Aliens Act (1905)

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