The event Poland, Polarisation and the Diaspora Community in the UK was rich in academic critique and lived experience. What was surprising, and maybe, upon reflection, also refreshing, was to hear and see a community and history being discussed without reference to its immigration status. But as the conference drew on, it was noticeable that this was as much a weakness as a strength, as it left the audience with many unanswered questions.
The opening keynote by ex-Defence and Foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind set the scene by providing a political history of Poland. A history that later panellists referred to repeatedly to illuminate the current challenges facing the Polish community in the UK.
Rifkind asked the audience to be patient with Poland’s social conservatism, drawing particular attention to the less than progressive stance towards LGBT+ rights and abortion. He reminded the audience that even Western European liberal democracies, such as the UK, had to ‘evolve’ over time. He made an impassioned plea for Western and in particular EU governments to be patient with the state of Poland and alluded to its future success being worked out by its youngest generations.
It was unfortunate that Rifkind left immediately after his keynote, especially since every speaker afterwards seemed to contradict his utopian vision of the future of the country.
Professor Aleks Szczerbiak from Sussex University provided a fantastic introduction to the current political context of Poland. He drew on the Polish Law & Justice party’s adamant stance against the EU Migrant Resettlement Programme. In an excellent use of statistics (one which those working on the issue of public opinion and migration would do well to learn from) he showed how 75% of the Polish community were opposed to the resettlement of refugees. He was shrewd enough to understand (despite his own admission that he was not an immigration expert) that the longitudinal study used the word ‘refugee’ as opposed to migrant to solicit a specific type of response that perpetuated an anti-migrant sentiment.
Szczerbiak went onto expand the audience’s understanding of Poland by making clear the reasons for its anti-immigrant sentiment:
- A fear of migration from Muslim communities
- And a loss of control over migration, at the behest of collective European decision making
Szcerbiak’s paper was followed by a jaw-dropping exploration by Dr Konrad Pedziwiatr (Krakow) about the relationship between the Catholic Church and public opinion on the issue of migration. Despite the old adage ‘never mix politics and religion’, it appears that the Catholic Church in Poland has been instrumental in supporting the Law & Justice party’s hostility towards migrants. In a brilliant example of pushing the boundaries of research and academics fuelling chance, Pedziwiatr described his research into the political opinions of future priests. Much to the shock of British sensitivities, future (presumably younger) priests were even more opposed to migration than existing priests, opposing for example the building of mosque and alleged increases in crime and public health pandemics.
Dr Michal Garapich from Roehampton was next to speak and stepped up the pace by adding an anthropological interpretation of the far right to its historical narrative. Translated to the UK context, the ‘Solider to Plumber’ paradigm offered a neat way to conceptualise Polish community organising in the UK. The inference being that the history of the nation-state led to a specific type of community organising, that was more insular and political.
Left suitably aghast, the audience resumed quickly after a tea break to address in further detail the role of the Polish diaspora in civil society.
Dr Jon Fox from Bristol, made the most remarkable and alarming claim of the whole event. According to Fox, the identification of some Polish communities with the far right in the UK was an attempt to ‘integrate’ with the white British majority. It took a moment to sink in, but does call into question the very notion of integration. The usual assumption that integration was always to be contained in a ‘progressive’ case of British values of tolerance and acceptance was being challenged before our very eyes.
As if this needed more contextualisation, Magda Mogilnicka (Bristol) referred to her micro-level research drawing comparisons between two individuals, both with similar background, but with a different understanding of and relationship to the concept of British ‘multiculturalism’.
The collective intellectual capacity of the audience challenged, it was left to Dr Gabriella Elgenius (Oxford/Gothenburg) to bring all the strands together into a neat package, which she did very eloquently by exploring the dynamic history of Polish civil society in the UK. It is often said that it takes new communities at least 10 years to establish themselves in terms of community organising. The Polish experience of community organising has been in place since the second world war. Elgenius defined three stages of organising: the post war generation and their children or mutual support and shared interest, the cold war solidarity experienced by exiles, and the current EU Generation, characterised by a political awakening drawing simultaneously Polish and UK politics.
The need to look more closely at the relationship between the global history of diaspora communities and how such histories are reinvented and redefined within a British context is long over due. Whilst the discussion of the Polish community was done to look at the context of hate crime, we need to understand that the history of such communities is as much about the future as it is the past.
Poland, Polarisation and the Diaspora Community in the UK was an event held in London on 26th April 2018 and organised by Faith Matters UK.