Antony Lerman

  • Literature, Immigration and Diaspora in Fin-de-Siècle England: A Cultural History of the 1905 Aliens Act by David Glover
    Cambridge, 229 pp, £55.00, November 2012, ISBN 978 1 107 02281 2

How should politicians respond to worries about immigration? Should they explain that immigrants from the eight Central and East European countries that joined the EU in 2004 have paid more in British taxes than they’ve received in direct and indirect public transfers? Or should they deploy vans on London’s streets with huge billboards telling illegal immigrants to GO HOME OR FACE ARREST, a campaign the government introduced in July? Should they argue for an amnesty for the more than 600,000 undocumented immigrants, given that, according to the latest figures, the UK Border Agency is having trouble clearing a backlog of 500,000 unresolved cases? Or instead enlist doctors, landlords and employers to track them down, a key plank of the government’s immigration bill? Criticised even by Ukip, the mobile billboard wheeze was scrapped on 22 October; the vans were ‘not a good idea’, admitted an unapologetic Theresa May. But the government is going ahead with its plan to outsource immigration control to private citizens, despite a barrage of criticism and a Channel 4 FactCheck report finding no clear evidence that it would work. To have presented objective data about the impact of immigration or granted an amnesty would have been sensible, but the vast majority of politicians shrink from suggesting such possibilities because they won’t risk being seen as ‘soft’ on immigration. Rare is the MP who doesn’t pander to the public’s prejudices: that Britain is full, asylum-seekers are ‘spongers’ and even legal immigrants won’t ‘integrate’. This shameful state of affairs was legitimised in 2005 by Tony Blair in the White Paper Controlling Our Borders: Making Migration Work for Britain: ‘Tolerance [is] under threat from those … abusing our hospitality.’

Faced with a moral panic about alien hordes pouring into Britain from the Russian Empire, the politicians’ response in 1905 was to pass the Aliens Act. And so began the policy of immigration control and restriction that still exists, much amended, tightened and aimed at new categories of the unwanted. There was no golden age of immigration, but for much of the 19th century Britain was open to migrant and refugee alike. The Aliens Act ended that laissez-faire period and called into question Britain’s claim to be a liberal state. While the Act did not refer specifically to Jews, everyone knew who was meant by ‘undesirable aliens’. From 1880, Jewish refugees began fleeing persecution, systematic repression, pogroms and poverty in the Pale of Settlement. About two million of them went to the United States. Between 1881 and 1914, 150,000 entered Britain. The distinctions we now make between refugees, asylum seekers and legal and illegal economic migrants can’t really be applied to the mass Jewish migration at the Fin de Siècle. I never thought of my paternal grandfather, a penniless, devout Jew without a trade from the small town of Korosten in Ukraine, who arrived in Britain in 1901, as having sought asylum. But he did.

David Glover wants to find out how ‘a law restricting immigration [could] be passed in a country that had prided itself on offering asylum to refugees and had virtually made the right to freedom of movement across national boundaries an article of faith’, and how ‘the figure of “the Jew” [came] to occupy the role of quintessential foreigner in the popular imagination, a process in which the word “alien” lost its old meanings derived from common law and became a national-racist epithet.’ Although racial anti-semitism was generally seen as a Continental phenomenon, it had seeped into British politics and society, making possible the 1905 legislation.

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