"We came here because of a friendship embedded in the consciousness of our peoples. That friendship is now at risk – let’s work towards a Labour government before it is irretrievably broken. "
Reading Adam Zamoyski’s Poland: A History, the centuries-old historical connections between the British (whether English, Scottish or Welsh) and Polish nations are one of the most striking elements of his compelling narrative. At this moment in British history, when the ties that bind the UK to Europe are in danger of dissolution through open anti-immigration and anti-European rhetoric, these made for a melancholy read for me, travelling between the two soon-to-be-divided countries.
Canute the Great, King of England, was the son of Sweyn Forkbeard and, per most historical sources, a Polish princess, daughter of the Polish ruler Mieszko I. Henry VIII wrote to his fellow monarch Zygmunt, King of Poland, to warn him of the consequences of allowing the spread of Protestantism. Scottish soldiers served in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s armies, and Scottish settlers established villages and trading emporia throughout the Commonwealth, especially near Gdansk, then the largest port of the Polish-Lithuanian State. James of York, the future James II and VII, was considered for election as King of Poland with support from Louis XIV.
Zamoyski himself, a dual Polish-British citizen descended from Chancellor Jan Zamoyski of the Commonwealth, born in New York City and Queen’s College Oxford grad, epitomises this long tradition of Polish-British friendship. Post-1945, a large Polish diaspora settled in the UK, concentrating in places like Ealing, and largely assimilated into British culture. A new wave arrived after 2004, swelling the number of Poles to the largest minority in Britain.
That thousand-year-old friendship is now at risk because of Brexit. So is the relationship between the British and many other nations, whose citizens, enticed by the prospect of jobs and a prosperous life in seemingly open and welcoming Britain, chose to make their lives here. I moved to the UK to study and then stayed, as has my cousin and many of my friends.
Most of us feel rooted in the UK, have built lives, whether in London or elsewhere in the United Kingdom, and never expected to be forced to fear for their future in this country. I personally expected to one day move back to Poland – but never because of force or coercion, whether direct or through the creation of a “hostile administrative environment” – the ridiculously complex paperwork we’re now expected to complete in order to file our applications to stay.
The story of Brexit is a highly personal story. Regardless of my rational and objective sympathy to the outcry of anger and disillusionment, fuelled by years of neglect by successive governments, that gave rise to the Leave vote in vast swathes of the country, it was and still is directed at myself and my fellow migrants in this country. The tone of Brexit was set by the Mail and the Express, not Lexiteers (how’s that going for you guys?). It was our fault. Because for years these have been the loudest voices in the debate, and there hasn’t been a Labour government to create a compelling counter-narrative from a position of power. The Labour movement has failed EU migrants by rejecting its moral imperative to govern. This is personal. You said we could come, we built lives here, and now, despite all the oohing and aahing about this, you abandoned us.
I do have one other thought I had to share. Do not organise futile protests in support of our rights. Organise to elect a Labour government. The Tories will gradually cave in to the hardest of right-wingers. Labour can build consensus around migration, incorporating the fear and alienation many of our voters feel because of the economic deprivation of neoliberal economics and humanity and empathy towards the 3 million EU citizens in the UK. We came here because of a friendship embedded in the consciousness of our peoples. That friendship is now at risk – let’s work towards a Labour government before it is irretrievably broken.