1888

Restricting immigration, a good idea? An historical perspective from 1905 to the present

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At the beginning of this week the incumbent Home Secretary announced that from January 2021 new legislation would restrict immigration into the UK, as the government had promised in the run up to the 2019 General Election.

In brief the aim of the Conservative administration is to limit the amount of poorer, less well educated, and ‘low skilled’ migrants to Britain whilst at the same time allowing (encouraging perhaps) those with much-needed skills to come to the UK to work, regardless of where they come from.

Immigrants will only qualify for a visa if they have 70 points under the new system and meet the three essential characteristics, which are:

An ‘approved’  job offer, at an ‘appropriate skill level, and a good command of English.

Those three would give you 50 points so in addition migrants need to coming to work in a job where we have a shortage (20 points); to a job which pays a salary in excess of £25,600; or a PhD in a STEM subject relevant to the job they are taking.

Journalists were quick to point out that this would have excluded the Home Secretary’s own family from entering Britain in the 1960s (something she denied was relevant) and opponents have loudly condemned the move, saying that it will undermine Social Care provision and the hospitality industry.

However, the move is likely to be popular amongst those that supported Brexit, particularly in the constituencies that ‘lent’ the Conservatives their (previously Labour) vote in the last election. PM Johnson’s promise to ‘get Brexit done’ chimed with very many people who believe (like one member of the audience on the BBC’s Question Time last night) that Britain is being ‘flooded’ with immigrants.

Immigrants, it has long been suggested, who take jobs away from locals, depress wages (via their willingness to work for low pay), and who are a drain on the benefit system, housing, and the NHS.

A very similar situation existed in the closing decades of the nineteenth century when after several years of large scale immigration of mainly Jewish migrants from Eastern and Central Europe precipitated racial tension and calls for law to restrict such migration. In 1905 this culminated in the very first restrictive immigration legislation – the Aliens Act.

This act was aimed squarely at poor foreign Jews, just as the modern act is aimed at those who are deemed to contribute little to our society.  In the late 1800s some contemporaries argued that the huge numbers of Jews fleeing persecution and poverty in the Russian Empire were overcrowding areas like East London and ‘swamping’ communities. Cheap Jewish labour – especially in clothing manufacture – was ‘working the Englishman out’. Since immigrants were prepared to work for a lot less in cramped (‘sweated’) conditions the local ‘English’ workforce were either left unemployed or forced to accept reduced wages to compete.Unknown

Following the 1905 act ships arriving in Britain were inspected and ‘steerage’ passengers (those arriving with little or no money) were assessed to see if they were ‘undesirable’. Anyone unable to support himself or his dependents (unless they were political refugees) was undesirable.

In practice this meant they had to have at least £5 plus £2 for every defendant that accompanied them. In 1905 this was quite a considerable amount of cash to bring with you, especially after paying for travel and (probably) having to bribe a series of officials on the way our of Russia. In addition anyone deemed to be ‘a lunatic’, those previous expelled, and criminals were all rejected and turned away.

This was a calculated effort on behalf of the then Conservative government (a weak administration which fell shortly afterwards) to respond to the ‘dog whistles’ of right wing populist politicians like Arnold White and newly elected MPs in the East End who advocated restrictions on immigration.

It fed on the entrenched prejudice towards Jews and ‘foreigners’  that had surfaced during the late 1880s in the wake of the ‘sweating scandal’ and the unprecedented influx of poor Ashkenazi Jews fleeing the Pale of Settlement.

In 1888 when an unknown serial killer murdered at least five defenseless women in Whitechapel many were quick to point the finger of blame at the Jewish community. Indeed, many are still keen to pin the murders on a local Jew even though there is scant evidence that a member of the Jewish community was responsible.

The 1905 Aliens Act fed on popular fears and prejudices just as the legislation announced this week does. That is not say that immigration should not be restricted at all but people should be presented with the facts and not be misled or manipulated for political ends.

UnknownPriti Patel (pictured right with Nick Ferage from LBC) claimed that her parents would have been allowed into Britain as they were fleeing persecution in Uganda under the dictatorship of Idi Amin. But her knowledge of history is sadly lacking.

The Patels came to England in the 1960s, working hard and establishing themselves as the vast majority of immigrants have done and continue to do, and Mrs Patel has benefitted from their hard work and the education she received since her birth here in 1972.

Idi Amin rose to power in the 1970s, well after the Patels left Uganda. When Amin started expelling Asians from Uganda in 1972 Priti Patel’s family had been over here for several years.

Perhaps she might reflect that her parents – like so many migrants to the UK – came for a variety of reasons and with a variety of skills (‘high’ and ‘low’ by her own definitions). Not all – very far from ‘all’ in fact – came with a job or with sufficient money to support themselves (for very long at least) but they came and they worked and they enriched the communities they joined.

Immigration has been a success for Britain and attempts to restrict it have largely been shown to fail. Better perhaps to educate those who believe they are being ‘flooded’ than to pander to their fears and prejudices.

Drew Gray, History at Northampton

What about the victims, why are they so rarely included in the history of crime?

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I have been researching and teaching the history of crime and punishment for well over a decade now and the field now covers considerable ground. There are excellent studies of the criminal justice systems of the past, from the medieval to the modern age, ranging across a wide geographical area from Britain and its empire, to Continental Europe, Africa and the Americas.  There are articles and books on the evolution and development of policing, the rise of the prison, and on different types of criminal activity. Researchers have studied homicide, highwaymen, fraud and forgery, shoplifting and pocket picking; they have looked at juvenile criminals, at female felons, and at (most recently) at the huge numbers of men and women transported to Australia.

Some of the earlier work in the history of crime – and I’m going back to the 1970s and 19780s now – set the scene for much of what has followed. Researchers like Douglas Hay and others that studied under Edward Thompson at Warwick, produced wonderful polemic work that critiqued the hanoverian justice system. They exposed the class bias at the heart of the English criminal justice system that selected its targets from the young working class men who robbed and stole from those better off than themselves.

Peter Linebaugh’s study of eighteenth-century London (The London Hanged) and Thompson’s  own Whig’s and Hunters are, with Hay’s seminal edited collection (Albion’s Fatal Tree), examples of left-wing revisionist histories of a Georgian justice system that seemed to have very little to do with ‘justice’ itself. As another firebrand of this sort of history, VAC Gatrell,  declared that the history of crime is a dirty subject because it is about power, not about crime itself.

Gatrell’s own magnum opus, The Hanging Tree, remains one of my favourite books both for its depth of research and the power of his prose. These pioneers in the history of crime redefined the way we studied this history, borrowing as they did from the wider field of social history, to place the criminal centre stage and, and this is important, raise him up as a victim of the justice system.

The Digital Panopticon, which launched late last year, traces the steps of those uprooted from their communities and dumped on the unforgiving continent of Australia in the late eighteenth and early to mid nineteenth centuries. Michel Foucault and later Michael Ignatieff’s work on the Victorian prison system also paints a bleak and desperate picture of men and women ground down and destroyed by a heartless penal system.

In short then the history of crime and punishment has mostly (since the 1970s at least) been a history of how the state has brutalised those caught up in the criminal justice machine. What is largely missing from the story is that of the victims of crime.

Now, I understand why this was the case in the early years. Historians (particularly those of the left) were keen to show that working-class people had agency, that they were not simply condemned to the ‘condescension of history’ (as EP Thompson put it). Along with work that highlighted the fight for customary rights, the vote, resistance to oppression and creeping capitalism these historian created ‘social bandits’ and heroic highwaymen. More clearly, and less controversially, they attacked the state and its mechanism of social control.

But is it now time to think about the victims of crime? After all, since the late twentieth century the right of the victims of crime have increasingly been placed on the agendas of legislators and criminal justice commentators. Modern criminology does acknowledge that victims need to be both seen and heard; restorative justice has gained ground and recent debates about the release of John Worboys have re-energised calls for victims to be better informed or consulted when offenders are let out of prison.

I think we need to start to try and place the victims at the centre of our studies of crime and punishment, or at least to better understand their role and their experience. We have had excellent work that looks at the role victims have played as prosecutors, which acknowledges their ability to help secure pardons (or conditional pardons) for property offenders sentenced to hang under England’s ‘bloody code’. But what about some work on the shopkeepers in London that appear in the Old Bailey? Or the men and women  robbed and beaten by highwaymen, or those fleeced in city taverns by ‘cunning’ prostitutes? Could we try to present a history from their perspective?

It is not easy of course. We have ended up knowing a lot more about the criminals than we have the victims. Even when it comes to the most famous unsolved murder case in history – the Whitechapel (or Jack the Ripper) murders of 1888 – there is precious little on the five (or more) women who were killed, at least by comparison to the endless commentary on who the assassin might have been. At least Haille Rubenhold is working on this as I write, so that may be addressed fairly soon.

So this is a call if you like, to prospective PhD students, and others working in the field. I’m not asking us to stop exposing the cruel penal systems of the past (or those of the present for that matter), nor am I saying that everyone executed, transported, flogged or imprisoned deserved their fate, but perhaps we now need to redress the balance a little and begin to research those that suffered in a different way from the prevalence of crime and paucity of protection from it that a deterrent based system in the past offered them.

Drew Gray

Drew writes a daily blog on the Victorian Police Courts and teaches the History of Crime at the University of Northampton.

indicative bibliography

Foucault, Michel (1975). Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison.

Gatrell, V.A.C, (1994) The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 

Hay, D (1975), Albion’s Fatal Tree

Ignatieff, Michael (1978) A just measure of pain: the penitentiary in the industrial revolution, 1750-1850.

Thompson, E.P (1975) Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act