Ed West

Could a strike by Poles bring down Britain?

Could a strike by Poles bring down Britain?
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Britain’s Poles go on strike tomorrow to protest the widespread anti-Polish xenophobia across the country, which is literally everywhere. There are about one million Polish people in Great Britain, and many sectors of the economy depend on them, so in theory they could hold the country to ransom by striking. But they wont, and this is the beauty of open orders.

Firstly, they won’t because so many eastern Europeans work in areas where they have so few working rights. That’s why big business likes them, and why many working-class natives resent their arrival.

So if your Polish worker goes on strike, you can just sack him and hire a Romanian for even less; that is how our forward-looking, globalised labour force works. Historically one of the reasons given for America’s relatively weak trades union and socialist movement is its diversity; workforces thrown together from different countries lack the cohesion to take on the bosses. Socialism of any sorts only made any in-roads in the heavily German and Scandinavian Great Lakes region, which tended to resemble Germany and Scandinavia socially.

But there is a less cynical, more positive reason for why the Poles will not strike, and that is that anti-Polish prejudice in Britain is vanishingly small. There is some unease in areas where E8 migration has been intense, such as the East Midlands, but even there it is mainly about economic competition. Most English people are not remotely hostile to Poles, are aware of their heroics in saving Europe in 1940 and even 1683, and, as always, are happy with newcomers as long as they don’t bother them when they go to the park. Much of the Ukip rhetoric about Europeans is, I suspect, to avoid the more toxic subject of non-European migration – in fact, the Polish ambassador said himself that a number of Poles support Ukip and would vote for them.

Contrast this with 50 years ago and Commonwealth immigration; in the 1960s and 70s black and Asian workers were sometimes prevented from joining unions and were given harder jobs working for less. This led to a strike in 1965 at the Red Scar Mill in Preston, over management plans to force Asian and West Indian workers to work more machines for less. The Poles face nothing like this, and if they are treated badly it’s due to ordinary decent workplace exploitation rather than racism.

Compared to the experience of Pakistanis in Yorkshire, it’s extremely unlikely that the next generation of Poles will experience prolonged ghettoization or alienation from British society. Rather, this proposed strike is to do with the social incentives offered to people with grievances, especially in the digital media age.

I’m guessing in 20 years time we’ll see lots of articulate young blond people with incomprehensible surnames in the media with their own tales of ‘no blacks, no Irish’-style woe; throw in one or two anecdotes about 19th century cod racism about the Slavs, a few slights about their surnames, and these things write themselves.

The incentivisation of grievance can be quite damaging. In America the Democrat Party has become ever more extreme because the different identity groups within must compete for dominance by exaggerating the extent to which they are oppressed and by ignoring all evidence to the contrary. In Britain the main problem is that there are incentives for Muslim commentators to complain about persecution, because it gets the hits and will be tweeted by MPs keen to be taking this problem seriously; this in turn feeds popular resentment towards the Muslim minority, who are seen as ungrateful, even when most might not share this sense of grievance.

There are fewer incentives for leading Muslims or Poles or anyone else to point out how tolerant most people are and how here you can live anywhere and marry anyone, under an article headlined ‘hey, Britain is awesome!’; which, compared to most places in time and place, it is.

Written byEd West

Ed West is the author of The Diversity Illusion, 1215 and All That and is writing a series of books on medieval history

Topics in this articlePoliticstrade unionsukip