Birmingham’s cultivation of talent

What marks out Britain’s second city? A review of Our City: Migrants and the Making of Modern Birmingham by Jon Bloomfield, (Unbound. London: 2019).

Charles Jones
25 May 2019, 1.32pm
Blue plaque in the main building of Aston University, Birmingham, England.
Wikicommons, Andy Mabbett. Some rights reserved.

Jon Bloomfield offers a resolutely positive view of the lived experience of migrants to the city of Birmingham and their contribution to the city’s economy and culture. Successive chapters deal with the NHS, the upward mobility of second-generation immigrants, entrepreneurship, higher education, low pay, racism, schooling, faith, and family structures.


Illustrated throughout by direct quotations from the forty-six people he interviewed, Bloomfield’s book exposes the multiple challenges that migrants faced as they pitched up against successive changes in the British economy. It also advances persuasive arguments for continued close engagement with Europe and contrasts the relatively successful policies of Birmingham City Council with those of successive national administrations. Throughout, a clear middle course is steered between policies of outright assimilation and forms of multiculturalism that fetishize ethnic identities.

The thematically organized chapters are interrupted from time to time by what may best be termed ‘policy interludes,’ during which the telephoto is replaced by the wide-angle lens. One of these deals with structural change in retail trade, as immigrant-owned corner shops have struggled to deal with the rise of local branches of the big supermarket chains, the decline of the print-press (and smoking?). One of the shopkeepers interviewed has succeeded spectacularly, diversifying from the processing of holiday snaps into niches such as the restoration of old photos or the manipulation of digital images.

A couple of failed enterprises are chronicled, but the balance of the chapter is upbeat, with a five-page account of the spectacular rise of the Wing Yip Chinese wholesale empire and a lengthy coda on Birmingham’s German Christmas market, which may have little to do with migration, but nicely exemplifies the cosmopolitanism espoused by the City Council toward the end of the twentieth century.

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Signs of poor management

Many immigrants came to Britain in response to recruitment drives by agencies of the British state including the NHS. A later wave of more spontaneous migration followed as the European Union enlarged after the end of the Cold War. Particularly startling in the earlier period is a 1957 request for eighteen nurses from each hospital in Ireland, a fully independent republic no less vulnerable than the UK to the Asian flu pandemic that occasioned the request. Signs of poor management of immigration are everywhere: in the recent Windrush scandal, in the failure of British governments to anticipate the sheer scale of migration from Poland and the Balkans, and in the decision not to adopt the European Working Time Directive, which would have allowed government to curb migration by limiting the availability of lucrative overtime, without which many poorly paid jobs would have been less attractive.

An efficient Home Office could have sent back EU migrants who were still without employment three months after arrival. The Migrant Impact Fund introduced by the Brown administration could have been created years earlier. In the end it was too little, too late; the Tories quietly scrapped it in the summer of 2010. The means to head off some of the resentments that fueled the Brexit vote were always available.

The means to head off some of the resentments that fueled the Brexit vote were always available.

By contrast, Birmingham – under Dick Knowles and Albert Bore – took the bull by the horns. Using public funds to leverage private investment, and taking maximum advantage of European Union funds, they entirely remodeled the centre of the city and the sectoral composition of its economy.

Sowing the seeds

By the early 1980s it was hard to say what was killing Birmingham. Would the city be strangled by a tight 1960s inner ring road that had created a high-rent plateau within and decrepitude beyond, or would it bleed out as manufacturing industry moved away? By expanding the city centre beyond the ring and simultaneously developing business tourism, higher education, and service sectors, the City created employment for the sons and daughters of the industrial workers who had established it over two past centuries.

Bloomfield only hints at the flip side of this policy. Some of the outer council estates, built in the 1960s, were largely inhabited by white working-class families descended from earlier generations of migrants who had come from a UK that included the whole of Ireland until 1922. Anyone who canvassed in these areas in the 1990s will have encountered the resentful objection that the new jobs in the city centre simply weren’t available: it took too long and cost too much to get to them. It’s possible that the opportunities created by Bore and his team disproportionately favoured those relatively recent immigrants from South Asia and the Caribbean who had occupied run-down neighborhoods nearer the heart of the city, sewing the seeds of resentments that would map the geography of Birmingham’s 50:50 Brexit vote thirty years later.

Social geography may go part of the way to explaining the consistently positive tone of the interview material but cannot be the whole story. Bloomfield is frank: the forty-six people he spoke to are not ‘a scientific sample’; but he believes them to be broadly representative of first and second-generation migrants in Birmingham, hailing from more than a dozen countries, and spanning a range of occupations from company director to fruit-picker.

This is as may be, and it is not unexpected to find that those who have achieved marked upward social mobility are satisfied with their lives. Are they truly representative of immigrants in general or of immigrant experience elsewhere? Was Yasmin Alibhai-Brown using the adverb literally when she described the book as ‘incredibly optimistic’? Could a similar book be written about Liverpool or Scunthorpe? Were Bloomfield’s professionals and company directors simply exceptionally talented, hard working or lucky individuals?

Incredibly optimistic

David, the son of parents who came from St Kitts in the 1950s, tells a tale of hard work, night-school and ultimate success. But at the end of this riff we learn that he was the only Afro-Caribbean in a cohort of 90 Longbridge apprentices in the 1970s. We know nothing of the selection process or of those who may have been unfairly rejected. Elsewhere, Salma, chief executive of the Walsall CCG, working with fifty-nine GP practices, recalls that the first step on the ladder was to reject training as a state-enrolled nurse and hold out for the SRN course.’ Born into a working-class family from Pakistan, she remarks in passing that was common for SRN training to be offered selectively, less often to members of ethnic minorities than to whites. Those who succeeded are aware that they are exceptional.

It is more surprising to hear the testimony of those who didn’t become entrepreneurs or professionals. Even the chapter on low-paid and casual sectors is resolutely up-beat. Ashraf, delivering for ASDA on minimum wage, is a happy man. ‘I enjoy it’, he says, ‘being out; no one watching you.’ (Tellingly, he adds: ‘I have regular hours and a set contract’; any members of the precariat are less fortunate.) Ajay, working more than sixty hours a week for the GPO reflects on his life with contentment. ‘Looking back over forty-five years of work’, Bloomfield concludes, ‘[Ajay] had done a series of manual jobs, none of them well paid, but he had grafted hard enough to look after and bring up his family and earned enough for him and his wife to now have their own house in one of Birmingham’s outer suburbs.’ Bloomfield certainly chronicles employment abuses in the farm and food processing sectors, taking a trip out of Birmingham to the Vale of Evesham, where one fruit farmer admits that ‘some of the farms are a bit naughty’ in their treatment of seasonal workers.

But Christo and Simona, the two Bulgarian workers who speak for this workforce, are content despite working sixty or seventy hours a week. Those East Europeans interviewed by Jon were adamant that life in Britain was better than at home. Perhaps to be interviewed is an invitation to vindicate one’s life.

Imagined identities?

If this abundance of contentment raises doubts, it is because one eyebrow was already raised in response to the book’s title. Use of the first person plural is always tricky. Late in life, Samuel Huntington fired off a broadside against immigrants in the USA under the title ‘Who Are We?’ inviting his readers to collude with him in assimilationist claims for a secularized WASP identity as the essence of what it is to be American. The ‘Our’ in Our City seems designed not so much to recruit readers as to identify with them. As a grandson of East European immigrants who came to London before the First World War, Bloomfield wishes to identify with the immigrants he’s writing about and who constitute a large part of his implied readership. But there is also a sense in which everyone in Birmingham is an immigrant, for there simply was no city there until the Industrial Revolution that began in the later eighteenth century. On this reading, ‘Our’ loses any specificity.

This ambiguity of the denotation of ‘Our’ raises a statistical question that isn’t fully explored. To say that 44% of Birmingham’s current population has a ‘migrant background’ is vague. Does the figure include or exclude those descended from Irish men and women born before 1922. Or, if ‘migrant’ is chosen deliberately to include population movements within the UK – in preference to immigrant – does it include also those Brummies with roots in Yorkshire, or Scotland? Is Bloomfield himself a migrant from London, or does his migrancy derive from the Tsarist empire of his forebears? I am English-born, but might be counted as a migrant because of my Welsh and Irish heritage.

It is all very well to draw on imagined identities as a gesture of solidarity with migrants who are more visible because of skin-colour or accent, but to do so is to play into the hands of those nostalgic advocates of plural mono-culturalism who would have me feasting daily on leeks washed down with Guinness. Far better to live in the present than take too seriously our personal myths of origin!

Far better to live in the present than take too seriously our personal myths of origin!

Middle-class drift and post-imperial decline

A second latent discussion pervades the book. Has the structural effect of post-1945 immigration been to delay transformations that will eventually have to be faced, and perhaps very soon. The book provides ample evidence of the ways in which immigrant labour allowed manufacturing firms and corner shops to hang on while staffing the NHS and the farm sector. The post-war decades allowed middle-class suburban life to drift on at not inconsiderable cost to the countries that had trained all those doctors, nurses and engineers. David from St Kitts and Peggy from Ireland both make clear in their interviews that they were willing to move from place to place. Willing to move from place to place and acquire new skills, the immigrant workforce was almost certainly more flexible than those already settled in the country, precisely because its members had not yet put down roots. Yet for want of statistics, this remains implicit in Bloomfield’s book and mere speculation on my part. Without this reserve army of labour, British post-imperial decline might have been more precipitate.

Ostensibly about migration, this book’s underlying narrative relates the relatively successful piloting of a major British city through the choppy waters of successive national and global recessions. Manufacturing and public services clearly benefited the local economy; the City Council understood this and Council was quick to introduce policies to encourage diversity among its own employees. The children of immigrants are far more likely to attend the city’s universities than is the case in the rest of the country.

The children of immigrants are far more likely to attend the city’s universities than is the case in the rest of the country.

It is perhaps this deliberate cultivation of talent that has allowed for the life histories that form the greater part of the book to be as positive as they are. The chapter on higher education, for example, has as much to do with the development strategies of the City Council and Birmingham’s three universities, and their skillful tapping of European Union resources as with migration.

As in other public services, and throughout Britain, expansion of the education sector has drawn in researchers, teachers and students from all over the world. What marks out Birmingham is the role that its universities have paid in facilitating the upward mobility of second-generation immigrants whose parents were attracted to the city by the employment opportunities of the 1950s and ‘60s. Particularly striking is the prevalence of students of Asian descent at Aston University, which – at 35 per cent – is way out of line with the national average of 8 per cent. This all makes for happy reading in Harborne or Moseley, but may be less welcome news in Druids Heath.

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