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Echoes of the Vikings? Cross-Channel Migration, Then and Now by Roger Watson

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Echoes of the Vikings? Cross-Channel Migration, Then and Now

Leiv Eirikson discovering America (1893), a 313 x 470 cm painting by Christian Krohg (1852-1925), located in the National Gallery of Norway.

Netflix has been awash with programmes about the Vikings for the past few years. First, there is the incomparable The Last Kingdomhistorically based on the defence of Wessex by Alfred the Great from the Vikings, whose hordes had already created Daneland in vast swathes of England. The series, based on the voluminous series of novels by Bernard Cornwell, uses a permanent deus ex machina type character, the ridiculously handsome Saxon-become-Dane Uhtred, who narrates the story. Uhtred did not exist, but that hardly bothers the many female fans of the series.

Then there is the equally long-running series Vikings, which is more historically accurate, at least in terms of the main Viking characters. Vikings is based in an earlier period than The Last Kingdom, beginning with the first landing of the Vikings at Holy Island and progressing, with many severed heads and sexual encounters, through the establishment of Viking strongholds in England. Finally, there is the hilarious spoof series Norsemen which portrays a string of hapless and incompetent Vikings who engage in a great deal of infighting. Here, the men are dominated by the women and some of them are more interested in setting up theatres in England than in raping and pillage. If only.

So, in what way could our modern cross-channel migrants be compared to the Vikings? There are the obvious analogies of arrival: sailing by boat and scrambling up beaches to English soil. This is an ‘invasion’ of a sort, although rather than Saxon arrows and spears, these invaders are more likely to be welcomed with a cup of tea and a dry blanket.

From there, they largely proceed to ‘escape’ from detention centres (often unguarded Travelodges and Premier Inns) and disappear deep into the English countryside. They evade our immigration laws and then reappear as well-established ‘communities’ in most of our major cities. They bring their own religion and customs with them, which they then seek to impose on local communities. Many tend to retain their country (and religion) of origin’s view of women, and it is no exaggeration to say that their presence and customs in the communities where they settle make women feel unsafe. Some—the minority, but still—commit rape.

The analogy does not end there. The Vikings invaded England specifically because England was an economically successful country. It had well-established trade routes with the south of Europe, links with then-powerful states such as the Vatican, and great riches in the form of precious metals and jewels in its churches and monasteries. If they had found an uncivilised place, without riches to plunder and fertile arable lands, the Vikings would have been back on their longboats in no time at all.

Our current migrants are here also because of our economic success, and the draw is compounded by our generous spirit. But Britain’s fortunes go down as well as up, and one certain way to discourage, reduce, and even reverse migration is to have an economic downturn. As the Financial Times noted in earlier this year, the numbers of East European migrants—specifically, the stereotyped Polish plumbers—decreases whenever economic times get tough here.

The final similarity between today’s migrants and the Vikings of old is that both falsely appeared to adopt the local religion to make it seem that they had assimilated. Many Vikings converted to Christianity in the early days of the invasion of England, but they maintained their pagan practices and, when the Scandinavian chips were down, they were quick to turn on their Christian hosts and mete out slaughter like the pagans they were. It is not unknown in Britain for today’s illegal immigrants to convert to Christianity in pursuit of asylum-seeker status, and not all those conversions are sincere.

One such illegal immigrant, Emad al-Swealmeen, ‘converted’ to Christianity upon arriving in England; he became notorious on 11 November this year when he attempted to kill many people with a ball-bearing packed explosive device on Armistice Day in Liverpool. Fortunately, he only succeeded in killing himself.

The Vikings undeniably got bad press. They were a great deal more civilised than often credited and, in addition to fire and terror, they brought a great deal that was valuable to Britain. Likewise, our immigrant community, some of whom did arrive illegally but have settled legally, have brought a great deal of colour and variety to our cities. In many cases they have stronger family values than we have, and their work ethic cannot be questioned. Nevertheless, the analogy of invasion is hard to dispel. People in the communities where they have settled and established businesses had no say in the matter, and they feel as if they have, indeed, been invaded.

We rarely learn from history; but we persistently repeat it.

Roger Watson is a British academic and former professor of nursing at the University of Hull. He is the editor-in-chief of Nurse Education in Practice and an Editorial Board Member of the WikiJournal of Medicine. He was the founding chair of the Lancet Commission on Nursing, and a founding member of the Global Advisory Group for the Future of Nursing. In 2020, Watson was elected vice president of the National Conference of University Professors. In 2022, Watson was elected president of the National Conference of University Professors.

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