Spylessness, and Other British Values

Bernard Porter

There are many ways of defeating a nation. One is by destroying its ‘values’. If they are liberal, it can be difficult to defend and preserve them in time of war. Modern terrorism, we are told, is a kind of war. The French republic is struggling to maintain its founding principles of liberty, equality and fraternity in the face of it. Other nations have been through the same experience, and quandary, in recent years. The United States was only half successful at keeping its ideals intact after 9/11. Norway was much admired for its determination to do better after the Utøya massacre of 2011.

In Britain, meanwhile, things don’t look good for the liberal way. The home secretary hopes shortly to bring in a measure – the Investigatory Powers Bill – that is bound to undermine many of our liberties. Other government measures threaten to close the doors to refugees. We are already the most surveilled country in the world, and the most unwelcoming in Europe to poor asylum seekers (though not to rich oligarchs).

The liberal principles under threat are supposed to have been central to Britain’s ‘national identity’ in days gone by – so far, at least, as the British mainland was concerned. The absence of a ‘political’ police, and of public surveillance of any kind, was crucial to most Britons’ self-regard for most of the 19th century and well into the 20th. In particular, it distinguished Britain from France. ‘They have an admirable police at Paris,’ the Earl of Dudley said in 1811 after a particularly horrible sequence of murders in East London. ‘But they pay for it dear enough. I had rather half-a-dozen people’s throats be cut in Ratcliffe Highway every three or four years than be subject to domiciliary visits, spies, and all the rest of Fouché’s contrivances.’ (Fouché was Napoleon’s police chief.) Most Victorians believed espionage was dishonourable, corruptible and destructive of stable and happy government, which rested on trust between rulers and ruled.

Britain’s policy of admitting any foreigner into Britain, even known terrorists, ran ‘spylessness’ a close second. Even bombs planted by foreign anarchists in London couldn’t shake that. Between 1823 and 1906, Britain had no laws to enable it effectively to refuse admission to foreign political refugees, or to extradite any who were here. Consequently, no immigrant was ever turned back or expelled. Some of them, early on, were even given government grants.

Happy days! Of course we can’t bring them back. (Though I never thought Victorian working conditions could come back, either.) But governments should be aware of what they’re doing when they stick CCTV cameras at every street corner, read our emails, and stop asylum seekers at Calais. They are undermining what were thought at one time to be two of Britain’s proudest ‘values’, the principles that defined it as a nation. I’m not sure that Conservatives – with their supposed respect for ‘British tradition’ – fully realise that. The Investigatory Powers Bill may be justified; I can't say. What I can say, however, as a historian, is that it undermines what we used to think of as crucial to our ‘national identity’. In this sense the terrorists might be said to have already won.


  • 17 November 2015 at 11:15am
    Phil Edwards says:
    Sadly the idea that foreigners are seditious & should be kept out has been pretty well entrenched since the Aliens Act of 1905. Only the identity of the foreigners, and the nature of the threat they pose, have changed - back then the main threat was of Jewish labour activists inciting loyal British workers to go on strike.

    Spylessness died harder. In the 1957 film Town on Trial a Metropolitan Police detective (played by John Mills) is assigned to investigate a murder in a country town. His first suggestion is to put a leaflet through people's doors, asking them to contact the police if they've seen anything suspicious. His local counterpart is horrified: you can't go around asking decent people to rat on their neighbours!

    We've come a long way since then.

  • 23 November 2015 at 12:14pm
    Satvinder Juss says:
    "Bernard Porter (LRB Blog, 16 November 2015) writes that, “[b]etween 1823 and 1906, Britain had no laws to enable it effectively to refuse admission to foreign political refugees, or to extradite any who were here,” and that today we are the “ most unwelcoming in Europe to poor asylum seekers (though not to rich oligarchs).”

    Between 1881 and 1901 the alien population of London rose from 60,000 to more than 135,000, which included 53,000 Russians and Poles, four-fifths of these living in the Borough of Stepney. The other cities – Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds – had combined alien population of almost 27,000 in 1901. This is why a Select Committee of the House of Commons was mandated to inquire into “the subject of immigration of destitute aliens, and as to the extent and effect of such immigration into the United Kingdom; and to report whether it [was] desirable to impose any, and if so, what, restrictions on such immigration.” When it reported in 1889 it did not advocate control. This is despite the fact that it found that immigrants arrived in terrible conditions on ships, and that, “their physical condition was inferior to that of British workmen, but their health appeared to be good, nothwithstanding their neglect of sanitary laws. They had good qualities and were inoffensive as citizens, but generally dirty and unclean in their habits.”

    By contrast the Royal Commission on Alien Immigration 1903 did recommend immigration control. It was instituted to report into the “character and extent of the evils which are attributed to the unrestricted immigration of aliens” and “to advise what remedial or precautionary measures it is desirable to adopt…..having regard to the absence of any statutory power to exclude or expel” any alien. It was said the newcomers were largely paupers and thus liable to become a charge on public funds; that they constituted a criminal class ; and that they were non-assimilating community. The Commission did not find that aliens were a health hazard or that they carried contagious diseases, or that controls were needed to protect the labour market , as there were “no better trade unionists in the world than aliens” who are “industrious to a degree” and “keep up their wages”. But controls were needed on immigrants who arrived in the UK in an impecunious state and had no prospect of gaining employment, as they would become a charge on public funds. The Aliens Act 1905 followed. It saw the start of modern immigration control in Britain.

    Those arriving in decrepit Mediterranean refugee boats today are reminiscent, therefore, of poor immigrants from a by-gone age now barely remembered. Yet, the unwelcome extended to poor immigrants – lest we forget – has a long and illustrious history that continues to influence how we react now."

    Professor Satvinder Juss , Kings College London.