Bob Biderman is a British-American author and publisher, as well as a member of DiEM25. He writes the following:
I first came to Britain from the United States in 1960 as a young man having been fascinated by the stories of this island nation my father told me when I was a child. My dad had volunteered to serve in the merchant navy some years before America entered the war and was full of admiration for the spirit of the people he encountered at the other end of that dangerous North Atlantic run bringing food and supplies to the last redoubt against the fascist takeover of Europe. His stories, couched in language fitting for a small boy, told of those simple acts of courage that defined a people standing resolute against, what seemed to be impossible odds. So landing in Britain when I did was almost like a rite of passage. I came to pay homage and I wasn’t disappointed.
Travelling the length of the island, from London to Glasgow, I witnessed a country still piecing itself together from the brutalities of war. In London, large gaping holes stuffed with rubble that once was someone’s home, had yet to be cleared fifteen years after the bombings. Rationing had ended not too long before, but there were still shortages of basic supplies augmented by workers’ cafes that served cheap sausage and beans to a skint labour force. Coming from an unscathed America where most were well-off (though many still lived in abject poverty), the dignity of the British people who had suffered incredible hardships was inspiring.
I returned to Britain in 1970, this time, recently married, with my wife. Then, again, in the 1980s, when we finally decided to settle here and raise our family. For us, Britain was not only an adoptive home, but a needed antidote to an American culture becoming fatally obsessed with money and power.
Over those fifty-six years – from 1960 to the present – I have witnessed dramatic changes in the culture and attitudes here. The destruction of communities from north to south, east to west, through global shifts augmented by new technologies and intensified by misguided austerity policies, has caused or exacerbated deep social wounds. But most striking to me is the unravelling of that spirit which had once been so strong – that which my father had so admired. Nothing exemplifies this unravelling more than the toxic referendum on whether Britain will remain in or leave the European Union, fomenting a battle of questionable ideas, fought in an atmosphere of quasi-civil war.
America was built by immigrants, but so was modern Britain: the French Huguenots who became the Spitalfield Weavers, the Dutch who helped drain the East Anglian fenlands, the Italians (God bless them!) who established the first espresso cafes, the Irish who built the canals and the highways – the list is endless. After the war the British needed labourers and so shiploads of immigrants were brought in from the Caribbean, India and the African nations of the Commonwealth. They were welcomed for their labour and over the years became part of the great British melting pot – joining that vibrant genetic mix reaching back beyond the Roman conquest.
From the beginning of the 20th century to the start of WW1, America had an open door policy toward immigration. Millions of refugees from military conflict and economic hardship came in their shiploads (stuffed into filthy steerage holds by semi-legitimate people traffickers). The massive number of immigrants – mainly non-English speaking and often illiterate – caused social and political problems in the cities where they settled. But the economic growth realised by their incredible energies was massive and, despite the hostility of ‘America First’ nativist movements – the Great Depression of the 1930s happened only after America’s open door policy was essentially halted. Few people today would argue that the Italians, Irish, Eastern European Jews, Poles and people from the Balkans were problematic because they could never be assimilated into ‘American’ culture.
In the 19th century Britain also had what was essentially an open immigration policy. Throughout the 1880s and 90s, Eastern European Jews in their hundreds of thousands fled to London, Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow escaping intolerable conditions imposed on them by the Tsarist government. Reading the scurrilous literature of the time directed toward these essentially impoverished people is strikingly evocative of what now passes for ‘reasoned dialogue’ by some in the EU referendum’s Leave Campaign. Yet a generation later, those refugees had been well integrated into British life and were, in the main, considered as respectable citizens.
Throughout history, fear of ‘the other’ in the guise of migrants, transients, nomads, itinerants of any kind, whether they be on a spiritual quest like Moses, Christ, Mohammed or Buddha, victims of political persecution, refugees of social turmoil or simply people who wanted to find a better life, all became easy scapegoats for people in power to deflect systemic problems onto those who are powerless.
Britain has a proud history of accepting refugees and immigrants of many backgrounds and persuasions. I think of the marvellous Café Royal in London’s Soho where, in the 1880s, the upstairs was filled with French nobility whose ancestors escaped beheading while the downstairs was occupied by the refugees who survived the Paris Commune. There are few places on earth where you would find a scene as evocative as that! But the movement of people isn’t a one-way street. It never is. We only need consider the millions of British who emigrated to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, North America and, yes, Germany, France, Spain, Holland, Sweden and all the other EU countries as well.
The people of Britain, who my father saw as heroic, were matched by those others, from outside Britain, like the Poles and French who took sanctuary here and gave their lives to defend it – and those anti-fascist Americans, like my father, who offered their lives to keep Britain supplied in her hour of need.
Britain at its best was not a country looking to pull up the drawbridge and isolate itself. I think, for instance, of the Welsh miners who had volunteered to fight in Spain as the front line in what was soon to become a European-wide Guernica. Two world wars and many other European conflicts centuries before, emphasised the absurdity of isolationism. The problems of who we are and what we will become won’t be solved by voting in a toxic referendum. But voting to ‘Leave’ will, I fear, give the country over to those whose interests are nothing more than the quest for personal power and who are willing to do and say anything to gain that end – even if it means Britain would lose that which my father, and many others of his time, so greatly admired.
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