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Edward Pearce considers the vitriolic reception offered by some to Russian Jews seeking asylum in Britain a hundred years ago.

WILLIAM HAGUE has made great play with the question of asylum seekers, and Home Secretary Jack Straw's response is the establishment of what some might call prisons, to detain asylum seekers while inspectors decide if they are bogus.

It has not been an edifying tale, nor is it a new one. After the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881, his successor, the pious Alexander III, authorised persecution of the Jews of the Russian Pale and Poland. A people already discriminated against was now visited with Cossack billetings, beatings-up and murder. A flight of Jews followed, many to the United States, a minority to London's urban slums of Whitechapel, Stepney, Bow, Stoke Newington, Limehouse, Wapping.

There was already a London Jewish community as well as those in Leeds and Manchester, its existence ordained in 1656 by Cromwell. That community had thrived, so much so that there had died, in the same year as Czar Alexander, the Earl of Beaconsfield, recently Conservative prime minister, Anglican and romantic anglophile, but a proud and ardent Jew, grandson of a straw-hat merchant come to England from near Ferrara in 1748. The ability of the Conservatives to sustain Disraeli and Disraeli the Conservatives had done credit to the tolerance of the one and the flair of the other. What would now unfold would be less pleasant.

Beaconsfield's grandfather, Beniamino D'israeli, had entered an England with no formal restraints on immigration. So too had the new immigrants who concentrated in areas already overcrowded, poor and dirty. Their destitution made them ultra-competitive in the labour market, and friction was inevitable. But resentment would be stirred up by what might be called `a tightly-knit group of politically motivated men'. Howard Vincent, MP for Sheffield Central, would sum it up in 1904. `While over 260,000 people emigrated from the United Kingdom last year, their places Were taken by no less than 82,000 of the scum of Europe.'

Vincent, originally a soldier, had become director of the CID at twenty-nine, serving there between 1878 and 1884. He had some knowledge of the East End and the sweated labour in the clothing trade, in which the Jews notably engaged. But as a politician he was shrill. His figures were notoriously impressionistic or plain wrong, but they were flung out in the cause of restricting immigration. The term `Restrictionism' would be coined, and Vincent, erratic and parliamentarily inept, would lead it.

Arnold White was the intellectual of the movement, imperialist, Germanophobe, antisemite and eugenicist, keen to sterilise the unfit. White was sure that Britain risked being `dominated by cosmopolitan and materialist influences fatal to the existence of the English nation'. He expressed sympathy with the native working class, further crowded and competed with by immigrants, though he also thought `that a couple of Gardner guns, used with smokeless powder, would end for a generation any attempt on the part of the Socialists to seize property'.

White thought the Jews were parasites upon Russia and prospectively upon Britain. Like most later fascists, he adored the physical. Jews who had been settled on the land in the Ukraine, he admired: `Only sunshine and sweat' would make the Jew `like other people'. Perhaps the Argentine might provide a home, or Armenia. But the new Jews of East London he thought 90 per cent unfit. They, he said, were diseased, destitute, a threat to British workers whom they provoked to violence, and not bona fide asylum seekers. The Russian excesses were regrettable, but not surprising. Russian statesmen had recognised that their country was threatened with a Jewish takeover within a decade.

For White, Jews were at once sordid, disease-bearing criminals and superior intellects linked with international finance, certain to conquer any nation showing weak friendliness towards them. To `restrictionist' would now be added another coinage, `anti-alien'. And nobody was more anti-alien than White. His books had a public; articles appeared in substantial journals; he corresponded with Lord Salisbury. The shrill voice carried.

He would find allies, such as the Earl of Dunraven, who were preoccupied with `Fair Trade' or protectionism. Arguments against free trade and unchecked immigration were readily conflated. Cheap foreign-made goods undercut British-made items, while the labour of savagely poor immigrants undersold British workmen in the labour market. And the Conservative Party needed a working-class vote.

These men could make waves, publish books and use Parliament, but they did not at first mobilise East Enders. Their hopes were invested in legislation. The patron through whom they sought to operate was the Marquess of Salisbury. That cynical pessimist, as Roy Jenkins has called him, was something of a reds-under-the-bed-man who believed that the assassination in 1894 of President Sadi Carnot of France, `the most odious attack on civilisation that history records', had been organised by anarchists based in Britain. It had not, but Salisbury, in opposition, introduced a Bill in the Lords to expel aliens `threatening the peace and tranquillity of the realm'. For good measure he threw in a clause aimed at keeping out destitute aliens.

Even the prime minister, Rosebery, least liberal of Liberals, disliked it, not least because Salisbury proposed peremptory powers for a government inspector to `prohibit the landing of any alien who is in his opinion either an idiot, insane, a pauper, a person suffering from any dangerous, contagious or infectious disease.' `In his opinion' was a mighty discretion. The Liberals reacted with horror at the idea of such autocracy vested in a Board of Trade inspector. And Salisbury did not have his heart in the measure, making no attempt to revive it when he returned to power.

In the last years of the nineteenth century, restrictionism seemed to have hit a bear market. South Africa was all-consuming. An `Old Londoner', writing during the Khaki election of 1900 to the anti-alien East London Observer, lamented the lack of outrage. `Surely for Londoners, the election should have but one object and that above all party politics. I refer to the presence in their midst of these foreign Jews ... There was a time when Englishmen could be roused, but now they appear to accept everything as inevitable.'

Englishmen would be roused soon enough by a new champion, Major William Evans-Gordon. A vein of Boys' Own Paper patriotic endeavour ran through the leading restrictionists: Vincent was the dashing police commander whose team had captured Dublin's Phoenix Park murderers in 1881, while White's books included heroic accounts of the British Navy and Nelson. Evans-Gordon himself had served in the North-West Frontier. He protested that he was not antisemitic. He simply wanted to discourage Jewish immigration. Tory MP for Stepney from 1900, Evans-Gordon was an organiser. And the chief object of his skills, the British Brothers' League (BBL), was started in 1898. Run on a shoestring, the League held meetings 4-6,000-strong across 1902, guarded by 250 heavy labourers who ejected any alien unwise enough to interrupt. Something of its tone can be found in Frederick Bradshaw, who wrote in 1904: `Perhaps enough has been said to prove that the foreigner is not a very desirable person as a neighbour. He first displaces the native and causes him to pay more rent. He demoralises the Englishman's children by his filthy habits and general disregard of decency and finally, as fast as the magistrates improve the character of any district, the alien comes in, and with him a host of prostitutes and criminals fleeing from justice abroad.' Bradshaw's disgust at Jewish immigrants was, however, balanced by his revulsion at Catholic workers in Polish coalfields.

A monster meeting held by the League at the People's Palace in January 1902 is seen by some as the event which won from the Conservative government (whose local election agents had served the BBL) a commission on restriction of immigration under a former attorney-general, Lord James. Evans-Gordon, a member of the commission, organised the evidence, bringing forward councillors, shopkeepers and trade unionists exercised by the wage question. Opposition in the Jewish interest was in the hands of Lord Rothschild. Evans-Gordon printed pamphlets, and arranged a second People's Palace meeting for November 1902. The Jewish Chronicle remarked: `The agitation has never subsided or even moderated in the slightest degree. Throughout the recess, tom-toms have been beaten, the air has resounded with anti-alien incantations.' Lord James, a moderate man, recommended a limited restriction.

The Bill, announced in February 1904, would be everywhere recognised as badly drafted. Liberals attacked it both for its intrinsic purpose and for drafting which, like Salisbury's, put up flaccid definitions -- `notoriously bad character' or `persons likely to become a public charge' -- and empowered inspectors to expel. It was withdrawn, but it came back. The government, now doing badly, hoped that the trade union appeal of such legislation might split the Liberals from the Labour Party. But Ramsay MacDonald ardently liberal on the issue, led attacks on restriction and anti-alienism. The Bill was toned down, acquiring an appeals element and dropping such phrases as `notoriously bad character'. Late Jewish pressure also led to the recognition of the validity of religious refugees. For `an immigrant who proves that he is seeking admission to this country solely to avoid prosecution or punishment on religious or political grounds or for an offence of a political character or persecution involving danger to life or limb, leave to land shall not be refused on grounds merely of want of means.' Those grounds are still the central test.

The eventual Aliens Act 1905 was a thin affair, one which, said the Liberal C.P. Trevelyan, `would keep out five dinghy loads of tatterdemalions'. Its passage did not prevent annihilation for the Conservatives in the subsequent election. The grandchildren of Vincent's `scum of Europe' became accountants, violinists and Conservative MPs. But it did pass, and although the language our politicians use is remote from such phrases, the vulnerability of asylum to fear and the exploitation of fear is not.

Edward Pearce is the author of Lines of Most Resistance (1999) on Irish Home Rule.
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Author:Pearce, Edward
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:4EUUE
Date:Nov 1, 2000
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