Britain – between Europe and the Empire

It has been written in many places (eg. “The Guardian,” 9 Sept 2022; “The Economist,” 8 Sept 2022;, 8 Sept 2022) that the death of Queen Elizabeth II symbolically closes a certain era in British history. At the same time, the authors pointed out that her reign was already a bit outdated or “of a different epoch.” After all, her 70-year reign, the longest in the history of the British monarchy, connected the year 1952 with the year 2022. The world had changed a lot during that time, just as Britain and its role in the world had changed. When Elizabeth ascended the throne, Britain was still a viable empire, although the process of its decomposition had already begun. At the time, the queen ruled over more than 70 overseas territories, including much of Africa. At the date of Elizabeth’s death, the country had only 14 overseas territories, the largest of which was the Falkland Islands, over which the British fought a war with Argentina in 1982. The British public, in just no more than three generations, had to get used to the change in the role of their country, which ceased to be the center of the world, the empire “over which the sun never sets,” and became again only one of the countries of the Old Continent. This split between Europe and the world, being a local power and a world empire, a strong economy within the European community and a global player – all the time marks the axis of British thinking. Their rejection to join the Schengen Area, rejection to adopt the Euro, and finally Brexit are all expressions of this rift. Britain, even when it was in the Union, stood on the sidelines, more interested in its own internal affairs and those of its shrinking dominion than in European issues. This tension between the local and the global, Europe and the world, was also compounded by the cultural conflict prevailing in British society, which came out very strongly during the Brexit referendum.

During the reign of Elizabeth II, as the British empire declined, migration to the former metropolis grew significantly. The percentage of the island’s population born outside Britain rose from 3.5% in 1951 to 13.4% in 2011, with the number doubling from 1991 to 2011 alone (during this period the European Union expanded to include, among others, the Visegrad Group countries). The history of migration basically mirrors that of the United Kingdom. In colonial times, it was the British who more often went to overseas countries to perform administrative, military or commercial functions there. Instead, residents of neighboring poorer Ireland, experiencing famines in the 19th century, migrated to Britain in large numbers (outside the British isles also). Immigration from non-European areas was marginal. After World War II, the empire began to rapidly disintegrate, but with its end came a wave of migrants from the former colonies to the metropolis. It was caused both by overpopulation and the unstable political and economic situation in the Commonwealth countries (such as the India-Pakistan conflict), as well as post-war shortages in the British labor market. Within a few years of India’s independence, some 60,000 Indians arrived in Britain.

When Elizabeth took the throne in 1952 the migration wave was just beginning. In 1953, only 3,000 residents of the former empire arrived on the island. Three years later, in 1956, it was nearly 47,000, and in 1961 136,400 (ONS). Indians and Pakistanis became the largest groups of foreigners in the British Isles. As of March 2004, out of the UK’s 53.4 million population, just under 1.2 million were born in the European Union (old), another 0.48 million were from other European countries, and as many as 3.3 million residents were born outside Europe. The largest group was Indians, about 466,000, followed by Irish about 458,000 and Pakistanis 276,000. The situation changed in May 2004, when the European Union expanded by new countries, including the large post-communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe. In 2015, it was Poles who made up the largest group of 831,000, ahead of Indians (795,000). After the 2007 enlargement of the European Union, when Romania and Bulgaria joined it, the population of Romanians in the UK grew from less than 50,000 in 2007 to 345,000 in 2020.

The immediate opening of the British market to new workers from Central and Eastern Europe in 2004 was explained by, among other things, a desire to welcome culturally closer European workers. The pandemic and Brexit and, in our view, many other factors have reversed this trend. In 2021, for the first time since 1991, more EU citizens left the UK than came to it (ONS Census 2021) – a negative balance of 94,000 people. Immigration to the UK, however, did not decline, as Europeans were replaced again by residents from other continents, including primarily Commonwealth countries. In December 2021, there were 896,000 Indian-born residents in the UK, while the number of those born in Poland dropped to 682,000 (ONS Census 2021).

Brexit, the pandemic, but also the gradual equalization of wages and living standards, as well as other factors, made history come full circle with the death of Elizabeth II, and indeed her passing closed an era, including in the history of migration. The plan to create a United States of Europe, in which Britain would have played a key role, which Churchill had formulated in 1946, was finally derailed in 2016 by the British themselves. Britain, after World War II, has all along been unable to find its way in the new order, and after a prolonged period of apparent rapprochement with Europe, has again turned away from it, going its own way. But the world in 2022 is indeed already different from 70 years ago, when Elizabeth II ascended the throne.

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