Boris Johnson

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

Radical Conservatism, Edwardian Tariff Reform and Brexit

Senior lecturer Mark Rothery reflects on patterns in history.

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Pattern repeating Union Jack by Dawn Hudson

There are moments as a historian when you notice patterns repeating – they never repeat in exactly the same way but the repetition is always noticeable. Recent changes in British Conservatism and the wider Brexit process have reminded me of a moment in the history of the Conservative Party during the Edwardian period.

In the wake of Benjamin Disraeli’s death, in 1881, the Conservative Party faced a series of challenges. The Party seemed unsuited to the new, more democratic world that Disraeli had helped to create. Trades Unions (newly legalised by Gladstone’s Liberals), the decline of Britain’s pre-eminent global economic supremacy, of landed society and the decline of the empire all seemed problematic for a party that rested on these pillars of ‘traditional England’. How to attract the votes of the middle and working classes, this was the challenge.

Conservatism was lent a helping hand in the final two decades of the nineteenth century thanks to problems for the Liberal Party. This included a major split over Home Rule for Ireland that saw the Liberal Unionists under Lord Hartington and Joseph Chamberlain leave the Liberals and join the Conservatives, eventually permanently fusing the two parties as the Conservative and Unionist Party in 1912 (the Conservative Party bears this name to this day). For the moment the Conservatives were saved but trouble was stored up for the future.

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Joseph Chamberlain at his desk in the Colonial Office: Image from Wikicommons

As a way of appealing to a wider electorate the Conservatives settled on Tariff Reform. Perhaps the most unpopular and dull political policy ever devised Tariff Reform went like this. Free trade would come to an end, tariffs would be imposed on all products coming from outside the empire. This would bind the empire more closely as a trading bloc and incrementally improve Britain’s declining position in the world. It would also provide income for social reform thereby attracting working close voters but not alienating ‘traditional support’ by taxing the rich.

All these prerogatives are reminiscent of Brexit and the thinking around this issue. These debates are about Britain’s position in the world, about trade and empire and about attracting a wider electorate.

Tariff Reform was an absolute disaster in the period it was official policy from 1903-14 under the guidance of Joseph Chamberlain and Arthur Balfour, the Conservative leader. The Tories were annihilated in the 1906 election (their biggest defeat until the 1997 election) and showed no signs of recovering in the two elections of 1910 (January and December). New Liberalism, meanwhile, cut swathes through traditional fiscal policy introducing pensions, national insurance, unemployment benefit, the emasculation of the House of Lords and a host of other radical policies, which furnished with Lloyd George’s radical oratory was all the more shocking to ‘the establishment’.

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Only war proved to be the saviour of the Conservatives. They eventually went into wartime coalition with the Liberals in 1916, repeated this in 1918 under Lloyd George and, when their confidence had eventually returned removed themselves from the coalition in 1922 (hence the ‘1922 Committee’). Labour won their first election in 1923 but this, and the 1929-31 Labour Government, were to prove brief eclipses of Tory dominance in the interwar period as the Liberal Party went into terminal decline.

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