Graham Stewart in the Times :
A century hence, what will historians consider the most significant social change to Britain during the Blair years? Quite possibly they will conclude it was how immigration transformed the country. One in four children born in Britain last year had a foreign parent. This changing ethnicity has been further accentuated by a growing flight of British citizens, almost 200,000 of whom emigrated last year.
From a historical perspective, the emigration of this many native Britons is not so remarkable. Paradoxically, the greater Victorian Britain became, the more its workforce sought opportunities abroad — not just in the empire but also in the United States.
By contrast, today’s rate of immigration is producing the most significant change in the national make-up in 900 years. Indeed, it is noteworthy how relatively small waves of immigration nonetheless perturbed the natives. To his eternal shame, Edward I expelled England’s Jews even although they numbered much more than 5,000 very useful subjects. By the mid-15th century there were perhaps fewer than 16,000 foreigners living among England’s 2.5 million inhabitants.
And it is unclear why Elizabeth I felt the need to complain about there being “of late divers blackmoores brought into this realme, of which kinde of people there are already here to manie”. Even when their numbers peaked in 1770, it is estimated that there were only 14,000 black people, or 0.2 per cent of the population. In the first decades of the 20th century, the entire nonwhite population of Britain may not have greatly exceeded 10,000.
As for asylum-seekers, they hardly swamped England. About 50,000 French Huguenots fleeing Louis XIV’s crackdown on Protestantism settled and formed a distinct community in East London. However, they were only about 0.7 per cent of the population in 1700. A similar influx did not follow until the end of the 19th century when about 120,000 Jews fled Tsarist persecution. About 70,000 sought refuge from Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Again, this represented a fraction of 1 per cent of the national population.
In between, there had been a big mid-19th-century flow of Irish to the mainland, but this was a population shift within the UK. There were also modest increases in the number of Europeans seeking work here. But the proportion of German and Italian-born residents in Britain in 1911 still comprised less than 0.2 per cent of the population.
Eastern European migrants filled skill shortages after the Second World War and “mass” Commonwealth immigration took hold in the 1950s. But even these changes are dwarfed by the inflow of the past decade, with official net immigration running at about 300,000 a year. In historical terms, it is quite an experiment.
I'm sure this will turn out to be Blair's great legacy, although he only accelerated an existing trend.