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

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

Recruitment Genius: Development Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Development Scientist is required to join a ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012  

I saw the immigration lies a mile off - and now nobody can deny it

Nigel Farage
The Uber app allows passengers to hail a taxi with a smartphone  

Who wouldn’t like a sharing economy? Well, me, for one

Mary Dejevsky
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game