Is Britain an Immigrant Nation?

Argues, contrary to a recent New York Times article, that Britain is not an immigrant nation; draws upon genetic and historical evidence

achel Shabi argues in the New York Times that “Britain is an immigrant nation”. To support this claim, she cites a number of examples of migratory flows from British history: Vikings, Romans, and Normans; French Huguenots in the 17th century; Africans during the slave trade; Irish during the potato famine; Jews before WWII. She goes so far as to state that “the very story of Britain has always been one of migrants”.

While the veracity of the historical migratory flows Shabi cites is not disputed, the scale of these flows is arguably insufficient to justify her claim that “Britain is an immigrant nation”. That is, if ‘immigrant nation’ is taken to mean something like: a nation, which––at the time it assumed its nationhood––included a large percentage of people whose ancestors did not reside within that nation’s territory. Examples of countries that would be considered immigrant nations by this definition are: The United States, Israel, Singapore, Jamaica and Brazil. Of course, the arbitrary element in the definition above is the word ‘large’. If ‘large’ is defined narrowly enough, then nearly all countries would be considered ‘immigrant nations’, and the term would cease to have any meaning. But I would argue that, under any reasonable interpretation of ‘large’, Britain does not qualify as an ‘immigrant nation’.

As Migration Watch notes, it has been asserted in print (namely by historian James Walvin) that: “the basic human stock of England has been settled and relatively homogenous since time immemorial”. While “time immemorial” is a bit of a stretch, the British population does appear to have remained relatively homogenous since the island was populated by the Anglo-Saxons (and others) from the 5th to the 7th century. In a paper published in Nature, Leslie et al. (2015) report that there is very little genetic structure (differentiation) within the native British population:

Consistent with earlier studies of the UK, population structure within the PoBI [People of the British Isles] collection is very limited. The average of the pairwise Fst estimates between each of the 30 sample collection districts is 0.0007, with a maximum of 0.003

This means that native Britons living in one particular area of the country (e.g., Orkney) are not much more closely related to their immediate neighbours than to Britons living in a completely different area of the country (e.g., North Wales). In fact, the largest pairwise Fst values (roughly the proportion of variance between groups) were for Orkney versus North Wales (Fst = 0.003), and for Orkney versus North Pembrokeshire (Fst = 0.003). By comparison, Fst values for major continental groups (i.e., Europe, Africa, East Asia etc.) are in the range of 5–15% (>100 times greater than the average for areas of Britain).

In addition, Leslie et al. (2015) ran a cluster analysis on their data, and found that the vast majority of people in England could be assigned to a single genetic cluster whose geographic range spanned from the South coast all the way up to the border with Scotland. Their main figure is shown below:

Moreover, as Novembre et al. (2008) showed in a paper in Nature, the native British population can be demarcated genetically from the native populations of other European countries. These authors ran a principal components analysis on genetic data obtained from a large sample of Europeans, and extracted the first two principal components of variation. When they plotted these against one another, they found that the distribution of points mapped closely to the geographic distribution of European countries. Their main figure is shown below. It indicates that native Britons are all more closely related to one another than any of them is to the average Italian or the average Spaniard. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, Britons are more closely related to the Irish and the Belgians than they are to the Italians or Spanish.

The findings adduced above make sense when one considers the magnitudes of historical migratory flows into Britain. Estimates for the fraction of the population that Normans comprised, following the Norman conquest in 1066, range from 1% to around 5%. Between 1066 and the turn of the 20th century, it is unlikely that the foreign-born fraction of the population ever exceeded 2%. French Huguenots, for example, are unlikely to have constituted more than 1% of the population.

The magnitude of inward migratory flows increased during the 20th century, and did so dramatically from the 1990s onwards. Between 1900 and 1950, the foreign-born fraction fraction of the population rose, but never exceeded 5%. By the early 1990s, it was well above 5%. In 2011, it was around 13%. And today, it is probably above 15%. Thus, contemporary levels of immigration into Britain are historically unprecedented.

Britain had arguably assumed its nationhood by at least the late 19th century. At this point in time, the make up of the British population was largely as it had been more than 1000 years earlier. There is therefore little justification for saying that Britain is an ‘immigrant nation’.

Note that this is not an argument concerning immigration policy. Statements about how many and what sort of immigrants should be admitted to a country are logically independent from claims about whether that a country is, or is not, an ‘immigration nation’.



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