Anti-Polish Rhetoric in the UK: Why the Brits Like Immigrants but Hate Immigration

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Source: WorldCrunch

by Daniel Tilles (również w języku polskim)

A notable feature of the growing anti-immigration rhetoric in British political discourse in recent years has been the specific criticism directed against Poles. Prime Minister David Cameron, in his campaign against the alleged exploitation of the UK’s social-welfare system by immigrants, has explicitly used Poles to personify the problem. The leader of the main opposition party, Ed Miliband (ironically himself the son of emigrants from Poland), has claimed that ‘Polish immigration in particular’ is ‘driving down living standards’ for British people. Jack Straw, who was foreign secretary from 2001-2006, recently admitted that the decision his government made to allow unlimited immigration from ‘states like Poland’ was a ‘spectacular mistake’.

Being singled out in this way has understandably left many Poles, both in the UK and back at home, feeling rather uncomfortable. Complaints have been aired by Polish government ministers and sections of the media, while in February last year hundreds of members of the UK’s Polish community gathered outside the prime minister’s residence to protest against discrimination. Unfortunately, the situation is only going to get worse in the immediate future, with campaigning for May’s general election already dominated by the question of immigration. The three main political parties are competing with one another to present the toughest stance on the issue, while the election is likely to confirm the political breakthrough of the populist UK Independence Party (UKIP), which aims to dramatically reduce immigration.

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Source: Demotix

While the following months may, therefore, be hard to endure, Polish frustration should be tempered by one fact: this is nothing personal. Although Poles are the target of this anti-immigration rhetoric, it is not really about them at all; rather, they have become unwitting victims of a complex set of contemporary and historical anxieties felt by the British people.

Model Immigrants

It is worth noting, first of all, that, despite the hostile political pronouncements, angry newspaper headlines and opinion polls showing widespread opposition to immigration, the British people actually have a far more nuanced – and often positive – attitude towards the Poles who live among them. On a cultural level, there is a feeling of affinity – and certainly a sense that Poles are more compatible and desirable than many other groups of immigrants. This sympathetic sentiment has often been manifest in places one would more often find hostility towards immigration. The chairman of the pressure group MigrationWatch, Andrew Green, while advocating an overall ‘reduction in numbers’ of immigrants, declared that he has ‘no problem with immigration from Poland’.

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Source: The Guardian

A columnist for the Daily Telegraph, a conservative daily, remarked last year how Poles ‘work hard’, ‘like a beer’, and ‘go to church’ – making them ‘pretty close to the ideal way of life cherished by a lot of British people’. He also highlighted the two countries’ shared history and, in particular, ‘how much we owe the Poles who flew for the RAF during the Battle of Britain’. (As a further bonus, he added, the Poles ‘make a damn good sausage too’!) The Spectator, another conservative publication, praised Polish immigrants as ‘hard-working, presentable, well educated, and integrat[ing]…perfectly’.

In addition to this cultural connection, there is also an appreciation of the contribution that Poles make to the economy. A survey last year found that a majority of Britons believe Polish immigrants ‘work hard for living’ (55%) and ‘make a contribution to Britain’ (52%), while only 24% thought they did not contribute. Another poll, taken in 2013, similarly found those who believe Poles make a positive contribution (38%) outweighing those who thought the opposite (29%). When official statistics were recently released revealing that Poles have the highest rate of employment (81.2%) of any national group in the UK, they were widely (and approvingly) reported in the media. It was often noted that this figure is far higher than among native Britons (69%) and non-EU immigrants (59%).

If Poles are popular on a personal level, and their contribution to society is appreciated, what explains the current hostility they are facing? The answer to this contradiction lies deep in the British psyche. In particular, Poles, though no fault of their own, have come to embody two abstract notions that the British people have always found troubling

‘The Polish Paradox’

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Source: Wikimedia

The first is immigration itself. Throughout history Britons have been able to express tolerance towards immigrants as individuals while simultaneously exhibiting hostility towards the idea of immigration as a whole. Every wave of mass migration to Britain – the Irish in the mid-19th century, east-European Jews at the turn of the 20th century, Asians and West Indians from the crumbling British empire after the Second World War – has been met with a fears of the country being flooded by outsiders, threatening to swamp the indigenous culture and deprive natives of work. Yet at a more mundane, everyday level, each of these groups has quickly been accepted into their local communities, who have come to appreciate the positive contribution they make to British culture and the economy. In short, Britons dislike immigration in theory, but actually quite like it in practice.

These contradictory attitudes were illustrated in the 1930s, when, at a time of heightened antisemitism, the leaders of the Jewish community commissioned a study of public attitudes towards Jews. Among members of the public surveyed, the overriding sentiment was that, while they did not like the abstract notion of ‘Jewish immigration’, they felt positively towards the individual Jewish immigrants they came into contact with. One respondent, picked out by the researchers as being highly typical, commented that ‘personally I have three Jewish friends who are great friends to me and whom I like very much; I have nothing against them, but only against the [Jewish] race as a whole…We have quite enough Jews in the country as it is and we do not want any more’.

The negative side of such sentiment has often had tangible and unpleasant consequences for immigrants. From the late 19th century a popular ‘anti-alien’ movement arose against Jewish immigration. Politicians, like today, pandered to these public fears. In the 1920s, the home secretary expressed his fear of an ‘England flooded with the whole of the alien refuse from every country in the world’, while the prime minister promised that ‘no alien should be substituted for one of our people’. During this period the British parliament passed the country’s first ever laws designed to restrict entry to the country, known as the Aliens Acts.

The post-war wave of immigration from Asia and the Caribbean inspired similar concerns. This was most famously expressed in 1968 by a member of the Conservative shadow cabinet, Enoch Powell, whose ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech warned that Britain was being ‘changed beyond recognition’ by this flood of immigrants. Their refusal to integrate, and the competition they created for economic and social resources, would inevitably lead to conflict, he predicted, which could only be averted by severely restricting the number of arrivals.

Yet Powell’s dire prophecies, and those of the earlier anti-alien campaigners, never came to pass. Each group of immigrants, despite initial hostility, quickly came to achieve acceptance and integration. You would find few people today who regarded British-born Indians or Jews as any less British than the native English, Scots or Welsh. This is the case even among those who oppose immigration. The leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage, is a self-confessed admirer of Enoch Powell; yet his party is putting forward around 40 black and Asian electoral candidates, whom Farage applauded last year for ‘their united belief in being British’.

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Source: Fish and Chips Photo Archive

Moreover, while immigrants have certainly changed the country, they have done so in a way that Britons largely approve of, contributing to the development of the diverse, dynamic culture in which most people take great pride. For a superficial but telling example one need only look at the national cuisine. Fish and chips, today regarded as quintessentially British, was actually created and popularised by Jewish immigrants during the 19th century. More recently, the curry Chicken Tikka Masala – invented at Indian restaurants in the UK to suit the British palate – has come to be regarded as Britain’s unofficial national dish (an estimated 18 tonnes of it is eaten every week in the UK).

A recent poll found that 70% of Britons approve of multiculturalism. Yet the very same survey also revealed that a majority (54%) believe immigration to have been a bad thing for the UK. Once again, we see the contrast between hostility towards the abstract idea of immigration and positive sentiment towards its actual consequences.

It is into this context that Polish immigrants have arrived. As the largest national group among post-2004 arrivals, they have come to represent the latest wave of immigration to Britain. Reaction to them has conformed to the historical pattern, with a contrast between people’s positive everyday experience of Poles in the UK – the hardworking builders who renovated their house, the doctors and nurses without whom the local hospital would struggle to function, the new Polish deli offering a great range of cold meats – and their abstract notion of a flood of immigrants threatening the British way of life. This is what the Economist newspaper referred to last year as the ‘Polish paradox’, quoting one Briton who said that, when it comes to the Poles, ‘it’s not the migrants I don’t like, it’s the migration’.

Eurosceptic fears

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Source: CNN

In addition, Poles have come to personify another British bugbear: the European Union. Britons have traditionally been the most Eurosceptic nation in the EU (although the recent Eurozone crisis has created some challengers for this title). Such is the strength of feeling that David Cameron has promised, if his party is reelected this year, to hold a referendum on EU membership by 2017, giving the British people a direct choice between remaining in union or leaving it.

Yet, once again, we see that this outward hostility masks a more complex relationship. Exactly as with immigration, Britons enjoy the specific benefits brought by EU membership – access to the single market, cheap and easy travel to the continent, consumer protections, monopoly busting – but dislike the abstract notion of ceding their sovereignty to Brussels. A significant feature of the latter fear is the idea that Britain has lost control of its borders and social-welfare system, theoretically allowing the whole of Europe to turn up on Britain’s doorstep and start claiming benefits. This was apparent  in the breathless tabloid headlines in 2013 warning that 30 million Romanians and Bulgarians – the entire population of the two countries – would be able to flood into the UK once the labour market opened up to them in January 2014, and in the regular scare stories accusing EU immigrants of exploiting Britain’s generous welfare system.

Such stories usually have little basis in fact. There was no sudden influx of immigrants in 2014: in fact, over the first three months of the year the number of Romanians and Bulgarians in the UK actually fell. And numerous studies have shown that ‘benefit tourism’ is largely a myth: only a tiny fraction of EU immigrants come to the UK to claim benefits rather than work, and overall they have paid more in taxes than the value of government services they have used.

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Source: Getty Images

But the reality is not what matters. The mere fact that it is theoretically possible for all 500 million EU citizens to move to the UK, and for them to gain access to its benefit system, is enough to cause great fear among Britons, and to remind them of the fact that EU membership has left them with less control over their own country. And because, when there actually was a mass wave of immigration after the EU expanded in 2004, Poles were by far the largest group among the new arrivals, it is they who have come to personify in British minds the problems caused by EU membership.

Pierogi Masala?

In the immediate future, Poles will continue to be negatively associated with the alleged ills of mass immigration and EU membership. But the good news is that in the longer term the situation will improve.

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Source: The Guardian

Within the next few years Britain’s relationship with the EU will be clarified one way or another. More than likely it will choose to remain in the club. Already, the prospect of leaving the EU is causing Britons to reconsider the merits of membership: before David Cameron announced his plans to hold a referendum, polls showed that Britons wanted to leave the EU by a margin of 4-8%; since his announcement, they now favour retaining membership by a margin of 17-20%. Once again, we see how, when they are asked to consider practical realities rather than abstract fears, Britons are capable of thinking rationally about the benefits.

Meanwhile, over time, as Poles become more established and integrated, they will cease to be so strongly associated in British minds with the perceived dangers of mass immigration, and will be welcomed into the UK’s ever-evolving multicultural experiment. Do not be surprised if, in 50 years time, an anglicised version of pierogi is celebrated, alongside fish and chips and Chicken Tikka Masala, as a great British dish.

Daniel Tilles is assistant professor of history at the Pedagogical University of Cracow. His latest book, British Fascist Antisemitism and Jewish Responses, 1932-40, was recently published by Bloomsbury.

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32 comments

  1. Stefan Mikulin

    This isn’t the first time there has been a backlash against Polish migration in this country, despite the original necessity of specific Polish skills and labour. The VE Day Parade in 1945 was notable for its lack of Polish participation. Ex-service men and women were personae non-gratis following WWII despite their massive contribution to the British war effort. Sadly, there hasn’t been the scrutiny, positive or negative, of these Polish people or their descendants and their story (and ours) continues to be neglected.

    • Steven hughes

      We British do not owe gratitude for Polands efforts in ww2. We British declared war on Germany after Ooland was invaded. Poland should be thanking Britain not the other way around

      • Dont like lying twats

        Read a book. Didn’t see a British flag at Reichstag and Britain declared war on Hitler after France was attacked, UK ignored the pact from 25 August 1939.

      • Marii

        Sad, sad man Steven…GO back to school and read some books from history, awww sorry…Your schools are now taken by muslims and on the wall there are now hanging essays about Mohamed near to essays about Shakespeare 😦 I know, because I saw it…:( Poor Britain, nowdays gave away British culture and without fighting.

      • Some Random Guy

        Nobody should thank Briton for WWII, Poles pretty much saved you in the Battle of Britain and would change army to army just to fight against the Nazi armies. If anything you ought to be thanking us alongside the Russians who stormed through Germany.

      • Micki

        Yes, UK declared war on Germany, and it’s “full military suport” as agread with Poland consisted of sea blokade (that didn’t achive anything) and bombing few unimportant nazi-german sea ports. And later UK asked polish soldiers and officers that found refuge in UK to help fight off the nazis promising to help them regain their country after the war. The result of that was UK selling Poland to the Russians. Yes, thanks for nothing.

  2. chris y

    And yet, if you talk to British people of that age, they have nothing but admiration for their Polish comrades in arms. This was a political decision, presumably taken to appease Stalin, which had nothing to with the attitudes of the population at large. The current prejudice, and it is real, is something new and profoundly disturbing.

  3. I am me

    Britons don’t really mind having immigrants from poor countries in the UK because they’ve always been known to oppress population groups they consider worse or weaker than themselves. Just think of the Irish and Scotts. and what have been done to them throughout centuries in that country, to the point where some of them had to flee the UK long before it joined the EU. Even when Britons complain about the groups of people they allure to the UK and tell them to get out, they still want them there because it allows Britons to exercise power over somebody in order to advance themselves. Remember that the Britons originated from a very primitive backwards peoples in the Caucasus. Therefore, their aspirations in this regard, desperation and power hunger is something to be expected, including an unhealthy abnormal reaction to other ethnicities.

  4. Maggs

    I’m saying this as native Pole: dunno what you really think of us, nevertheless I’ve never met an impolite Briton. Never. And have lived in the UK for 4 years.

    • greatlosd

      May be you should pack your stuff and head back to where you come from. When your people come in their hundreds of thousands to take our jobs and benefit from our social care system, clearly you are just after our economic success.

  5. I like me better!

    There are most certainly disadvantages to living in a country that supports a closed culture because eventually such culture develops into folklore. Thus, the dilution by other cultures helps maintain it on a civilized level with the freedom of personal choice and the freedom not to do stupid things just to be part of that culture pretty much against your will and who you truly are. There are Britons who like America, for instance, and guess what…Slavs contributed significantly to its creation. They strongly influenced the American accent, which makes English sounds more energetic and lazy (as in words like hot, spot, word, )… than its British version. So immigration from Poland and other countries can lead to the creation and emergence of an America like country on the territory of the UK. There is definitely nothing wrong with that…and nothing to worry about there.

  6. Steven

    I had no problem with anyone,but now I have Polish neighbours.Since they moved in,they put music loud all day long and night,at 3 AM they still listen music.They act like only they are living in this building.So disrespectful… They are very loud,they love to make a lot of noise,I guess they feel important acting that way…

    • Daniel Paul

      But British people could move in and do the same, it’s not that are polish or not, it’s who they are and what they are like on an individual level… what if a bunch of UK chavs moved in, they would only most likely do the same or worse.

  7. Sarah E

    Funny enough, the ONLY reason East Europeans receive so much hate is due to the fact that we are considered “poor”. Replace all the Polish immigrants with Swedish ones, the British people would be overjoyed. All abusive comments on the internet hint to the fact that we’re all desperate to come here to get benefits and that we are the poorest in Europe. If one respects others only because they have money, they need to think twice about their value system.

  8. Cohen

    the problem now in England is that to many polish came i use to live in UK before 2004 and after the polish came life changed to much crimicalty every were you hear Kourva they are not polite to many of them came to England you cant comunicate with them i iven went to poland to see how they live they are raciste with foreigner in Poland it was a big Misteake to join them to Eu .

  9. Yolanta

    I am so sorry and terribly surprised by the attitudes of the British toward Polish people. I’m trying to understand their anger and hate towards them but it certainly makes no sense. Here in America I meet many people from Britain who live and work here and I welcome them to my homeland. Also, there are Polish immigrants that live, work, and contribute their time and culture here in my hometown and welcome them wholeheartedly. Both British and Polish contribute so much to the cultural landscape here in America that gives my hometown a richness that is pleasing and wonderfully exciting. I can only hope, pray, and have faith that the British will soon look at their attitudes and make a major adjustment and welcome the Polish and embrace the culture and see the variety that it lends to the British landscape.

  10. Adam

    Regarding the WW2 comment: yes sure the UK declared war on Germany when they attacked Poland (and for 6 years murdered 6 million Polish citizens). When UK declared war on Germany the Brits did not do much to stop the war. What good is only words during time of military action?! Poland helped the UK to such an extent that UK was never invaded and taken under control by the Germans. And as a ‘thank you’ Poland was given up to Soviet after the end of WW2? Strange behavior. I wouldn’t step foot in the UK for a life there. Barely as a tourist. And after the hate crimes amid the Brexit vote I will not go there at all for a foreseeable future. The Brits in general, but not all, are weird. They colonized half of the world but do not want immigrants on their soil. I wished that the Aboriginal Australians would have been xenophobic back in the days when the Brita arrives, or the American Indians and everyhwhere else. Never fucking trust people living in an island.

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  14. Maryann Schneider

    If anyone dislikes the Poles immigrating to their country are fools. Polish people are the hardest working people, never want a hand out, if they do, they will pay it back quickly. Very God oriented, very clean, very intelligent, very educated,(very good schools in Poland better than UK) kind, very loyal. Great asset to any country as they are in the U.S. If I am not mistaken, the Brits do not like the Irish, Scots, French, Eastern Europeans, Americans etc. If the Poles leave Britain and I wish they would, the Brits are going to lose out!

  15. lucy

    I am from Poland, Immigrated to Canada at very young age. We lived in the countryside in Ontario for about 15 years, all our neigbours were English. One approached me one day and asked me what are we doing here as we are not welcomed by English residing here. My husband was born in Canada, I said what are you doing here, this is not your country.
    British people, not all, are very arrogant, in Europe they want everybody to learn Oxford English, not American.
    I wish all the Polish people would move out of England, go back to Poland or Italy, where they are loved and appreciated.

  16. Ivan

    Brits don’t like poles because british media spin this idea for the years. British media is not allowed to say a word against paki who have replaced brits in the places such as Stratford, but the media has to bark at someone. Hence the easy target are poles. There is no risk to be accused in racism if you attack whites. Everyone is happy!

  17. ericsamms5

    I’m British and I generally don’t like Polish people. Almost every customer service complaint that I have made has involved a Polish person. They have no concept of customer service. I think that they are a liability to the service sector. They should stick to construction.

  18. Kevin Kordes

    It should be noted that the great and venerable polish author Joseph Conrad had such a high regard for British culture that he not only became one of the greatest contemporary authors in the English language, but emigrated to Great Britain and became a British citizen. There is a memorial to him in Poland as one of the greatest authors of all time. Yet, he wrote ALL of his novels in the English language!!!! This includes the internationally renowned novel “Heart of Darkness”.
    Polish people are a peculiar ethnic group. We are curious. We travel. We learn of other cultures. Please do not hate us!!!
    We assimilate and learn other languages. The inventor of the constructed language “Esperanto” , Ludwig Zamanov

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