What Donald Trump could learn from Leicester’s immigration history

Posted by ap507 at Feb 20, 2017 03:40 PM |
Inès Hassen, Researcher at the Centre for Urban History and Teaching Fellow in French Studies, discusses how the cultural and economic history of Leicester serves as 'a beneficial reference in a world in need of hope'

Think: Leicester does not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Leicester - it expresses the independent views and opinions of the academic who has authored the piece. If you do not agree with the opinions expressed, and you are a doctoral student/academic at the University of Leicester, you may write a counter opinion for Think: Leicester and send to ap507@le.ac.uk  

Donald Trump has recently proved once again his narrow understanding of the world. His controversial political decree - the ‘Muslim ban’ - aims to protect his nation from terrorism by prohibiting citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Sudan) from entering the US for at least a period of 90 days.

Although this executive order has led to civil upheavals of hostility from around the world, the ‘Muslim ban’ has nevertheless found favour among some European far-right party leaders, for example the Front National (National Front) in France. More recently, Geert Wilder, leader of the Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) in the Netherlands revealed his incentive to ‘de-Islamise’ the country, thus further feeding the global political climate of rising extremism.

Trump’s extremist discourse has reinforced hate speech through uninhibited language of racism and xenophobia. Within this global context, the example of Leicester, a medium-sized city of 300,000 inhabitants located in the East Midlands (United Kingdom) and possessing a rich immigration history, could offer a counter voice to such a discourse of intolerance.

Leicester, a history to remember

Immigration played a major role in re-boosting Leicester’s economic dynamism during the 1980s, enabling the city to survive the gloom of deindustrialisation. The city’s reputation as a prominent centre of multiculturalism derives from the different migration flows it has experienced since the nineteenth century. The arrival of Russian Jews escaping poverty and repression by the middle of the eighteen hundreds was followed by a migration of persecuted European Jews in the 1930s. In the 1940-50s, Leicester welcomed migrants from the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent, which enabled the city to meet a labour shortage. In the late 1960s, Asians refugees began arriving from East Africa, escaping the African nationalism policies of Idi Amin. More recently, in the 2000s, the city welcomed Somalis refugees, Polish immigrants and many Iraqi, Afghan, Iranian and Kosovan asylum seekers.

During the inter-war period, Leicester was internationally known as a great industrial power. Many products were made in the city (such as umbrellas, bobbins, shoes, hosiery, jet engines etc.) and they were highly praised for their quality. At a time when local unemployment levels were practically non-existent, economic prosperity was reflected by the popularity of ‘Leicester craftsmanship’ that was attracting many overseas visitors, buyers and shoppers. However, Leicester’s success story did not last as the decline of its long-standing industries during the 1970s affected public consciousness. The image of a declining industrial town was compelled by a rising unemployment rate that reached 13.6% in 1991. Fortunately, Leicester managed to muster strength not only from its loyal and hard-working workforce but also from the potential of new arrivals into the city. Asian immigrants, who had mercantilist backgrounds, played a key role by the late 1980s in helping Leicester to maintain clothing trade links with the Asian sub-continent. The Leicestershire Chamber of Commerce cleverly worked in cooperation with the Asian community by offering them advice on starting up their own businesses, knowing that they would be able to open up overseas markets in return. These valuable commercial contacts with both the Asian and African continents were strongly beneficial for Leicester’s mainstream companies, who were desperately in need of new business expertise and global partnerships.  

Leicestershire was the home of 1,446 businesses run by people of Asian origin in 1994 – the majority of them were small firms mainly in retail, import and export - further boosting the global commercial influence of the city. Their entrepreneurial spirit restored Leicester’s economic prosperity and gave a new impetus to the city’s economic confidence. This initiative helped Leicester to adapt over the past thirty years to a more service-based and globalised economy. Furthermore, the proud multicultural identity of Leicester serves as a cultural reference in which the preservation of various communities’ traditions is well anchored in the city’s heritage. The case of Leicester reminds us that tolerance and partnership are important for building a culture vibrant with opportunities.

History reveals that creating a sense of belonging through the recognition of everyone’s entrepreneurial and cultural values paves the way for a sustainable ‘economic renaissance’. Opening up to diversity leads to unexpected opportunities. Similarly, with regards to the United States, immigrants have greatly contributed to the economic development of the country. However, in this country, recent arrivals are currently being decried by Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric that dangerously encourages the intensification of divisive racism. A cohesive multicultural society appears to be a threat to Trump’s political vision. The recent protest (#ADayWithoutImmigrants) against his policy, which took place on 16 of February 2017, is evidence of a society trying to resist the spiral of hate. In this fractious political climate, the cultural and economic history of Leicester serves as beneficial reference in a world in need of hope, prosperity and tolerance.

Share this page: