Jon Bloomfield examines the similarities between the 1905 Aliens Bill and the current Illegal Migration Bill and inflammatory rhetoric around refugees
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Sports presenter Gary Lineker provoked huge controversy in March when he criticised the Government’s new asylum legislation – the Illegal Migration Bill – and tweeted that the language used when talking about refugees "is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 1930s". Lineker was fiercely condemned by ministers – and most of the press – for the comparison. His comments jarred with the rose-tinted view of many about the UK’s historical track record on receiving refugees.
It was noticeable that no one commented on the startling similarities between the language being routinely used in the current debate and that employed in Britain at the start of 20th Century, when the country experienced large numbers of Jewish immigrants escaping persecution from Tsarist Russia and eastern Europe.
My grandparents arrived on these shores then, as part of the influx of Jews fleeing from pogroms. They arrived in the East End of London with little money and no English. Their story is familiar to many Jews living in the UK today, whose grandparents or great grandparents arrived in similar circumstances to face the venom of a hostile press and an aroused local population with a Conservative Government pushing through the country’s first anti-immigration legislation, the 1905 Aliens Act.
The country has seen periodic outbreaks of anti-immigrant hysteria ever since, whipped up by right-wing nationalist politicians – from Oswald Moseley to Enoch Powell to Nigel Farage – and their supportive press.
We saw a bout of anti-migrant rhetoric in the years prior to the EU Referendum of 2016. We are seeing another outburst now, focused on refugees. Priti Patel’s proposal to abolish any rights to claim asylum for those caught crossing the Channel by deporting them to the east African country of Rwanda has been followed by Suella Braverman upping the anti-refugee rhetoric.
In the House of Commons in October, she declared: “Let us be clear about what is really going on here: the British people deserve to know which party is serious about stopping the invasion on our southern coast.” It was the first time a minister had used the military language of invasion. She continued in similar vein when introducing the Illegal Migration Bill: “There are 100 million people around the world who could qualify for protection under our current laws. Let us be clear. They are coming here.”
It could have been 120 years earlier, when the Daily Mail ran a regular series of news stories and opinion features under the strapline ‘The Alien Invasion’ prior to the 1905 legislation.
The common features between then and now are striking: the key role of the right-wing press; the similar arguments deployed; and the repeated efforts to mobilise cross-class alliances behind the anti-migrant cause, aided by elements within the left and trade union movement.
The Emergence of Antisemitism
The UK's Jewish population expanded rapidly before the First World War from around 60,000 in 1880 to 300,000 in 1914. This was an age of the wholesale emigration of Europeans across the Atlantic and beyond.
For Germans, Poles, Italians and Irish, this resettlement was driven by economic hardship, cheap shipping and the hopes of prosperity in a new land. The same factors drove more than two million east European Jews to move westwards during the four decades prior to the War, with the harsh reality of religious persecution and ethnic pogroms giving added urgency to their flight. More than 80% headed for America. Canada and South Africa were other favoured destinations, while England often served as a trans-migratory hub, a stop-off point on a longer journey.
Prior to the Enlightenment it had been Jews’ religion that demarcated them from others. But after their political emancipation following the French Revolution, it was their race that was increasingly the object of scorn and attack.
In both France and Germany, the late 19th Century saw the emergence of strong antisemitic movements able to mobilise both the petit-bourgeoisie and the poor.
In England, the sudden arrival of Jews into an already densely packed, poverty-stricken east London offered the opportunity for right-wing press owners and ambitious politicians to stoke up anti-Jewish prejudice.
Igniting the Spark
There have been two constant elements stirring the immigration pot throughout the Brexit years and with the current refugee controversy: the Conservative tabloid press and Nigel Farage. It was no different 120 years ago. Then, as now, the Daily Mail led the charge and there was a smart, well-heeled operator with the demagogic, populist touch to front the campaign – Major William Evans-Gordon.
At the start of the 20th Century, the Daily Mail ran regular news stories and opinion pieces under the heading of ‘The Alien Invasion’.
Stories such as that on 18 September 1902 focused on the impact of migrants on "the British workman", depressing his wages and increasing his hours. A flavour of the opinion pieces is evident in the account on the same day by Viscount Mountmorres headed ‘The Foreign Invasion of London. A view from the dockside’. Here he wrote that as the huge liner docks so “out of her bowels swarms a horde of dirty, half-starved, evil-smelling immigrants – Poles, Russians, Germans, Italians, every nationality under the sun. They swarm out and over the ship’s side until they cover the dock as a cloud of locusts a field of green corn”.
Elected as an MP for Stepney in the 1900 General Election, Evans-Gordon linked up with other east London Conservative MPs in calling for curbs on "alien" immigration. In the next few years, he became the central figure in Britain’s immigration debate.
He co-founded the British Brothers’ League in 1901 and then convinced the Government to introduce legislation which became the Aliens Act of 1905. Its proponents claimed that it was intended to restrict immigration and thereby supposedly halt the undercutting of British labour. The Jewish Chronicle more accurately suggested that the legislation really had nothing to do with Jews but was a protectionist measure intended to appease the working-classes at a time of unemployment and so help to retain the seats of Conservative MPs.
A Numbers Game
The UK’s recent debates over EU immigration, Brexit and refugees all contain strong echoes of the original arguments around the Aliens Bill.
Numbers feature prominently. Anti-immigration campaigners regularly exaggerate the number of newcomers entering the country or make false claims of likely numbers to follow.
During the Brexit campaign, Michael Gove and the Vote Leave camp claimed that following Turkey’s entry into the EU (unlikely then, improbable now) 76 million people could flood into the country. Braverman’s latest assertions about the danger of the country being "overrun" with "tens of millions of arrivals" is simply a politician trying to terrify the public.
The UNHCR figures for the year to September 2022 showed that 44,190 people sought asylum in UK; 8% of total applications to the EU+ group of 30 countries. In the same period, Germany had 127,730 applications and France 95,510, while Turkey is currently hosting four million refugees mainly from neighbouring Syria.
Yet numbers rarely cut much ice with anti-immigration campaigners.
During the debate on the 1905 Aliens Bill, opposition MP Charles Dilke pointed out that “the Board of Trade and the (Royal) Commission, very frankly face the facts, and the Commission in its report says – 'it will be observed that the proportion of alien immigrants in this country is comparatively small’".
Yet, in a subsequent debate Evans-Gordon played the Braverman card: every year there are 1.5 million Europeans making their way westwards while there are 5.5 million Jews in the Russian empire who could all be coming here. The fact that the large majority were heading elsewhere was ignored.
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A regular focus of contemporary tabloid and government complaint about immigrants has been their cost.
In her statement on Rwanda last June, Priti Patel said that “we cannot keep on spending nearly £5 million a day on accommodation... We cannot accept this intolerable pressure on public services and local communities”. Nine months later, Braverman was claiming the “exorbitant cost to the taxpayer” was nearly £7 million a day. Neither mentioned the complete failure of their Government to process asylum claims speedily.
Speaking on the Aliens Bill in 1905, Prime Minister Arthur Balfour claimed that the measure would save money for the country: "Why should we admit into this country people likely to become a public charge? Many countries, which exclude immigrants have no Poor Laws, they have not those great charities of which we justly boast... Are we to be bound to support every man, woman, and child incapable of supporting themselves who choose to come to our shores? That argument seems to me to be preposterous".
An ‘Independent and Ever-Growing Nation’
A potent issue in these arguments on race and immigration centres on identity: who are we; who are you; and can you ever be part of us? Today’s key ideologues and influencers on the nationalist, anti-immigrant right, all walk in the footsteps of their anti-alien predecessors at the turn of the 20th Century.
Prime Minister Balfour put it in relatively moderate tones, speaking during the committee stage of the Alien Bill, noting that “however patriotic, able and industrious” Jewish immigrants “are a people apart and not only had a religion differing from the vast majority of their fellow countrymen but only intermarry amongst themselves”.
Evans-Gordon put it more assertively in The Alien Migrant claiming that “it is a fact that the settlement of large aggregations of Hebrews in a Christian land has never been successful”.
While Viscount Mountmorres in the Daily Mail was more blood-curdling: “The character of the alien invasion of the capital is no less startling than its extent... the immigrants who are now pouring into London form an independent and ever-growing nation in our midst. They keep themselves wholly apart from the natives and glory in their isolation. Their openly expressed ambition is to dispossess the indigenous population to drive them out and acquire their houses and their businesses not only by process of absorption but by racial conquest.”
The similarities to Roger Scruton, the Conservatives’ most esteemed recent philosopher, decrying Muslims are unmistakeable. “Our political class had recourse to Doublethink," he said. "Like the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass, they practiced the art of believing six impossible propositions before breakfast, including the proposition that pious Muslims from the hinterlands of Asia would produce children loyal to a secular European state... people whose language, customs, and culture mark them out as foreigners.”
Scruton’s chief protégé, Douglas Murray, draws from the same well, arguing that it is impossible for migrants to integrate.
Where Mountmorres said the Jewish influx meant “there is a life and death struggle now being waged in East London”; for Murray in his 2017 book The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam, the rise in the Muslim population means the same dilemma is today facing the Continent.
Where Evans-Gordon complained that “east of Aldgate one walks into a foreign town”; Murray says that “London has become a foreign country. In 23 of London’s 33 boroughs ‘white Britons’ are now in a minority”. Or as Matthew Goodwin, the current pin-up boy of the nationalist-right puts it, “the Labour vote in working-class Britain is collapsing because they feel ‘like strangers in their own country".
Dividing the Working-Class
The fourth common argument is that the presence of migrants undercuts working-class living standards.
During the Brexit referendum, the right claimed that the EU’s free movement of labour was undermining wages and conditions for the indigenous working-class and putting additional strains on public services at a time of austerity. The pro-EU campaign, dominated by neoliberals, never called for tight regulation of the labour market and thus was left vulnerable to the charge that east Europeans were undercutting British labour and taking jobs. It was a successful repeat of the British Brothers’ League campaign at the start of the 20th Century.
The poverty and squalor of Victorian London were well-known before being meticulously documented by Charles Booth at the end of the 19th Century. Slums, sweatshops and irregular labour long pre-dated the Jewish influx into the East End.
However, the national press, the British Brothers’ League and the East London Observer all laid the blame for the hardships of daily life on the new ‘alien’ arrivals. The fact that Jews worked long hours for low wages too and that overcrowding existed in non-Jewish London neighbourhoods were ignored.
Yet tight regulation of the labour market was the last thing that the Daily Mail and the Conservative Government wanted to promote. Dividing the working-class has always been a strategic aim of the right. Exploiting racial and ethnic differences has long been the most effective way to achieve it.
Nationalism and the Working Classes
While anti-immigrant feeling is primarily generated and supported on the right of politics, nationalism and ‘kith and kin’ sentiments also find a hearing within parts of the left. The narrative of new migrants undermining native labour gained purchase within the UK labour movement too, as was evident in Trades Union Congress motions in the 1890s.
Evans-Gordon saw the potential, campaigning for the British Brothers’ League with the slogan ‘England for the English’. While initially focused on all ‘aliens’, the League quickly morphed into an anti-Jewish body. It successfully mobilised many ‘British workmen’ under its banner claiming that low wages, long hours and sweatshop working conditions all arose because of the presence of Jewish newcomers. It also recruited city merchants and Oxford graduates, doctors, authors and journalists; 40 Conservative MPs backed it; it had offices in the City; and received extensive and favourable coverage in both the local and national press. It set up local branches in many parts of the East End and thousands rallied to its events.
The British Brothers’ League was a pioneering example of a cross-class alliance led and funded by the right, promoted by its press and able to attract significant working-class support by arousing enmity towards newcomers.
The Vote Leave campaign during the Brexit referendum followed the same template: led by the nationalist right; funded by wealthy donors; backed by the right-wing press; but able to claim that it was articulating working-class interests by stopping the free movement into the country of a new generation of east Europeans "working long hours, for low wages and taking our jobs". As the notorious Farage poster pictured it, the country was at breaking point.
This nativism has always had an appeal among sections of the working-class. The letter columns of the East London Observer reflected many of the sentiments of Evans-Gordon and the League.
The vociferous letter writer ‘Mile End Socialist’ stated that “the Jew may call himself an Englishman but he remains a Jew, a member of an alien race which never has conformed and never will conform to the ideas, modes and manners of the natives". While the following month he wrote about “the Anglo-Saxon race being roused like a bulldog” by this alien influx.
While small socialist groups and some trade unionists tried to counter these arguments, they made limited headway.
From Uganda to Rwanda
The migration question drives politicians to conjure up outlandish ideas. The proposal to deport people fleeing from war and persecution to Rwanda – 4,000 miles from Britain – is in clear breach of all agreed international law on refugees carefully developed during the 20th Century. Yet, Priti Patel and Suella Braverman aren’t the first senior Conservative ministers to dream up a policy of shipping unwanted newcomers off to distant lands.
Cabinet minister Joseph Chamberlain came up with the idea 120 years ago. As Colonial Secretary, he had developed the East Africa railway from Mombasa to Lake Victoria. On a visit to the territory, he saw the deserted hill-top terrain of the Mau Escarpment and thought it would be an ideal site for the resettlement of Jews fleeing persecution in Europe.
Chamberlain was aware of the growing political prominence of the refugee issue and of the fear of pogroms within the Jewish diaspora. He discussed the plan on two occasions with Theodor Herzl, Leader of the Zionist Congress.
Called the 'Uganda Scheme', it gave him the chance both to play the humanitarian hero – a statesman making a practical offer to a beleaguered people – and to promote a strong nativist policy to his working-class base.
When he went to speak to the working classes in Limehouse in 1904, the Daily Mail reported that he was greeted with great enthusiasm: “He found his way right to their hearts with the first mention of the alien invasion. Instantly a roar of applause rang back like a thunderclap. Limehouse and its neighbours do not love the aliens and welcomed Mr Chamberlain’s idea of establishing them in the unoccupied space of East Africa.”
The plan found less enthusiasm among Jews. Herzl proposed the scheme at the Sixth Zionist Congress, where it provoked misgivings. After considerable delay, an expeditionary visit was organised which failed to convince members. The subsequent congress dropped its interest in the proposal.
The ‘Culture War’ Shift
In these profoundly disorienting times, parts of the left have begun to adopt versions of the British Brothers’ League agenda, moving towards the nationalist-right while still claiming to adhere to their working-class roots.
Support for Brexit has been the catalyst for this movement and Labour peer Maurice Glasman, a prominent exemplar. He launched Blue Labour in 2011 under the slogan "faith, flag and family" echoing the call to ‘God, Nation and Family’ being used by extreme-right parties across eastern Europe. At the outset, Glasman appeared to offer a benign nationalism yet his latest book offers sweeping condemnation: “Labour has been liquidated” while “across Europe social democracy has no concept either of the social or of democracy”.
A stream of commentators and pundits initially on the left – David Goodhart, Matthew Goodwin, Giles Fraser – have arguably moved at varying speeds towards the nationalist-right, finding a ready audience among a right-wing press eager to promote a 'culture wars' agenda.
Paul Embery, the London firefighter, could be the 21st Century equivalent of the ‘Mile End Socialist’. He repeatedly appears to minimise the extent of racism; and criticises the Black Lives Matter movement and footballers ‘taking the knee’. Disillusioned with the Labour Party, he envisages a different kind of working-class organisation: “There is a space for a leader, a party, who could put a reasonable case for patriotism.”
Those in doubt of its likely destination need look no further than Frank Furedi, the intellectual leader of the former Trotskyist group, the Revolutionary Communist Party. The RCP has turned full circle – its online journal Spiked acts not just as a fellow traveller of the nationalist-right but as a fully-fledged component of it. When the US-based Conservative Political Action Conference held its annual conference last May in Budapest, Furedi was a keynote speaker, talking of the importance of tradition, nationhood and the defence of historic statues. Last November, he was appointed director of a think-tank in Brussels devoted to promoting the values of Viktor Orbán.
Yet the universalist, humanist message continues to show its resilience and wider appeal.
Despite the passage of the Aliens Act, most of the east London Conservative MPs, though not Evans-Gordon, lost their seats in the 1906 General Election. It was to be another three decades before the spectre of large-scale antisemitism reared its ugly head again through the streets of London’s East End.
Then it was rebuffed by a unified working-class and community response bringing together Jews and Gentiles. Similarly, the rise of the fascist National Front in 1970s was repelled by broad cultural and campaigning movements – Rock against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League – organised around the slogan of ‘Black and White: Unite and Fight’.
The Aliens Act campaign and the repeated cycles of anti-immigrant agitation show the persistence of racism, the ferocity with which it is promoted and its ongoing attraction at times of social stress and uncertainty. But social survey data shows that public sentiment is moving in a progressive direction.
The support for Gary Lineker showed, just as previously with England footballers taking the knee, that there is a wider understanding for the plight of refugees and migrants than Braverman and the Conservative cultural warriors imagine. The passage of the 1905 Aliens Act was followed by the landslide Liberal victory at the 1906 election. The Illegal Migrants Bill may yet presage a similar fate for the Conservatives in 2024.
Jon Bloomfield is a writer, environmental practitioner and author of ‘Our City: Migrants and the Making of Modern Birmingham’
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