Robert Winder: The same old story of bigotry and intolerance

Even in 1905, it was said that playing politics with immigration was a dirty gambit

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Michael Howard's reckless electoral attack on immigrants is only the latest in a long line of such assaults. But while everyone remembers Mrs Thatcher's talk of being "swamped", or Enoch Powell's visions of racial apocalypse, we often forget how old this story really is.

Michael Howard's reckless electoral attack on immigrants is only the latest in a long line of such assaults. But while everyone remembers Mrs Thatcher's talk of being "swamped", or Enoch Powell's visions of racial apocalypse, we often forget how old this story really is.

A hundred years ago this week, a new parliamentary Bill was introduced by Aretas Akers-Douglas, the Conservative Secretary of State. Immigration was, he said, an "extremely pressing question". There were 82,000 new arrivals, "undesirable aliens" who brought "evils in their train". They caused "overcrowding, living in unsanitary conditions, the lowering of the general standard of life and morality, and crime." There was "no doubt about these facts", he said. Worse, it was "organised traffic". Today's debate is a precise echo of a 100-year-old saga.

The 1905 Bill was a response to a hectic exodus of refugees from tsarist Russia. They landed at eastern ports - Hull, Harwich, London. Some thought they had arrived in America, only to find they had been fleeced by dodgy ticket salesmen. They settled in northern textile cities - Manchester and Leeds - but mainly in London. The speed with which they filled the East End, where they built a clacking hive of sweatshops, provoked a blast of indignation.

Akers-Douglas proposed to empower customs officials to turn back all those who might, "through disease or infirmity, be a charge upon the rates", or anyone who lacked "the means of supporting himself in decent sanitary conditions". The Bill sought also to expel "the undesirable aliens already in our midst". We needed, it declared, to "prevent this country from being made a receptacle for destitute, diseased and criminal aliens from the rest of Europe". Does this sound familiar? Are you thinking what they were thinking? The opposition was led by Charles Dilke, Liberal MP for the Forest of Dean. Rather than objecting to the idea, he squabbled about figures.

It was left to more forthright politicians to object on principle. Winston Churchill wrote, in a letter to The Times, that we must not betray "the old, tolerant and generous practice of free entry and asylum to which this country has so long adhered and from which is has so greatly gained". Churchill was an aspiring Liberal MP - for North-West Manchester, a constituency with a large Jewish population. Still: fine words.

The Aliens Act had its second reading on 2 May. Charles Dilke attacked it on the same tedious grounds, insisting it rested on "a complete misrepresentation of the facts and the figures". He pointed out that slamming the door would not keep out most migrants - but it might well shut them in. "Look at the number of foreign chauffeurs," he said. "They come in as third-class passengers at Newhaven, and go out having made their fortunes." Even then, it was alleged that playing politics with immigration was a dirty electoral gambit. Mr Trevelyan, for the Opposition, added that the Bill was opportunist as well as unpractical.

"We are nearing the election, and the honourable members opposite feel it is a very popular measure to go with," he said. "But the electoral card castle will fall to the ground when it is known that it is only a question of a few hundred who can be stopped."

He was wrong. The electoral card castle did not fall. Government spokesmen kept sounding the alarm. Major Evans Gordon, MP for Stepney, reminded the House there were 5.5 million Jews in Russia, all of whom might head for Britain. "East of Aldgate, one walks into a foreign town," he said. Urgent action was needed to prevent this country from being "a refuse heap for the whole of Europe". He ended with a plea: "We cannot solve the political problems of every country in Europe by admitting their discontented and superfluous populations into this overcrowded island." Parliament nodded its assent. The Bill passed on 10 August, 1905, and Britain became, for the first time, a club with restrictions on membership.

The 1905 Act proved impossible to impose. Customs officials were entitled to turn away any boat that had more than 20 migrants - but this meant only that the shipping companies laid on smaller boats. The nation had become a fortress, however, and then the First World War came, and ushered in the age of the passport, and migration became more hazardous than ever.

It is often said that history repeats itself as farce. But the parallels between the events of 100 years ago and today's political campaign against immigrants are too close to be funny. The people have changed: the story remains the same.

Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration to Britain, by Robert Winder, is published by Little Brown.

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