Socialist Worker

The same old racist lies about immigrants and disease, a century on

by Elane Heffernan
Issue No. 1940

John Bull locking the door to immigrants. A cartoon from the Daily Express in 1901

John Bull locking the door to immigrants. A cartoon from the Daily Express in 1901


“Small pox and scarlet fever have unquestionably been introduced by aliens within the past few months on a large scale.” You could easily think I’m quoting Tory leader Michael Howard.

In fact the quotes are from a Tory MP — William Evans Gordon, who 100 years ago was pushing through the 1905 Aliens Act, Britain’s first ever piece of immigration legislation.

Just like Howard and home secretary Charles Clarke today, Gordon pleaded that these laws were desperately needed because “it is the poorest and least fit of these people who move”.

The 1905 laws were designed to prevent poor Jewish refugees fleeing pogroms in eastern Europe from entering Britain. It is uncanny how closely this episode mirrors the hysteria that politicians and the press are currently whipping up.

The early 1890s saw an upsurge in radicalism among British workers based around the “new unionism”. But this movement — and the confidence of workers — was ebbing by the mid 1890s.

Racists like Gordon seized the chance for frenzied agitation in the East End of London. “Not a day passes but English families are ruthlessly turned out to make room for foreign invaders,” claimed the well fed MP.

“The rates are burdened with the education of thousands of foreign children,” he added for good measure.

The usual suspects joined Gordon’s racist chorus. The Daily Mail in 1896 described how “so called refugees” spent all their time

gambling on the boat into Southampton before hiding their money and “begging in broken English” for a train fare to London.

It isn’t just the Tory agitation that is dangerously familiar. The response of the Labour Party’s founders also has echoes today. Beatrice and Sidney Webb wrote with horror of the dangers of “the country falling to the Irish or the Jews”.

Many of the most backward union leaders offered no resistance as the Aliens Act came into force. These were the same leaders who proved unable to develop the possibilities of the new unionism, which had successfully united Jewish, Irish and other workers in united mass strikes.

The first ever pensions scheme, introduced in 1906, banned migrants from any share in the wealth they had produced when they were too old to work.

One hundred years on, the capitalist tune has not changed a jot. Divide and rule remains their favourite conjuring trick — and unity our best answer.

Elane Heffernan is an activist with the Refugee Asylum and Migrants Network


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Sat 26 Feb 2005, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1940
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