Race Matters

Immigrants should be ‘at the centre of the story’ of Britain’s modern history

By Dr Julian Simpson

Is history, as it is generally written in the UK, racist and xenophobic? The discipline certainly has a problem that requires to be addressed.

The teaching of history often singularly fails to sufficiently engage with the history of migrants and minorities and their role in the development of the UK.

Dr Julian Simpson
Dr Julian Simpson
When I started researching the role of South Asian doctors in the history of the National Health Service I was stunned by how little had been written about the history of migrant workers in an organisation that has always been largely dependent on them.

There is still a conception that writing the history of migration is a worthy but marginal task. Yet, what is at stake is more than identity and culture - important though these issues may be to specific communities.

The history of migration is also about understanding how hospitals and GP surgeries have been staffed by doctors and nurses but also cleaners and people working in catering.

It is about evaluating the impact on British agriculture of the labour of migrant workers in fields and factories, the role of the Gurkhas in the British army, how Irish priests and how Polish worshippers have shaped the Catholic Church in England.

Migrants have had enormous impact on local politics in cities with large ethnic minority populations. Their role in the construction industry, music and culture, the city of London and higher education cannot be underestimated. And no adequate history of contemporary Britain can exist without migration being at the centre of the story.

This is not simply an academic point about whether historians, in their writings, are failing to engage with an important dimension of the past. It is also about politics.

Contemporary UK political debate constructs migrants as being on the outside of British national identity rather than an integral part of the UK and therefore as a problem that needs to be dealt with.

Either we, as historians, are writing histories that challenge these political views or we are passively politicised by our failure to do so. There is no middle ground.

As it is, the limited engagement of historians with the role of migrants in making the UK, and what it has become, nourishes the sort of political discourse that characterised the 2015 general election campaign.

It is easier to talk about migrants as a cost and a burden when we have little sense of their historical roles as the makers of British society: doctors, nurses, caterers, cleaners, fruit pickers, plumbers, teachers, politicians.

Second, for communities, history meets a cultural and social need; it is about belonging and identity. By not writing histories that adequately reflect the diversity of the forces shaping the UK, historians as a group meet one of the definitions of institutional racism as outlined in the Macpherson report on the murder of Stephen Lawrence - the failure to provide an appropriate professional service to specific groups on the basis of colour, culture or ethnic origin.

Fifteen years ago, the Parekh Report on the future of multicultural Britain noted that national identity was based in part on a shared sense of history and suggested that moving beyond monocultural histories might be an appropriate step to take in a diverse nation.

The intervening years have not radically altered the picture that it described.

There have been some encouraging signs of evolution – the ongoing celebrations of the centenary of World War I have for instance yielded a refreshing engagement with the roles of troops from across the former British Empire

Britain’s diverse history does not however end at World War I, and finding ways of better reflecting this should be a priority. Initiatives such as the South Asians Making Britain project bear witness to the importance of engaging with Empire, ethnicity and migration when trying to understand the history of the UK.

David Kynaston’s series of books on post-war Britain also show how an overarching historical narrative of the nation can incorporate minority perspectives and influences.

The problem is that the way in which much historical research in the UK is done does not facilitate the emergence of such histories – which interestingly are frequently produced outside of University History departments.

Research interests are often connected to the backgrounds of historians themselves and many of the people writing history in British Universities today are white and middle class.

When it comes to gaining admission as a student to the Russell Group of Universities, being privately educated and from an affluent background represents a huge advantage as shown in 2013 by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. It is from this pool that academics are drawn and they are not a particularly diverse group. 85 out of 18,550 Professors in the UK, for instance, are Black.

Historical research has always been connected to contemporary contexts and shaped by the concerns of those writing it. Women’s history, which is now a mainstay of historical research, was a marginal preoccupation until women’s voices became more prominent and feminist historians - such as Sheila Rowbotham - pointed out in the 1970s that the experiences of women had long been ignored.

In the 1960s, an earlier generation of British historians had turned to looking at the history of the working classes at a time when understanding class was a key preoccupation for left-wing historians.

History in British universities needs to become more open to different voices, people who have different questions to ask of the world and will be best placed to write the diverse histories that are needed.

Universities should be doing more to ensure that they offer an inclusive environment and are performing a public role of advancing our understanding of the histories of the range of groups in the UK.

University history departments should be challenged about the content of their output and the extent to which it reflects the society we live in.

In the meantime, much of the responsibility for writing different histories is incumbent on those working outside of academia - either of their own initiative or in voluntary and community organisations.

They should be encouraged by their funders to place a greater focus on how the mainstream has been shaped by the actions of migrants and minorities.

More efforts could also be made to bring together the wealth of evidence that has been gathered by a range of groups across the UK in recent years.

As it is, much work is focused on specific localities and particular communities, with little attempt being made to use this research to help build up a more diverse national picture of the past.   

It is no longer considered acceptable to ignore the history of women or the history of ordinary working class people. The historian E.P. Thompson famously wrote of the ‘enormous condescension’ that historians had tended to show the latter group.

It is time for more historians to engage closely with the role that migrants have played in the development of the UK. It is time also to stop treating them with condescension-and as outsiders in a country that they have shaped.

Dr Julian M Simpson is a Research Associate at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at the University of Manchester. He is currently working on a book ‘Migrant Architects of the NHS: South Asian doctors and the making of British general practice’ which is to be published by Manchester University Press.
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