Lord (Martin) Thomas writes…Celebrating the opportunities of migration

Two years after the First World War, my father decided to emigrate to the United States to join his brother in Virginia. He was 18 years of age, barely out of Rhyl Grammar School and all the jobs in the locality had been reserved for demobbed soldiers.

So off he went from Meliden to join his brother who was already settled and working in Virginia. He sailed out of Liverpool on the SS Kaiserin Auguste Victoria and landed at the immigrant reception centre on Ellis Island, New York. I have the record of his entry.

What he made in those first days of the bustling America after North Wales I do not know. But he quickly found a job as an electrician in the long established Newport News shipyard. Today, the largest aircraft carriers and submarines are still built there for the US Navy.

My dad earned well, acquired a penchant for melon, wore white socks and tilted his hat American style on his head. But after a few years, the pull of home was too much. He worked his passage back over six weeks on a tramp steamer and promptly joined the Denbighshire Constabulary in Wrexham. It was the tilt of his helmet which first attracted my mother, a Grove Park schoolgirl.

I always think of him when I listen to the inflammatory language aimed by Brexiters at migrants to this country from continental Europe. Young people leave their homes and travel to seek new horizons, fresh challenges and work opportunities.

Some settle down, as did my uncle in Virginia in the last century. He attended the Welsh chapel, became an American citizen and thoroughly approved when his daughter married a State Senator. In time, he and his family assimilated – though his great grandchildren, the current young generation in Virginia, remain true to their Welsh roots, formerly by their passionate following of Wrexham FC, now alas somewhat replaced in their hearts by Swansea City.

But others who now come to Britain, having made some money and enjoyed the experience, will return to their native countries to marry, to have children and to pass on to them a breadth of vision from another culture, as my father did to me.

Young Europeans who come to Britain pose no threat to our society. Their energy and drive contributes to our success in a competitive world – and their taxes pay in far more than they draw out. Universities welcome their brains. Business needs their skills and their commitment. Farmers need them to work the land and bring home the harvest. Industry welcomes their hard work. Most will return home, their minds broadened and their feelings for Britain and the British way of life enhanced and warmed.

But it is not all one way. Our youngsters want to taste life on the other side of the channel. When I was their age, work in a war-torn Europe was impossible. But in the new Europe where the boundaries have fallen away and all nations aspire to democratic and peaceful ways and the solution of common problems, the opportunities for work and travel are boundless.

I wish I were that age again!

* Martin Thomas is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords and the party's Shadow Attorney General

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