were now racialised as emotionally aware, culturally skilful, feelers of people’s pain, and so on, rather than as white apes.
The self-racialisation of the Irish at precisely the moment when, finally, their racialisation by others was coming to an end tells us an important story about the crisis of integration today. Where the Irish arrivals of the 1940s and 1960s assimilated to the best of their efforts despite the difficulties they faced, the Irish — and more importantly the second-generation Irish — of the 1980s and 1990s balked at assimilation despite it now being a straightforward process. Our parents and grandparents sought acceptance despite being constantly reminded of their separateness; we sought separateness despite it being pretty clear that we were now accepted.
The story of these three Irish exoduses of the second half of the 20th century shines a light on the complications of immigration to Britain. First, they confirm that assimilation is not always as straightforward as some, particularly those of a conservative or a right-leaning persuasion, would have us believe. Failure to assimilate is not always a failure on the part of the immigrant. ‘Assimilate!’, British society has frequently bellowed at new arrivals, even as it has maintained political or social norms and attitudes that make assimilation a difficult and sometimes painful process. When immigrants keep to their own kind — as my parents largely did — it is often out of necessity. From the perspective of work, education, religion and simply a sense of belonging, and also as a consequence of Britain’s residual hostility to Irish Catholics and Irish attitudes, every signal my parents received said to them: ‘Stick with the Irish. It will make your life easier.’
Secondly, however, there is the newer phenomenon of failing to assimilate not because assimilation is difficult but because assimilation is unfashionable and socially undesirable. This is what we see in the Irish-in-Britain experience in the 1980s and 1990s, and in other migrant communities too, often with even more disastrous consequences: not a struggle to assimilate against all the odds, but an aspiration to be separate, to be Other, to be distinct. In its small but important way, the fact that some of my generation of British-born Irish people started to learn the Irish language (a minority pursuit even in Ireland), and started to obsess over the historic crimes of the British against the Irish, and, most strikingly of all, started to conceive of themselves, courtesy of the census itself, as a non-British race, suggests that the social signals we were receiving in the twilight of the 20th century said: ‘Don’t even try to assimilate. It’s far more interesting to be outside of the mainstream and even hostile to the mainstream — after all, it’s this same mainstream that oppressed your ancestors and destroyed your true home: Ireland…’
Our parents coveted acceptance and autonomy despite facing social discrimination; we coveted a narrative of oppression despite enjoying acceptance.
In the 1980s and 1990s, migrant communities, often with disastrous consequences, aspired to be separate, to be Other, to be distinct
In the story of immigration into Britain, there are many things about the Irish experience that are particular and specific. But this latter development of self-racialisation, of celebrated separateness, tells us a larger story about immigration and Britain more broadly. It reveals the extent to which integration is now actively discouraged. Western European societies have abandoned the social project of assimilating immigrants and, in many cases, their offspring too: how else to explain that us British-born Irish people felt more foreign than our actually foreign parents? Across Europe, over the past two or three decades, ‘assimilation’ has come to be seen as tantamount to racism, almost as a fascistic imposition on newcomers. Say ‘assimilation’, or even ‘integration’, in polite society these days, and someone will no doubt tweet about having witnessed an instance of hate speech. Only racists want to assimilate immigrants, apparently.
Western officialdom’s discomfort with assimilation has come to be institutionalised over the past two decades. Consider Germany. In its Report on the Situation of Foreigners in Germany, published by the Federal Commissioner for Foreign Affairs in 2000, the German government said there is ‘no German monolithic culture’. German society, it said, consists of a ‘multiplicity of coexisting lifestyles’. There can therefore be only ‘two criteria of integration’, the report said: acceptance of the German Constitution and knowledge of the German language. Beyond those two things, no sense of Germaness can be pushed or encouraged because to impose a ‘monolithic culture’ on others is wrong, it seems. Around the same time, in 1997, the US Commission on Immigration Reform, redefined ‘Americanisation’ to mean, not assimilation, but general ‘acceptance’ of certain ideas, including ‘equality of opportunity’ and the ‘rapid acquisition of English’ by new arrivals. Again, the technicality of developing the linguistic skills for existing day-to-day in American society overrides the older, more intense encouragement of assimilation into the American way of life. As one author argued, these are ‘very moderate conclusions of what “Americanisation” consists of’ (1). In France, too — which had long emphasised assimilation over multiculturalism — the late 1990s and early 2000s saw an embrace of ‘multiplicity of lifestyles’ over the old glue of republicanism. As Martin Schain, a professor of politics at New York University, argued in 1999, the ostensibly assimilationist French state became ‘de facto multiculturalist’ in the late 20th century, by the ‘sheer need to find ethnic interculotors and sounding boards for its policies’. A republic that traditionally treated all citizens as equal in the public sphere warmed to differentiation, to ‘coexisting lifestyles’, as Germany described it around the same time.
And in Britain, too, assimilation was abandoned. Citizenship became, not a substantial aspiration, but a technical, educative achievement. In the words of advisors to the ‘Life in the UK’ group of the late 1990s, which was seeking on behalf of government new ways to engage with immigrant communities, celebration of ‘diversity’ should become a key value of the outlook that we impart to new arrivals, because people need to be ‘secure in their identities’. Here, celebration of difference, and encouragement of difference, becomes a way of distracting from the hollowness of the core of society, and from the testing, historical question of how we integrate newcomers, and what we integrate them into: what values, what ideals, what sense of nationhood.
Diversity is a nice word. It would take a brave soul to challenge diversity. And yet we must. Not the fact of diversity — a healthy, free, pluralistic society will, by definition, contain myriad political, religious and cultural views — but certainly the institutionalisation of diversity. For while this elevation of diversity as the defining value of Western societies might dress itself up as tolerance, what it really represents is a refusal, or an inability, to define the core values of a society, the glue of society, the things that can unite the populace whatever their petty identitarian or faith-based or lifestyle differences. When Germany, and others, redefine themselves as a ‘multiplicity of coexisting lifestyles’, they are using buzzwords to disguise their relativistic reluctance to celebrate their own historic traditions, social values and national achievements. ‘Diversity’ is the PC front behind which the contemporary nation state hides its moral cowardice and national malaise.
This is the climate in which Irish immigrants to Britain went from aspiring to assimilate to self-consciously refusing to assimilate. Other migrant communities went through a similar process, with worse consequences than Paddywhackery or self-racialisation via the census. Witness the increasing isolation of certain sections of the Muslim community, for example, which share with some members of Britain’s second-generation Irish community an instinct for separation and even for hostility towards the idea of Britishness and British history, but who express it not just through making their name sound foreign, but also through drifting towards radical groups that are actively and sometimes violently hostile towards the British nation. These are the dire wages of the abandonment of assimilation in favour of institutionalising a system of coexisting lifestyles — that is, of communal distinction.
For immigrants, becoming a citizen of their adopted nation has never been an easy process. Certain hoops needed to be jumped through, difficult values embraced. And very often they were instructed to assimilate in the same breath as they were told, ‘You’re not wanted here’. But still, the desire to assimilate, the quest for citizenship, was positive. It encouraged people to rise above themselves and their origins and the accidents of their births, and to try, at least, to become part of something bigger than themselves, something new to them, something dynamic and overarching and unifying. That dream of citizenship has now given way to the nightmare of socially sanctioned separateness, where every migrant group is encouraged to conceive of itself as victimised and to be innately hostile, rather than favourable, towards its new nation. That is a really bad and backward development. I know saying that makes me a bad immigrant. But I would rather be a bad immigrant who aspires to citizenship than a ‘good immigrant’ for whom citizenship is not only impossible, but also undesirable. This new system isolates and demeans immigrants infinitely more than the old system did. Institutionalised separateness hurts new arrivals far more than expected assimilation did.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy
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