One of the most striking things about a recent House of Commons speech from the Prime Minister in which he appealed for “the whole country to come together” was the reference to “good solid British common sense.”
It wasn’t the common sense part that was revealing, but the assumption that people living in the country are British. A small detail, perhaps, but one that must have jarred for the 14% of the population who are from overseas. It’s a blind spot that the 9.5 million people in the UK who identify as non-British, including a third of Londoners, are used to.
A little piece of everywhere
Migration has linked our island nation to the rest of the world. The second most spoken language in the UK is now Polish, and the cities and towns are dotted with communities from all over the world – from the established ones like the Portuguese in Lambeth and Nigerians in Peckham, to the unexpected outposts, like the Fijians of Salisbury and the Filipinos of Barrow-in-Furness.
Even the town of Reading, location of the Museum of English Rural Life, is also home to the largest Bajan community outside Barbados, as well as a vibrant Tanzanian community. Elsewhere, the South Korean community in New Malden, Surrey, is so well-established that one third of the town now hails from the peninsula, and Samsung chose it as a natural location for their European HQ.
Brexit might have cut off free movement from the EU, but migration to the UK from outside the EU is at its highest level for 45 years, most notably from Chinese and Indian students coming to study or take up skilled worker positions.
Shaping the conversation around culture and ideas
Without migration, Britain would be a different country altogether – and poorer for it. Some 59 per cent of the population believe diversity from immigration has ‘enriched British culture’, not to mention fill skill gaps and labour shortages.
In marketing, the different ways of working and attitudes that different cultures provide have been crucial to bringing “different thoughts and ideas to the table and a broader culture that helps us shape our campaigns,” according to one London Communications Agency Manager.
For our own part as an agency, we wouldn’t be able to fully serve FinTech clients with global markets without our bilingual, multi-skilled team that includes account managers from Scandinavia, Eastern and Central Europe, and beyond.
Where migration and immigration separate
There’s a distinction to make between migrants and immigrants, however. Most migrants to the UK are from the EU, and are typically here on a temporary basis, usually for work or study. Immigrants, on the other hand, choose to make the UK their home – often in familiar communities at first, but with greater distance as time goes by.
The sense of nostalgia and longing for the home country has an expiry date. For recent arrivals, local expat communities are important for sharing information about jobs and legal advice, or just familiar food. It’s why Haringey’s Latin Village, the ‘Pueblito Paisa’, plays such an important role for the Latin community.
“This is the only place in my life where I’ve been able to come and reconnect to my roots at a pace that suits me,” says one woman.
Pav, Account Director at bbd, from Ukraine
It’s hard to underestimate how alienating migration can be. For Pav, an account director at bbd who came to the UK from Ukraine aged 9, it meant spending “Year 5 sat on a table of four just watching the teacher, and not really catching up until Year 7.” Nearby Russian families provided valuable support. “It’s such a culture shock,” he says, “You have to hold onto something familiar.”
With each generation, however, a strange sense of shared loyalty can develop, especially for those who came to the UK as young children. Take the experience of a young lady from Cardiff’s Somali community:
“I’ve only been to Somaliland twice for summer holidays when I was seven and 11 but it does feel like home,” she says, before pointing out that “When I was walking in the market in Somaliland people at the stalls grabbed me saying ‘Buy, buy, buy’ in English.”
Luis, Finance Manager, from Venezuela
For our Finance Manager Luis, a Venezuelan living in the UK since 2003, the connection to the motherland is almost entirely spiritual. “I’m not really part of the Venezuelan community here any more. And when I went home, the first year was great but the second year was really difficult. Everyone is busy, there’s not much in common. I couldn’t even understand the money. Besides, there are other places in the world that I want to see. People who meet me now might define me as Venezuelan, but I don’t feel it. I only speak Spanish when I call my mum.”
For Pav, now 33, the home country returns in flashes. “I was born in the Soviet Union, a communist country, and I knew nothing about the UK when I came here. I consider myself English now, but when I go back, I get a strong feeling of missing it. Growing up in a communist country and then growing up in a capitalist one gives me that perspective that there are other ways of living. It’s given me a different take on ‘first world problems.’”
Ironically, few people are even aware of his background. “The brave soul who asks me about my name will get a quick story about where I’m from but other than that most people have no idea where I was born or that I can speak Russian,” he says.
Mags, Senior Account Director, from Poland
Attitudes harden, too. It’s interesting to note that naturalised overseas citizens – in the UK as elsewhere – become increasingly opposed to further immigration the longer they remain. That isn’t the opinion of our Senior Account Director Mags, who came to the UK from Poland in 2005, but her experience was certainly more demanding then than it would be now.
“It wasn’t easy in 2005,” she says. “It was rare to meet other Polish people in the UK. There was no infrastructure for setting up a bank account or National Insurance, no Polish stores, and no Polish community for support. I was the novelty. I used to be able to spot other Polish people immediately, but now they dress like English, send their children to school here, speak English and blend in. My daughter is definitely English.”
Is there a point of no return? For Mags, who hasn’t lived in Poland since her 20s, there certainly is. “I don’t know Poland any more now,” she says. “It’s changed so much. Warsaw and Krakow are like any other European capital now. English has become my first language. I only need Polish when I’m emotional or need to swear.”