Land Ahoy! How the Boat People Came to Fear Boat People

June 27, 2023

As the debate over the Illegal Migration Bill enters its committee stage in the House of Lords this month, we discuss the UK’s national mood in the context of its past, and whether capping migration flows supports or hinders the UK Government’s ‘job growth mind-set’ when it comes to re-booting its economy post Brexit.

By Joanne Leila Smith

England, and later Britain, had periods where it possessed the greatest navy in the world. The Royal Navy reached its peak in terms of global naval dominance during the 19th century, particularly from the late 18th century to the early 19th century.

During this period, known as the Age of Sail, the Royal Navy played a crucial role in establishing Britain as a dominant global power. The Royal Navy’s supremacy was highlighted by its victory over the combined fleets of France and Spain at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, which secured Britain’s naval control and prevented Napoleon’s plans of invasion.

The Royal Navy’s global dominance was further solidified through the establishment of numerous overseas colonies and naval bases, which allowed Britain to project its power and protect its extensive maritime trade routes. It played a vital role in protecting British interests, suppressing piracy, and maintaining control over key strategic locations.

Britain’s naval power was also demonstrated during the Napoleonic Wars, where the Royal Navy’s blockade of French ports and its ability to maintain naval superiority contributed significantly to Napoleon’s ultimate defeat.

Immigrants from England also played a significant role in spreading the English language across the world. They brought significant economic benefits to the colonies, including trade and commercial opportunities.

The establishment and expansion of the British Empire from the 16th to the 20th centuries played a crucial role in spreading the English language. England, and later Britain, established colonies and trading posts in various parts of the world, including North America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific.

The British Empire’s administrative systems required the use of English for governance and communication. English became the language of the legal, bureaucratic, and educational systems in the colonies. British immigrants imposed their language on indigenous populations and actively promoted English-medium education, leading to the adoption and widespread use of English in the colonial territories.

These communities preserved and transmitted the English language to successive generations. In regions like North America and Australia, where British settlements grew and thrived, English became the dominant language.

Currently, English is estimated to be spoken by approximately 1.5 billion people worldwide, which accounts for around 20% of the global population – what an amazing achievement thanks to British immigrants!

So how did a nation of such powerful and influential boat people from England’s glorious past become so fearful of poor and oppressed people that arrive on its shores via dinghies in 2023?

In recent years, the UK government has introduced measures to manage immigration and control the arrival of migrants, particularly those arriving by sea. Its efforts are centred on the claim to strengthen border control and deter irregular migration, including attempts to prevent people from making journeys across the English Channel in small boats.

These measures involve cooperation with other countries, increased surveillance and patrols, and legal actions to discourage and deter ‘illegal’ crossings. The UK government claims that its policies ‘to stop the boats’ is to address the root causes of migration such as interrupting human trafficking networks, improving border security, and establishing a fair and effective immigration system.

It may be argued that the Government has invested a lot of effort into generating plenty of publicity on its continued efforts to stop illegal migrant crossings with the aforementioned goals in mind. A main driver of Government propaganda is to deliver on promises made during the Brexit debate, which largely centred on the idea of regaining control over the UK’s borders and reducing the number of immigrants coming into the country.

Some argued that leaving the European Union would allow the UK to establish its own immigration policies, separate from the EU’s freedom of movement rules. There was a perceived strain on public services and infrastructure due to the increased population resulting from EU migration and leaving the EU would help alleviate this strain.

With this context in mind, it leads us to ask a few questions:

Is immigration the real reason why public services such as the NHS are under strain?

According to the British Medical Association, No. The real driver of pressures stem from “Chronic understaffing, increasing workload and bureaucracy… demoralising pay erosion and punitive pension taxation rules – have made it even harder to retain the doctors we have”.  Every item listed suggests the crunch has nothing to do with migrants taking up beds, but rather bad governance, bad public policies and bad succession planning due to decades of austerity measures. Indeed, according to The Nuffield Trust, Brexit alone resulted in approximately 4,000 doctors to leave the UK.

Are immigrants responsible for limiting job opportunities for British people?

According to The Entrepreneurs Network, it is quite the contrary. The UK’s fastest-growth startups have at least one foreign-born co-founder – a whopping 49% in fact. TEN argues that immigrant founded companies from the country’s Top 100 have attracted a combined £3.7 billion in investment. If the data speaks true, immigration may make jobs, rather than take jobs.

According to King’s College of London Professor of Economics & Public Policy Jonathan Portes paper, The economic impacts of immigration to the UK, “There is now a clear consensus that even in the short-term migration does not appear to have had a negative impact on the employment outcomes of UK natives. Studies have generally failed to find any significant association between migration flows and changes in employment or unemployment for natives”.

Lastly, if the UK closes its borders to the world, does that mean the world will close its borders to the UK? One can only wonder at the poetic absurdity of how a great sea-faring empire that sailed to the bottom of the world became so frightened of small boats that cross into the English Channel.

It beggars the question, what happens if the war in Ukraine spills over into the UK? If the bewilderment and distress of Ukraine refugees at the invasion of Russia is anything to go by, any sort of anti-immigrant conviction by even the staunchest of anti-migrant supporters appears to have been utterly abandoned at the first sight of Russian tanks that rolled through the first village of Milove in Eastern Ukraine.

Indeed, if the UK Government are to be believed, Russia poses a great security threat to the UK – hence its increasingly political, financial and military involvement towards Ukraine. Will the British Government uphold its ‘illegal’ migrant rhetoric and urge its citizens to stand their ground firmly inside their borders if they are attacked? Or will the King’s subjects flee from Dover to Calais in a dinghy with rucksacks stuffed with marmite and baked beans? On verra.

Ed.  Photo by Miko Guziuk on Unsplash.


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