Why are some people so insistent that London has “always been diverse”?
There must be more to it than pro-immigration sentiment. After all, it’s possible to support immigration whilst recognising its recency. New things aren’t always bad — even if they usually are.
Yet time and time again, we are told that London has always been diverse. The city’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, is fond of saying that London was “built by immigrants”. In 2021, his “Diversity Commission” announced funding for “London’s Untold Stories”, a programme which promotes education around the city’s ethnic minority history. Catch the Tube, and you’ll be met with poetry which celebrates London’s rich history of diversity, including the delightful “Colonization In Reverse”.
Left-wing commentators stand at the ready to bray about anybody who disagrees with the new orthodoxy. When commentator Alex Phillips lamented that London was “not British” anymore in June, she was met with a torrent of abuse, including fanciful tales about how the nation’s capital had never resembled staid, monocultural provincial Britain.
Take a dispassionate look at history, and the story is rather different.
London, as it turns out, was founded in 47AD by the Romans. Following the withdrawal of the Empire’s legions in 383AD, its inhabitants were almost exclusively Anglo-Saxons or Celts. Over the following centuries, it slowly emerged as England’s capital, crystallised by Edward the Confessor’s 11th century expansion of Westminster Abbey.
From as early as the mediaeval period, a steady stream of European aristocrats, merchants and tourists passed through the city. Wealthy Londoners had access to international books and international food that their provincial counterparts did not; they would have been more worldly, with a greater knowledge of affairs abroad. This is a far cry from our modern multiculturalism, however — it was the natural ebb and flow of a port city, where foreign ships and foreign nobles passed freely. Foreigners rarely settled. When they did, they had little impact on the city’s predominant culture.
The sole exception was the Jewish community, first recorded in 1070, who existed in small numbers until the Edict of Expulsion in 1290. Judaism would return to England under the rule of Oliver Cromwell, when a small colony of Sephardic Jews was admitted in 1656.
This black community represented less than one per cent of London’s population
The rise of international trade in the 18th century saw the frequency and scale of transitory foreigners increase. Settlement in London by members of the European upper classes grew, though permanent relocation was the preserve of the already-cosmopolitan elite. More remarkably, the city briefly hosted a small but notable black population, mostly of Caribbean origin, made up of servants, freed slaves and the mixed-race descendants of explorers. By the end of the century, this community had almost entirely disappeared due to emigration. At its peak, this nascent black community represented less than one per cent of London’s population.
The most significant change came in the 19th century, when London grew into the world’s largest city, propelled by the economic expansion of the British Empire. Its population rose from a little over a million in 1801, to around six million a century later. It was a dynamic, fast-moving place of stark contrasts — self-confident monuments to state power sitting alongside flea-ridden slums, forever immortalised in the works of Dickens.
This population growth was not powered by the kind of immigration that we are familiar with today; rather, almost all of London’s 19th century growth can be attributed to internal migration. Millions of ambitious young Victorians flocked to London from the countryside, seeking work and sensing opportunity. Those who came from further afield did so from Ireland, or from Britain’s white settler colonies. It was “diverse”, in a sense, but united by common language, common experience, common allegiances and common cultural touchstones.
The city’s largest ethnic minority group was the Jewish community, which numbered around 46,000 in 1882 — just shy of 0.8 per cent of the population. The largest European community (the Italians) concentrated themselves in Soho and Clerkenwell, numbering 11,500 in 1900. For those keeping track, that’s about 0.2 per cent.
It’s estimated that around 8,000 Indians lived in Britain as a whole prior to the 1950s, whilst the West African writer Augustus Merriman-Labor wrote in 1909 that London’s black population “did not much exceed one hundred”. Both of these populations were largely transitory: sailors, students or those visiting on business from Britain’s Empire.
These were the city’s largest minority groups. Up until the end of the Second World War, anybody who fell outside of the cultural norm — white, British and Christian — was a novelty and would have lived in the full knowledge that they did not represent the municipal mainstream. The experience of London before the Second World War resembled modern monocultural Tokyo far more than it resembled modern multicultural New York.
Then everything changed.
The late 20th century saw London absorb large waves of immigration from across the world, particularly from Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. The British Nationality Act 1948 enabled nearly unfettered migration from the Commonwealth, whilst businesses sought immigrants to plug labour market gaps and keep wages competitively low. Later, membership of the EU enabled Eastern Europeans to migrate freely in search of work.
Most Londoners know that crime has risen steeply
The scale of this migration has been large enough to significantly alter the city’s demographics. The proportion of people in the city who claimed to be “White British” shrank from an estimated 87 per cent in 1971 to just shy of 60 per cent in 2001, then to 36.8 per cent at the latest census in 2021. More than 40 per cent of the city’s residents are now non-UK born. Less than 80 per cent of Londoners speak English as their main language. For the first time in history, London’s permanent population is culturally, ethnically and religiously diverse, sharing little in common with the country it governs.
This change was recent, rapid and remarkable. It is strange that we acknowledge it so rarely, and it would be ludicrous to assume that it has had no bearing on life in the city. Most Londoners know, regardless of whether they admit it, that crime has risen steeply. Certain areas of the city are effectively off-limits after dark. The speed and scale of the migration precluded the organic emergence of any common identity. Communities withdraw into themselves and play out their national grievances on the streets of the capital.
The sticking-plaster solution is to engineer a new founding myth through brute-force messaging: London is, always has been and always will be multicultural. Londoners have always prided themselves on their pluralism and tolerance. This was inevitable. It cannot — must not — be questioned.
Critics of the city’s declining standards are tarred as ahistorical nativists, and those who observe the problems of immigration are dismissed out of hand. Who are they to insist on assimilation into the British cultural fabric? In London, that fabric never existed in the first place. It has always been like this.
The new myth is supported by clumsy attempts to link modern minority communities to historical antecedents. The landing of the Empire Windrush — a historical sideshow which was not welcomed by the Labour Government of the day — is held up as a kind of British Ellis Island. Meanwhile, obscure figures like Dadabhai Naoroji and David Dyce Sombre are turned into trailblazing pioneers, the forefathers of modern, diverse London.
All of this, consciously or unconsciously, robs London of its relationship to its wider nation. It is unpicked from the broader national canvas and given a new identity as a colder, wetter, poorer New York City. “London, since time immemorial” is replaced by “London, since 1948”.
This is a sad denigration of our once-great capital. The truth is that London weaves itself through our national history. It is the ancient seat of our institutions, the site of William the Conqueror’s coronation in 1066 and Simon de Montfort’s Parliament in 1265. It permeates our artistic and literary tradition, inspiring Dickens, Conan Doyle, TS Eliot and Martin Amis. London’s financial clout was as fundamental to Britain’s success as Sheffield steel, Kentish hops and Glaswegian ships. Its civic identity should be a subset of our national identity, built on a common language, common experiences and common cultural touchstones, not on the nihilistic lack thereof.
The presence of new arrivals does not, and cannot, change that. For the first two millennia, London was a city that shaped and was shaped by its national context. Its newfound international proclivities are just that — newfound. We ought to be very suspicious of anybody who tries to tell us otherwise.
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