One of the few British TV dramas of recent years that portrayed working-class characters neither as idle benefits-scroungers or comedy losers was Jimmy McGovern’s ‘The Street’, which ended a three-series run in 2009. One episode centred upon a ranting racist played by Joseph Mawle, who brilliantly exhibited the ignorance of the man whose vitriol’s relentless flow requires the absence of facts to maintain its propulsion. Reflecting contemporary Britain, Mawle’s character reserved his most vociferous ire for Poles, often falling back on hand-me-down World War II myths and legends of a selective nature whilst letting rip. This tendency to conjure up the Churchillian spirit of Britain standing alone whilst conveniently overlooking the crucial role Polish airmen played during the Battle of Britain is and remains a classic bigot’s tactic when justification is needed for each outburst.
The allies Britain could count upon during the Second World War for the whole duration doesn’t constitute the lengthiest of lists; and lest we forget, one of them was the country whose invasion forced Chamberlain’s hand in September 1939. The geographical vulnerability of the Polish Corridor dividing East and West Prussia was bound to make Poland the next Nazi conquest in the summer of 1939; and wracked with the guilt of having abandoned Czechoslovakia in the wake of the Munich Agreement, it was plain to the British Government that any further ‘annexation’ on the part of Hitler would inevitably lead to first an ultimatum and then war.
Polish fighter pilots comprised the highest number of non-native airmen on the side of the Allies in the Battle of Britain. The often-overlooked strength-in-depth of the Empire certainly helped on all British fronts – air, sea and land – before America entered the war; but the RAF’s Polish contingent was priceless to the eventual outcome of 1940’s key conflict. Polish troops were present at the later Allied campaigns in North Africa and Italy, and Polish contributions were also essential when it came to the cracking of the Enigma code. It was fitting that Poland’s government-in-exile was based in London, for it seems to be pretty indisputable that Poland was this country’s most invaluable European ally in our darkest hour.
After 1945, the surrender of Poland to the Soviet Union as one of the unavoidable concessions the Allies made to Stalin to ensure his participation in the defeat of Germany appears a poor way of thanking the country for six years of constant support and assistance; but Poland wasn’t alone when the boundaries of the Iron Curtain were drawn; and, to be fair, the Allies didn’t really have much choice. The ruthless suppression of rebellions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia by the USSR in 1956 and 1968 respectively didn’t prevent the admirable resistance of the Polish trade union Solidarity to Soviet dominance in the 70s, however. The charismatic Lech Walesa became the figurehead for this resistance, imprisoned for his troubles, though ultimately the hero of the resistance when martial law was imposed in 1981; he was eventually rewarded for his efforts by becoming the first democratically-elected Polish President in 1990, following the collapse of the old Soviet Bloc.
In the decades following the Second World War, the vast majority of immigration into the UK was drawn from former imperial colonies, particularly the Indian Subcontinent and the West Indies. Old loyalties to the Commonwealth were more evident than wartime alliances. Citizens from former European allies were far smaller in number up until the change in the constitution of the European Union in the 90s, when Eastern Europeans began to breach Britannia’s borders in sizeable numbers for the first time.
The figures released this week revealing that the largest immigrant population in the UK is now Polish I suppose consist of various caveats. Poles now apparently outnumber Asians, though do we include second or third generation members of the Asian population as ‘immigrants’ – or do we only include those who have arrived here in the last five to ten years? Nobody today, for example, would refer to, say, those of West Indian descent as ‘immigrants’, so successfully has Britain’s black population been absorbed into the social fabric of the nation, not to mention becoming the most high visibility other halves in interracial relationships; and those of us who were at urban schools in the 70s and 80s have grown up accustomed to black and Asian faces being as integral to the nation as white ones. So, we’re presumably talking ‘immigration’ in terms of the past decade.
A headline doesn’t explain all, though it’s not the business of the likes of the Daily Mail to do so; a paper that ran with a 1934 headline proclaiming ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts!’ can’t necessarily be trusted to dispense facts that contradict the prejudices of both editor and readership. And how many of that readership rely on Poles for home repairs and au pairs, one wonders?
As ever, one’s personal perspective is derived from one’s own experience. The non-white British population of my neighbourhood is predominantly Asian, though all of the Asians I come into contact with speak in broad local accents, suggesting a British lineage stretching back a good thirty or forty years, which makes them no more ‘immigrants’ than me. My mother lives in another part of town, and her nearest high-street has apparently been colonised by Poles, which seems to have the effect of making her feel like a stranger in her own city; I do make the point, however, that were it not for the Poles who have taken over the shops, those shops would most likely be closed and the high-street relatively derelict. Asian enterprise saved the corner-shop in the 70s, after all; and enterprise can transcend ghettoisation in a generation. These things take time.
If the appalling mob-murder of Polish man Arkadiusz Jozwik in Harlow is proven to be attributable to the excuse of a post-Brexit Hate Crime, it would seem a little historical perspective is worth bearing in mind before we forget who we are and how we got here.
© The Editor