With so much focus on immigration in Europe, it was interesting to see two very different approaches to foreigners in Britain recently. By Clayton Goodwin
The UK knows how to treat certain immigrants well. There was a wholesome welcome from the press and public; photographs aplenty and kind words everywhere; and a big day ahead – the biggest of the year for the country.
It certainly helped that this particular immigrant was about to marry Prince Harry, the son of the heir to the English throne, Prince Charles. Meghan Markle‚ has been given the big ‘write-up’ – deservedly so, because she appears to be a lovely lady.
Her reception by the English establishment is much warmer than that accorded to the last American divorcee who married into the highest echelons of society. Wallis Simpson’s involvement lost her husband, King Edward VIII, his throne and her the chance to add HRH (Her Royal Highness) to the title of Duchess of Windsor. Times have changed, and in this respect, for the better.
Commentators have waxed enthusiastic that race relations here will never be the same now that somebody with African blood in her veins can sit at the highest table in the land. It is now impossible, by this reasoning, for those with even a modicum of a similar background to be treated with any less respect.
I remain to be convinced. It isn’t only that I am old enough to remember how the Princess Diana fairy-tale worked out – or that of Princess Margaret before that. The system has previous form in laying out the tinsel and the baubles until it has become tawdry.
Nevertheless, Prince Harry’s reported wish for Barack and Michelle Obama to be guests at the wedding, whatever the diplomatic protocol, and the couple’s early official visit to an inner-city radio station in Brixton, speak well of his character. It would be churlish not to wish the couple all the best for their impending marriage.
It would be thoughtless, too, not to wish a similar acceptance to all immigrants. If only that were so …
About the time that the royal engagement was announced, there was a different sort of press report. Paulette Wilson, it was said, had to call in at the Home Office following a letter she had received from them. In that, Ms Wilson was told that as an illegal immigrant she was going to be removed from this country and sent back to Jamaica, the country she had left half-a-century ago at the age of 10 and has not visited since.
The other side of the coin
Paulette was taken into Yarl’s Wood detention centre for a week, before being sent to the immigrant removal centre at Heathrow. Only the last-minute intervention of her MP, Emma Reynolds, and a local charity prevented her forced deportation and granted a temporary reprieve.
According to reports, Paulette has attended school in this country, raised her daughter here, paid her tax and national insurance contributions, and worked here, including a spell serving dinners to MPs in the House of Commons restaurant.
The reason that she did not have the correct papers to remain in the UK was because she had arrived in 1968 when, as a Jamaican, there was no need for her to apply formally for leave to remain. Later, as a resident here already, Ms Wilson did not realise that the immigration laws implemented subsequent to her arrival applied to her. Her case is far from being exceptional – only the requirements of space stop me from providing further individual cases.
The welcome mat and the deportation-order were both in my mind while watching the excellent production of The Suppliant Women at the Young Vic theatre. The play was written by the Greek dramatist Aeschylus some 2,500 years ago and, with only a little tweaking to the text, is as relevant today as it was then.
The story is easily told. A group of women refugees fleeing from the prospect of forced marriage and rape cross the Mediterranean to beg for asylum. After weighing the merits of their plea the local ruler puts the decision to a referendum. The population, more wise in their day, vote for the suppliants to stay.
What made this rendition outstanding, fresh and stimulating was the production itself. With only one experienced actress to lead them, the Chorus – that is, the band of refugees – was cast entirely from women living in Southwark in South-East London, the borough in which the theatre is situated.
This brought the action to the heart of a modern multicultural society. The arguments and predicament of the asylum-seekers were delivered with an impact which neither politicians nor the printed/broadcast media have managed to achieve. The question posed by the stranger at our door has been with humanity since long before Aeschylus put pen to paper – if that is indeed the material he used – and it will be with us for a long time yet.
Fall from grace
The legends of Ancient Greece seemed to be appropriate, too, to the recent fall from grace of politician Priti Patel. Do you remember the story of Icarus who flew too close to the sun? His wings, being made of wax, melted and he plunged into the sea where he drowned.
For a time it seemed that Ms Patel, who was born in the UK to parents of Gujerati heritage from Uganda, was riding high on the solar power of the right-wing trend in politics since the EU referendum. If there was a poster-girl for Brexit Britain, it was Priti. She was considered to have a very good chance of becoming the first immigrant UK Prime Minister – with apologies to the shade of Canada-born Andrew Bonar Law (“the forgotten Prime Minister”) who served briefly in 1923.
Unfortunately Ms Patel, who was then the Secretary of State for International Development, was considered to have conducted independent foreign policy activity while on a private holiday in Israel. She was summoned back summarily to London from an official trip to East Africa, and once back found herself out of office.
Priti has issued a suitably defiant message to supporters on the lines that she will be “back”. It will be interesting to see if her wings are made of anything more substantial than wax. The UK will have to wait a while yet before it gets its first leader from Africa. It is now easier for an African to get into Buckingham Palace than into Downing Street.
Tulip Siddiq, an MP from the opposite side of the House of Commons, had a neat reply to the perennial question of whether, as an immigrant, she considered herself British or Bangladeshi. Tulip said that she was loyal to both but that as a socialist she supported the underdog which in these days “means that I support Britain”. Touché.
Western Europe has always sustained immigration from other parts of the world but not on the present scale since the Völkerwanderung (“the migration of the Germanic tribes”) at the end of the Roman Empire some 1,500 years ago. The name England, itself, was framed at that time.
Immigration is a challenge, and can be daunting for all parties, especially to those who are not confident and secure in their own identity. Nevertheless immigration is also an opportunity. There is an (allegedly) old curse, shaped in the form of a blessing – “May you live in interesting times”. That is certainly our (mis)fortune today.
Whether the treatment accorded to Meghan Markle or to Paulette Wilson becomes the yardstick by which the national society welcomes those of different cultures is not the least interesting aspect of the challenge ahead. No doubt both approaches will continue to exist side by side, as they always do. The time when the UK turns its back on its suppliant women, men and children will be the time that the country has changed, and then, not for the better. NA