Nativism, according to the OED, is prejudice in favour of natives against strangers, which in present-day terms means a policy that will protect and promote the interests of indigenous or established inhabitants over those of immigrants. This usage has recently found favour among Brexiters anxious to distance themselves from accusations of racism and xenophobia. Officially, at least, it’s a bad thing. To Ukip’s only MP, Douglas Carswell, his party’s posters of queuing refugees represented nativism at its worst, and in his Clacton-on-Sea constituency he had them all taken down. To him, and others such as the MEP Daniel Hannan, Brexit has its foundations in the philosophies of Adam Smith and Edmund Burke, and absolutist beliefs in free trade and sovereignty: race and immigration have nothing to do with it.
Carswell appears a solitary and rather friendless figure: an officer who got into the wrong, rough-crewed lifeboat. But at least he’s probably sincere. Others use “nativism” to signify a more elevated approach to the immigrant/refugee question; it offers something more opaque and less cliched than a simple disavowal of racism. As the writer Jeremy Seabrook once noted, one effect of the 1965 Race Relations Act was to make people preface anything they might say about migrants with the words, “Well, of course, I’m no racialist”, before going on to provide “a sweeping and eloquent testimony to the contrary”. Half a century later, when immigrants are as likely to be white as black or brown, the sentence, “Well, of course, I’m no nativist”, may be emerging as that preface’s overdue replacement.
Seabrook’s observation appears in his 1971 book City Close-Up, composed mainly of interviews conducted in Blackburn, Lancashire, during the summer of 1969 and serialised on Radio 3 as a portrait of life in a fading industrial town, with its cobbled streets, derelict mills and ornate and oversized railway station. In Seabrook’s account, a tripe shop – “with its aspidistra and diploma to certify best-quality thick-seam tripe” – still stands open for custom, but elsewhere terraces of back-to-backs have been demolished to leave “fragments of crumbled brick and the smell of earth turned over for the first time in a century” while the willowherb spreads its fire over everything.
The book left an impression on me that has lasted 40-odd years. That was partly due to its accurate mention of the too-big station, where I’d once changed trains as a little boy and noticed through the crowd on the platform a glass case containing a splendid model of a two-funnel steamer, later identified as the boat that took you to the Isle of Man. What struck me most on first reading – and didn’t let me down on the second – was the frankness and intelligence with which the book recorded attitudes to immigration.
In 1969 the textile industry hadn’t quite died in Blackburn, which in Edwardian times had been the biggest cotton-weaving centre in the world. Imports of cotton goods to Britain began to exceed exports in 1958; the Blackburn industry employed two-thirds fewer people in the late 1960s than it had in the early 1950s. But more than 20 mills survived in the town, staffed largely by migrants from India and Pakistan whose willingness to work inconvenient shifts had prolonged the industry’s life and, in Seabrook’s words, relieved the indigenous working class of some of the least-desirable employment.
About 5,000 mainly Asian migrants then made up 5% of Blackburn’s population. Relations between established residents and newcomers weren’t easy. Seabrook noted that “an elaborate system of legends, myths and gossip” had evolved around the immigrants, “to legitimate a sustained and unflagging resentment of their presence, and of their allegedly harmful influence on the community”. One story told how a woman, thinking she’d heard rats scuttling overhead, opened her trapdoor one night to discover that the loft ran the whole length of the street, so as to be easily accessed via the end house where a Pakistani family lived. They had furnished this elongated attic with mattresses that could sleep 100 secret lodgers. In another story, a man known as “Packie Stan” slaughters goats and chickens in his backyard and depresses property prices wherever he goes.
Not everyone agrees. Not everyone has a view. Seabrook writes that Blackburn “is not a town full of racists, any more than it is a stronghold of liberal humanitarian values”, and that one strongly committed person in a group can influence the standpoint others will take. Some interviewees point out that immigrants work hard and Britain needs to take responsibility for the consequences of its empire. The dominant themes, however, are familiar: immigration needs controlling; migrants exploit the welfare system and put strains on housing and schools; and when in Rome they should do as the Romans do – “they should be more like us”.
In the front room of her terraced house, a Mrs Frost gathers some neighbours to meet Seabrook. It is as good a bit of writing on the subject as I have ever read. They talk angrily and emotionally about immigration until the paroxysm spends itself and “a certain uneasiness [comes over] the room, a sense of shame, the shame of people who have unburdened themselves to a stranger”.
Seabrook believes he has witnessed an expression of pain and powerlessness brought on by the “decay and dereliction” of their own lives and surroundings as much as by the unfamiliar dress, language and behaviour of their new neighbours. This feeling had found no outlet, politically or otherwise. All the writer can say is that it’s “something more complex and deep-rooted than what the metropolitan liberal evasively and easily dismisses as prejudice”.
Interestingly, Seabrook never felt he had to talk to the immigrants themselves. Talking to me this week, he said he was ashamed they felt marginal to his interest at the time, which was the fate of the English working class. In later books, the product of frequent visits to south Asia, he has completed a great historic and economic circle by describing the garment factories of Bangladesh. First, the cheap cotton spun and woven by Lancashire’s steam-powered mills wipes out the handloom cotton industry of Bengal. Second, less than two centuries later, the even cheaper cotton cloth made in the factories of Bengal and elsewhere in south and east Asia wipes out the steam-powered mills of Lancashire. Perhaps nowhere else offers such a symmetrical illustration of the way the world has changed.
Did any of us understand what we were caught up in? At the time it seemed something small and local that if ignored might go away. Seabrook remembers the late Barbara Castle, who was then Blackburn’s MP, warning him against writing about social discord and getting things “blown up out of proportion”. In the destruction of the world’s first industrial society, years before the rust belt began to rust, the foundations of the west’s recent troubles were laid.