Saturday, 11 October 2014

Poland gets anglicised as the UK gets polonised

English is by far the most widely-spoken foreign language in Poland today, and each year more young Poles start learning English at schools, while those to started learning the language generally get better at it*. From billboards to T-shirts, English is commonly seen across urban Poland, vastly more so than German, French or Italian. Not to mention Russian. Given the ubiquity of English (at least in Warsaw and the other major conurbations), one does wonder why the British have not made more of this natural advantage to sell more goods and services here.

Having said that, professional bodies such as the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales, the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, the Chartered Institute of Marketing - and now, the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply - are all present in Poland, selling training, accreditation and membership - professional qualifications are all the vogue. Delivered by British organisations, with much of the coursework in English. The British Council is doing sterling work in Poland, as is the British Standards Institution.

Meanwhile, across in the UK, Poles are becoming more embedded in the British economy, with over 100,000 securing National Insurance numbers in 2013 alone. Polish is officially the second-most spoken language in the UK, according to the 2011 census. Poland is ranked nation number six in terms of numbers of entrepreneurs who've set up companies in the UK (21,000 set up 22,000 co. ltds). Ahead of Poland are countries that have had far longer business connections with the UK or are simply far more populous (the top five are Ireland, India, USA, China and Germany). Poland ranks higher than France, Italy or Holland.

If one is to measure the mass migration of Poles to the UK in solely economic terms, there is no doubt that the balance is strongly favourable; the National Institute of Social and Economic Research says that immigrants from the eight CEE countries that joined the EU in 2004 have added one percentage point to the UK's GDP. So Poles are responsible for around two-thirds of that sum.

Ten years after Tony Blair opened the UK labour market to Poles, their presence is visible right across Britain in a way few other immigrant groups have visibility beyond the big cities. Last week I was in Scotland, visiting Ayr and passing through Paisley; compared to multi-ethnic London, these county towns were whiter than Warsaw, and yet both had a Polski sklep.

Polska Chata/Cottage Shop, Ayr

Misiek Polish Shop, Paisley
It is clear that the UK and Poland are getting integrated with one another like in no time in their common history. Looking at the success that children of the last major wave of Polish immigration to the UK have achieved there, it is certain that their achievements will be bested four-fold or five-fold in numerical terms when it comes to the children of the current wave of migrants to Britain, 20 or 30 years into the future.

Writing a day after Ukip secured its first parliamentary victory, I fear that the benefits to Britain of migration from people who want to create prosperity for themselves and thus enrich the nation (rather than try to shove some unappealing religious dogma down the throats of the indigenous population) will be lost in a fuzzy argument about Brussels.

A putative referendum in 2017 asking the British people whether they should quit the EU is a threat to the stability and cohesion of the EU and indeed to Poland and other member states bordering Russia. Given the debate will hot up in the 209 days leading up to the General Election next May, it behoves all Poles in the UK to be on their best behaviour, not to act in such a way as might prompt their neighbours to vote Ukip.

A message to you Sebek, Piotrek and Sylwek - bin your beer cans. [Perivale Park]
I certainly don't want a federalised EU governed by Brussels without any national, regional or local say in how things are run. But I do want an EU strong enough to withstand external threat, a competitive, innovative single market, with a strong UK in it partnering naturally with Poland to push the EU in the right direction.

* EF's English Proficiency Index for 2013 put Poland in eighth place ('high proficiency') in its global ranking of how good non-native speaking countries are at English. Ahead of Germany, Russia or France. In 2011, Poland was ranked 12th with 'moderate proficiency'.

UPDATE December 2014: EF's English Proficiency Index for 2014 put Poland in sixth place ('very high proficiency'). Only the four Scandinavian countries and Holland are ahead.

On an entirely unrelated point: Warsaw has enjoyed a wonderful run of beautiful sunny weather; today's top temperature was over 23C, the third day in a row of over 20C maximums.

This time last year:
Ale, architecture and city politics

This time two years ago:
The pros and cons of roadside acoustic screens

This time three years ago:
Moaning about trains again

This time four years ago:
Warsaw streets - Dolna, Polna, Rolna, Smolna, Wolna. Lost?

This time six years ago:
Ditches, landscapes, autumn

This time seven years ago:
Golden autumn in Łazienki park


Claire Ingram said...

Hi Michael-

I'm a South African living in Sweden, with a Polish partner. I really enjoy your blog, both in its insights and because it helps me better understand my partner's native Warsaw (and Poland).

As you may know, Sweden is also experiencing an anti-immigrant wave, although it is of a different in character to that in the UK.

On this blog post, I had a thought: is it really the responsibility of Poles to " on their best behaviour, not to act in such a way as might prompt their neighbours to vote UKIP"?

I ask this for two reasons. First, those who engage in "good" behaviour, who set up businesses (and pay taxes) in the UK (perhaps even in construction or plumbing), have been depicted as "stealing British jobs". I would argue that there is little Poles (or any other) can do to alter this perverse narrative.

If anything, there is an inverse correlation - this objectively "good" behaviour, which adds to the British economy (and may even have created jobs) has fuelled the UKIP, along with the recession, decreasing real wages and underemployment, which no individual could really have effected or affected.

Second, I think that bad behaviour by any one individual isn't likely to lead to someone voting UKIP, or disliking an entire group of people, unless there is already significant underlying prejudice.

As an immigrant - admittedly on my best behaviour - in Sweden, I find the idea that my behaviour might have played a role in anti-immigrant sentiment a tough pill to swallow. Likewise with Poles in the UK.

Do you really think that there is anything that Poles (or other immigrants) can do, or should have done, to affect this wave of anti-immigrant sentiment? Or perhaps you meant that line to be tongue-in-cheek and I'm reading too much into it!


Michael Dembinski said...

@ Claire

Thanks for your comment - plenty for me to sink my teeth into!

"...those who engage in "good" behaviour, who set up businesses (and pay taxes) in the UK (perhaps even in construction or plumbing), have been depicted as "stealing British jobs"."

Depends by whom. Anyone who's had the slightest exposure to economics will know that it's not a zero-sum game - an immigrant does not necessarily take a British job, but serves to boost the economy so that more jobs are created overall. Back in 2004, there were over 650,000 jobs that UK employers could not fill. Today, Britain has one of the EU's highest job vacancy rates as its economic growth easily outpaces that of the eurozone.

"I would argue that there is little Poles (or any other) can do to alter this perverse narrative."

The narrative may be perverse, but when your Polish neighbour smiles and greets you with a 'good morning', is tidy and industrious, in contrast to other migrant groups who rant on about holy war, you are less likely to see the EU as the main problem facing the UK.

As a second-generation Pole born in the UK, I can honestly say I never felt any hostility towards me on account of my background, but then my parents' migration was political (the result of war) rather than economic; and there were 200,000 of them rather than the million or so that have come over since 2004.

Britain benefits economically from the extra hands (Poles are among the most hard-working and least benefit-dependent group of migrants in the UK).

People (and I am one of them!) who say they no longer recognise the land where they were born will not turn the clock back to a golden age sometime between 1950 and 1970 simply by leaving the EU.

The world has moved on, globalised, and Polish migration to the UK is one of the more beneficial aspects of that inexorable tendency.

What can Poles do? Adopt the very best British values - politeness, tolerance, cheeriness, tidiness and a good sense of humour.

AndrzejK said...

The real issue is how soon the latest Polish immigrants "disappear" into the fabric of British society. Our parents generation (WW2) at first had a hard time, not least due to opposition from the trade unions which were then (as probably now) in thrall to the Soviet Union. In time a strange surname stopped being a barier to a career. Oh and the Poles never tried to convert Brits to become Catholics. Live and let live was the key feature. Apart from the odd incident on Śmingus Dyngus when bypassers were accidentally drenched neither we nor our parents ever demanded special privilidges the way certain sections of the Muslim community are doing. How quickly the current Polish diaspora fully integrates is a question of time. There may just be too many but them again the quarter of a million French working in London do not cause a problem. To the average native Brit (whatever that means) I guess having access to a plumber who earns less than a doctor has been a real boon. And apparently Tyskie is now the no 10 brand. Is it yet brewed in the UK (vide Australian brands)? But so long as there is still honey for tea..........

HOWEVER a little warning note. The Poles have caused all pedestrians to walk on the right on pavements! Strange that neither UKIP nor the Daily Mail have started a "walk on the left as God intended" campaign!

Bit rambling, my disjointed thoughts, but as my younger daughter has discovered as part of her degree thesis, national identity is such a moveable feast. For myself I have far more in common with chartered accountants across the globe than fans either at the Narodowy or Wembley!!

AndrzejK said...


Looks like the Poles have become a nation of shopkeepers!!!

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Andrzej K -

I like your point about feeling more at one with your fellow professionals than with your fellow countrymen. Indeed, you'd have a more fruitful conversation with a Lebanese or Venezuelan chartered accountant than with Pan Heniek in his cups.

It recently occurred to me that when behaving in a civilised way, representatives of all nations seem similar. It is only when things go pear-shaped that the ugly side of national characteristics come out.

Paddy said...

Plenty of Brits drink Polish beer and chuck their cans away. I'm afraid to say the country lanes of Suffolk are littered with the buggers. That and fast food wrappers.

Anonymous said...

Michael, just a small point about the British Council. In fact, they've actually been behaving rather disgracefully since the funding was cut (completely?) from London. For example, teachers working for the BC are now required to be self employed, which might not be unusual for a small language school, but it's certainly extraordinary given the amount of money that the BC clients spend. I'm sure you know about the scourge of false self-employment in Poland, and this is just yet another example of it. While I agree on the other points, I cannot and will not agree that the BC has been doing a good job. Sorry for posting anonymously, but I hope you understand why.