MIGRATION is one of the most contentious issues of modern times. Add the “im-” prefix and it’s practically a swear word in some circles. If public debate around the issue is ever given any lip service, it generally has a whiff of racism, or more increasingly the stench of fascism about it.
The right-wing gutter press have managed to file ‘bogus asylum seekers’ and ‘illegal immigrants’ into the same category as child killers and sex offenders. There is so much that can be said to counter tabloid lies on immigration that it would be easy to fill a whole article with facts refuting them. But that may not be necessary when a simple sketch of a rarely-articulated history of Wales serves so much better to undercut the dominant right-wing discourse on migration.
Opponents of immigration often fix upon the notion of an indigenous culture that requires defending from outside influence, a ‘way of life’ that is under attack from foreigners. The ’shared identity’ of the nation-state is appealed to, promoting the idea that the interests of all indigenous people are separate to those of ‘foreigners’.
This imagined community of a country is a construct. Even in a small nation like Wales most people never know, meet, or even hear of most of their fellow countrymen. Any concept of national identity is not innate and unchanging, but fragile, contested, and constructed over time. The hegemonic concept of national identity serves as a means of social control to dissuade the working people of one country from making natural alliances with the global multitude.
British imperialism led to the colonisation of over 57 countries (mostly in the 16th and 17th centuries), and the economic opportunities offered by the sprawl of empire meant that many ambitious Welshmen were able to make fortunes as slavers and plantation owners. By the late 18th Century this wealth began to be brought back to Wales, and financed the foundations of the industrial growth that was to follow. From the ironworks at Cyfarthfa in Merthyr Tydfil to the harbour of Port Penrhyn at Bangor, industrial infrastructure was built on the profits of imperial conquest and slavery.
The industrial revolution affected the culture of Wales to such a point that we can almost consider anything before it as mere preamble. For the vast majority of its history the population of Wales never rose above half a million. It was only with the onset of industrialisation and the mass migration of workers to fuel the new industries that our population rose.
The size and scale of this population explosion cannot be underestimated. The figures tell their own story: by the time of the economic crisis of 1921 the population had grown by over two million. This movement into Wales was out of step with the rest of Europe. Between 1846 and 1914, 43 million people left for the United States, every European nation was seeing an outward flow of workers to the new world. Every nation except Wales. In the decade before the First World War, the rate of immigration into Wales was second only to that of the USA.
Although much of this inward migration was from other parts of Britain and from Ireland, many came from much further afield. It was not until 1905, under the weight of xenophobic agitation against Eastern-European Jews, that the UK passed the first “Aliens Act”, which enshrined the ability of the state to reject the pleas of people fleeing persecution or seeking a better life. The entire current migration-management system, with its web of detention centres, checkpoints and army of agents, can be traced back to this one piece of anti-Semitic legislation.
Without the mass migration that resulted from industrialisation, and fuelled by the wealth of imperialism, Wales as we currently understand and experience it simply would not exist. Any recognisably separate identity to that of England would have disappeared into the footnotes of history. Over a period of four generations, from the late 18th to the early 20th Century, these immigrants were thoroughly absorbed, creating a melting pot that gave birth to a unique culture. A culture which defines “Welshness” far more keenly than any bardic ceremony.
The movement of people generally follows the movement of wealth. It is no surprise that while the British ruling class conquered and exploited much of the world, people living in these impoverished and plundered areas followed the wealth to the UK. In the same way that the straight lines that divide so much of the world were drawn by Western statesmen as arbitrary divisions of colonial “possessions”, the infrastructure of border control acts as a clumsy attempt to avoid the payback of imperialist conquest.
The failure to give any realistic form of reparation to former colonies has created vast numbers of dispossessed people. Modern travel now means that these people are able to move to the former imperial states and work to send money home. This migrant work has become the bedrock of many economies where the “brightest and best” are encouraged to work overseas to simulate the domestic situation. People dispossessed by imperialist domination during the age of empire, and more recent neo-colonialism, fully deserve the opportunity to enjoy a share of the wealth that was taken from them.
We in the Welsh working class need to recognise migrant workers for what they are: fellow exploited people, shaped and buffeted by the same forces that created our own unequal economic position. Migrants are not a separate social group, they are labour on the move. As such they are fellow-competitors for the crumbs from the rich man’s table, and also potential allies in the struggle for an equal society.