Who are we? Where are we going?

By Malachi McIntosh, Runnymede Trust

It’s been a tumultuous few years. The 2016-18 roll call of events is familiar to us all: an unexpected vote to leave the EU, the election of the US’s least politically experienced president, far-right parties within stretching distance of power in the Netherlands and France, surging in Germany and running the governments of Hungary and Poland, a UK election that returned a result that almost no one was expecting.

Each and every one of these recent upheavals has created challenges for the UK, the question of how to move forward as a nation presented everywhere, but too often asked without much reflection on what Britain is now, and who the ‘British people’ or ‘British citizens’ often invoked by politicians actually are. We are increasingly aware of the things that divide us, including broadening divisions of interests between the young and the old, the Scottish and the English, and the parties of Northern Ireland and those of the rest of the UK, but any true sense of what pulls us together is often lost. In the wake of tragedies, we are declared ‘united’; according to the Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural schools education agenda, we are said to share the ‘fundamental’ ‘British’ values of ‘democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs’; we are said to share certain cultural rituals – tea, a little weather chat, queuing – but who we are as a people, the full eclecticism of the nation, the origins of the state, and the web of history that links all residents together – these things are often unmentioned, unconsidered, untaught.

I work for the Runnymede Trust. Over the past two years, beginning in June 2016, I have been a part of a project run in partnership with the universities of Manchester and Cambridge to provide teachers with the tools to deliver lessons on Britain’s migration history. The project emerges from years of collaborative work between Runnymede and professors Claire Alexander and Joya Chatterji, work that began with interdisciplinary research on the Bengal diaspora that led to the creation of the ‘Bangla Stories’ website (www.banglastories.org), and continued with two projects that highlighted and explored hidden or unknown family and community histories with schools and young people in Cardiff, Leicester, Sheffield, Manchester, and London (www.makinghistories.org.uk). This partnership has culminated in the project I’ve worked on, Our Migration Story (www.ourmigrationstory.org.uk), or OMS. OMS grew out of the enthusiasm of both teachers and pupils for the chance to understand the aspect of who we are as a people that most often goes unexplored in conversations about where we’re going: Britain’s long history of migration.

While migration and migrants are regularly discussed in political debates, they tend to be presented as new or dangerous or unexpected or unprecedented, as recent irruptions into British life connected to decolonisation and the expansion of the European Union. Both things are, and of course, more complicated and far more deeply integrated into Britain’s history.

As a geographic space, Britain has seen many waves of arrivals. The Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, medieval Jews, Normans, Huguenots, Palatines, Romani, and peoples from many parts and ports of Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Europe all journeyed here before the start of the twentieth century. Britain’s place in the world, and our current composition at all levels, is tightly tied to this migration story: it intersects with every major moment in the country taking its shape, from the headline events of the signing of the Magna Carta and the first forays of imperial expansion into Ireland, to smaller-scale happenings like the building of Big Ben and the birth of M&S. Migration is palpable in the surnames, landscapes and architecture of the country, and woven, through successive cycles of rejection and integration, into our cuisine, culture and genes. It has been, and continues to be, a key catalyst in national development.

The decades-long lack of attention to the breadth of our shared story of migration has planted the seeds for social schisms. Many people interested in contributing to the collective efforts required for the future have been left out of the national narrative; many others know nothing of their links to their neighbours and to the world (and these two groups are by no means mutually exclusive). Among the hundreds of young people and their teachers that Runnymede has worked with, there has been a clear desire to change all of this.

OMS is a product of teachers’ requests, and its aim is simple: to provide a comprehensive, one-stop-shop free web resource for those interested in Britain’s migration history. It aims to bring rigorous academic research into the classroom and it was compiled in partnership with over 70 historians and archivists working across universities and historical institutions – including the V&A, Imperial War Museum and National Archives. It offers teaching resources and over 60 case studies of notable groups and individuals who came to Britain from AD43 to the present. Through this, the site directly addresses the forgetfulness of our public discourse and cultural memory.

2018 has been a year, in David Olusoga’s words, ‘overflowing with anniversaries’– a year packed with many moments to reflect on the past in the present, from the centenary of the end of the first world war, to the 70th anniversary of the founding of the NHS, to the passage of the British Nationality Act and the arrival of the The Empire Windrush – not to mention Nottingham, Notting Hill and ‘Rivers of Blood’. These milestones have all inspired op-eds, speeches, events, exhibitions, slogans, new straplines, new logos and much thought in print and the ether on the past, the underlying hum of many millions of words written and spoken just three questions: Who were we? Who are we? Where are we going?

To look ahead from the present is to look into a future that feels unbalanced, where global allegiances, collective identities, and a broader sense of common purpose seem to have burst into various factionalisms and rivalries – where what was solid seems, suddenly, to have melted into air. We are often binarised by those who speak for us, understood variously as ‘strivers’ and ‘skivers’, the ‘indigenous’ and their others, men and women, Northerners and Southerners, rich and poor.

We are, of course, far more. To safely navigate the challenges ahead, and to avoid the crashes of the past, we need to return to and honestly assess ourselves. Only by recognising threads of interconnection can we establish a full account of the present. Understanding our history is a core part of that process. And migration is a core part of that story.  

Dr Malachi McIntosh is Project Consultant on the Our Migration Story: The Making of Britain project at The Runnymede Trust.