Fear, rejection . . . guilt? Britain’s Poles on Brexit

In January 1947, George Orwell found himself sitting by a peat fire in a hotel with two Scottish businessmen. The Scotsmen were discussing the Poles who had arrived in Britain during the war. Orwell wrote of their conversation: “There was no coal, it appeared, because the British miners refused to dig it out, but on the other hand it was important not to let Poles work in the pits because this would lead to unemployment.”

As well as stealing jobs that no one else wanted, the newcomers were blamed for buying up all the available houses and flats. “Let the Poles go back to their own country,” the Scotsmen concluded.

Orwell was appalled by their views: the Poles, he wrote, did not have a country to which to return. What he meant was that theirs had been occupied first by German Nazis and then by Soviet communists.

Most of the generation of Poles who came to Britain as a result of the war — around 200,000 people — never went back. Those who did were often persecuted by the new authorities. The Poles who stayed blended into UK towns and cities, now full of people who look British and sound British but whose names end in -ski.

The Polish immigrants who arrived after 2004 are different. Most never made the desperate decision to renounce their country. Joining the EU along with the citizens of seven other formerly communist states, they came for a while to find jobs and earn money at a time when one in five Poles was unemployed. In all, around a million Poles moved to the UK over the next 13 years, more than from all the other ex-communist states combined.

Polish shop in Watford . photographed by Sandra Mickiewicz
A Polish shop in Watford © Sandra Mickiewicz

They were grateful for the chance. Of the rich western European states, only three — Britain, Ireland and Sweden — had opted to open their labour market straight away. That decision reaffirmed a picture many Poles already held of Britain: pragmatic, secure in its liberal, open capitalist model and confident of its ability to absorb newcomers.

Today, things look rather different. Since the 2016 Brexit referendum, in which immigration was a central issue, Poles in Britain have experienced a complex of emotions: rejection, fear, anger, even a sense of responsibility. The former Polish foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, spoke to this last year in an interview with the BBC. “We feel guilty for Brexit,” he said. “I can imagine that in some communities outside London it changed the ethnic composition rather rapidly. And so some majorities felt threatened.”

Many Poles in Britain, when asked about this, can see Sikorski’s point. A Home Office report commissioned under Tony Blair’s government had estimated migration of 5,000-13,000 a year, from all the new member states put together. In reality, in some years, the number of Poles alone reached 90,000.

Nonetheless, minorities — even substantial ones — can feel threatened in a way majorities never do. After the referendum, the Polish press reported racist attacks against Poles in Britain. It now focuses on fears that, like the Windrush generation, Poles who have lived for years in the UK might not be able to prove their status — and face expulsion. Meanwhile, the Polish government is encouraging its citizens to return to fill jobs in a booming economy.

I was a latecomer to Britain, relocating from Warsaw to London in August 2017, well after the first post-EU wave and more than a year after the Brexit vote. By then, the initial enthusiasm for Polish immigrants — bringing affordable home repairs, filling up the church pews and breathing life into depressed towns — was well and truly over. Instead of exemplifying the benefits of open borders, the “Polish plumber” had become an archetype of an uncontrollable wave of European migrants and, at least in part, a reason to vote for Brexit.

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Maciej Jagodzinski, a Polish builder who has lived in London since 2003
Maciej Jagodzinski, a Polish builder who has lived in London since 2003. ‘I watched what Brexit was doing in dismay’, he says © Sandra Mickiewicz

Settling in north London, I rented a small flat. I started socialising, mostly through my children’s primary school, with people who politely rolled their eyes at my suggestion that perhaps we Poles should feel guilty about Brexit. On the contrary, they professed to love their Polish builders and plumbers, so reliable and hardworking. I kept hearing from well-educated Londoners that they “didn’t know a single person who had voted for Brexit”. Knowing that more than half of those who participated in the referendum had done precisely that, you could only marvel at the depth of Britain’s social divide.

To a family from a post-communist country, the disparities were already striking. One January when we came back from Warsaw after Christmas, my daughter burst into tears that London was “so poor”. She had just seen our local homeless man outside Kentish Town station. I’m just as struck by the displays of wealth. In Poland, everything has been turned to rubble every 50 years for over 200 years now, so almost nothing has been accumulated.

My reasons for moving were not strictly economic, but connected to my occupation as an author and playwright. The riches that attracted me were those of the English language and western culture. I sometimes think that, concentrating on its colonial past, Britain is less aware of its colonial present, perhaps because it thinks it has outsourced it to America. But the pull of Anglo-Saxon culture remains strong.

In Poland, more than 40 per cent, in some years 50 per cent, of adult fiction published is translated, the vast majority from English. Literary critics can be perplexed by the quality of some of them. The only explanation for their translation is that they were written in the language that dominates the world.

Chart showing Polish nationals resident in the UK and non-British nationals resident in the UK, year ending Jun 2019

Neither Britain nor the US return this interest. In the UK, less than 6 per cent of fiction is translated — from all the world languages put together. Perhaps five books a year are Polish. If Britons pay Poles in wages for clearing their drains, Poles reciprocate by paying British writers, producers, singers and agents for book rights, films and music.

Fifty years on the periphery of western civilisation during communism left Poles acutely conscious of what they were missing. This is certainly how I felt. To Warsaw children in the 1980s, whether it was Canada, the US or Britain didn’t make much difference — all were full of colour, wealth, freedom. I had always dreamt of moving to one of these places, although America seemed too far. European Britain was the only possibility. When the 2016 referendum happened, I thought it was now or never.

This kind of attraction may be the price to pay for dominating the world. A certain number of people will want to move to Britain, just as the subjects of the British empire moved to “the mother country”. Brexit seems to me an attempt to have one’s cake and eat it, as the famous phrase goes — one that I first thought romantic, but which now strikes me as slightly uncharitable.

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It seems that the British don’t want so many newcomers. Yet British writers are happy to be translated, just as the British film industry enjoys selling its rights and British football clubs enjoy participating in the most watched football league in the world. Britain loves being global when this suits it.

Wioletta Greg . given by the writer
Polish writer Wioletta Greg says: ‘At night I was afraid to cross the park’

Wioletta Greg had been living on the Isle of Wight for nearly a decade when she moved to East Tilbury in Essex in 2015. She received a frosty reception.

“The neighbours would turn away when I said hello,” says Greg, a Polish writer who was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017 for her novel Swallowing Mercury. “At night I was afraid to cross the park, because the local fascists were meeting there.” In 2018 she moved back to the Isle of Wight.

East Tilbury had been home to a large Bata shoe factory that closed in 2005. Thurrock, of which East Tilbury is a part, voted 72.3 per cent for Leave. “Many families had been on benefits for years, and they thought that immigrant parents were competition,” says Greg, who is a single mother of two.

Since her student days, Greg, who grew up in the Polish countryside, had dreamt of leaving “post-communist, patriarchal Poland” for the west. In 2006, she did just that when she joined her then husband, who had found a job picking tomatoes on the Isle of Wight. There, people seemed more welcoming. “The Polish ‘invasion’ on the Isle of Wight after 2004 stopped recession,” says Greg. “People understood this and respected us,” she says.

At least, this is what she thought. In fact, the Isle of Wight voted 61.9 per cent Leave in what Greg interprets as a rejection of immigrants. “We wipe their bums in old people’s homes and yet they still would like to get rid of us.”

Jan Black, who emigrated in 1940 to fight alongside the British against the Germans
Jan Black, who emigrated in 1940 to fight alongside the British against the Germans © Sandra Mickiewicz

Among the original Polish community in west London, people are hurt by the suggestion that there is a connection between Polish immigrants and Britain’s decision to quit Europe. “The British misunderstood Polish immigration,” Jan Black tells me at the Polish cultural centre POSK. Black, who is 97, says the immigration of young, ambitious and often well-qualified Poles after 2004 was to the UK’s advantage. “They were young people whom Poland was losing, and Britain gaining.”

Black came to Britain in 1940 from Argentina, where his family had emigrated, expressly to fight alongside the British against the Germans. He was 18 years old. He trained to become a rear gunner on British bomber planes and flew “the eight hours over German hell”. His face still carries the burns he suffered when his plane crashed.

Black, who married a British woman called Evelyn Black, changed his surname to hers from his native Stangryciuk for convenience. After the war, he found a job in a rubber factory, working 12 hours a day, six days a week on the night shift. No immigrant community in the UK can match the Poles for hard work and willingness to adapt, he says.

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Across town, in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, Lukasz Platkowski is also proud of his achievements, even if these are more recent. He came to London in 2003 to do a one-month project at an architecture firm, but ended up staying. He never planned to emigrate. “I liked Poland. What I didn’t like was making £400 a month,” he says of his Warsaw salary as a young graduate. In London, he was offered five times that amount. Now Platkowski is a partner at one of the world’s largest architectural firms.

Apart from feeling that they have been rejected, Poles are also mystified by Britain’s choice. Sikorski, the former foreign minister, speaks for many when he describes Britain’s decision to loosen ties with its largest trading partner as revealing “a certain frivolity”.

Maciej Jagodzinski, a Polish builder who has called London his home since 2003, says that before the Poles started arriving, the waiting time for a plumber was 70 hours. His business thrived. British clients were happy to see their pipes repaired within 24 hours. Now seven of his Polish employees have left — most for Poland, one for Germany. “We will be back to 70 hours waiting time for plumbers,” he says. “Prices have gone up by 25 per cent already.”

Brexit strikes many as a completely unnecessary drama. “I watched what Brexit was doing in dismay. The country divided, family members not talking to one another, and an economy about to suffer,” says Jagodzinski.

If Britain has become more impulsive, the traditionally romantic Poles have gone the other way. They may not share the EU’s liberal agenda, but since 2004, their economy has grown at an average of roughly 4 per cent annually. Real income has nearly tripled in 15 years.

By mid-2019, Poland’s unemployment rate had fallen to 3.2 per cent, its lowest ever. Warsaw is plastered in job ads. Arkady Rzegocki, the Polish ambassador to Britain, has urged his countrymen to return home where they are needed.

This is happening. For the first time since 2004, the number of Poles living in the UK has fallen, according to statistics published in November. About 100,000 have left since the Brexit vote, and Jagodzinski’s experience suggests this is no coincidence. “They are happy in Poland, and they have forgotten about Britain,” he says of the employees he has lost.

My impression is that the majority of Poles, like Jagodzinski and Platkowski, intend to stay in Britain after Brexit, because they have built their careers and made their lives here. Others are likely to move back home, or to other European countries where they enjoy the freedom to live and work. Greg, the writer on the Isle of Wight, is considering a move to Ireland. For Poles of her generation and mine, who grew up dreaming of the west under communism, an EU passport is still something to be treasured.

Magdalena Miecznicka is a writer and playwright

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