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Making immigration work for Britain: what can we learn from history?

Continuing our History & Policy series, David Feldman considers how past immigration has been controlled and received, and how it has impacted upon Britain’s welfare system

Published: October 16, 2009 at 11:39 am

Hasn’t there always been immigration to this country?
Immigrants have long been a presence in the British Isles. There were the Flems and Walloons in the late Middle Ages, followed by European Protestants in the 16th, 17th and early 18th centuries. Since the 17th century there has been a constant flow of seasonal and permanent labourers from Ireland, while in the 18th century there were, perhaps, 10,000 Africans in England.


In the 19th and 20th centuries a kaleidoscopic variety of immigrants arrived: Germans, Italians, Jews from eastern and central Europe, Ukrainians and Poles in the aftermath of the Second World War. These were supplemented by immigrants from the Caribbean, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Kenya and Uganda, whose arrival reflected Britain’s imperial past and post-colonial present.

What’s different about immigration in recent years?
It is not immigration that is new but, from the 1990s onwards, the scale, nature and direction of the flows. Today immigrants comprise a far larger portion of the population than has ever been the case before. In 1900 the foreign-born amounted to less than one per cent of the population and even in 1971 they comprised just 5.5 per cent. Yet 30 years later this figure had risen to 8.3 per cent and the number of foreign-born had increased to 4.9 million.

These numbers do not take account of those who have settled since 2001 and almost certainly fails to count unauthorised immigrants. According to a Home Office estimate there were 430,000 such immigrants in 2001, amounting to 0.7 per cent of the population.

It is not only the numbers which are different. Today’s immigrants, generally, are less likely to be post-colonial subjects than labour migrants from eastern Europe, highly skilled workers from Australia, South Africa and the United States or refugees from Asia and Africa seeking asylum.

How has government policy contributed to these changes?
We are accustomed to thinking of government immigration policy as restrictive. The first modern piece of immigration law, the Aliens Act of 1905, set the template as it aimed to exclude from the country those who were unable to support themselves “decently”. This law and further restrictions that followed in 1914 applied only to people who were not British subjects.

The hallmark of immigration legislation in the 1960s and 1970s was that it extended immigration control to British subjects or to people who held British passports. These restrictions transformed the immigration status of dark skinned peoples who were colonial and former colonial subjects.

Since the 1990s, governments have targeted immigrants who claim a right to asylum as refugees. In the past 15 years no fewer than seven major Acts of Parliament have attempted to regulate and stem the flow of people seeking asylum in the UK .

There is another side to current government policy, however. Since 2001, the Government has encouraged some sorts of immigration in order to promote economic growth. Over the last decade, the number of work permits issued annually to skilled workers has more than doubled.

But it is not only skilled workers whom the Government has set out to attract. In 2004 the UK was one of only three countries not to place restrictions on the entry of nationals from the eight countries which joined the European Union that year. Between May 2004 and December 2006 579,000 accession state nationals registered their presence with the Government, 65 per cent from Poland.

Have immigrants always provoked anxieties about integration?
The idea that immigrants bring with them strange habits and ideas, and that these can be dangerous and divisive, is not new. In the mid-19th century, for example, Irish immigrants were blamed for slum conditions. Fifty years later, Russian-Jewish immigrants were widely regarded as an unassimilable element, trading, socialising and marrying only among themselves, largely disengaged from British political life.

In the 1950s and 1960s the arrival of immigrants from the Caribbean and South Asia provoked some similar anxieties as well as new ones shaped by the legacy of empire and the engrained view that Britain was a white man’s country.

Governments of both main parties claimed that strict immigration control promoted integration. But additionally, three race relations acts were passed between 1968 and 1976 to challenge racial discrimination. In this way governments did not seek to micro-manage integration but, instead, set a legislative framework inside which it hoped integration would proceed.

Today, ministers express concern at the impact of immigration on what they call cohesion. They speak about the desirability of integration and emphasise how “a sense of shared citizenship” can promote “what we all hold in common”. The minister for communities and local government, Hazel Blears, promises to establish specialist integration and cohesion teams in 2008.

What is new, then, is not the debate on integration but that it is the task of government to intervene among immigrants and ethnic minorities to promote it.

What does history teach us?
Opinion polls show that a large majority of the electorate believe too many immigrants are coming to Britain, that immigrants are bad for the country, that public services can’t cope with their presence, that the country needs tougher laws to prevent immigration and that what the Government says on the subject can’t be trusted. This is bleak stuff.

In part, it reflects the timidity with which Labour governments over the last decade have advocated the economic benefits of immigration and the reluctance of a series of governments to advertise the nation’s legal and ethical obligations to refugees. Still more, the electorate responds to the false expectation raised by all governments over the last 40 years that strict immigration control is a practical goal.

Yet the history of immigration control is a history of low achievement. As early as 1919, at a moment of apparently draconian restrictions, the Government’s chief immigration officer complained that the system was riddled with loopholes.

In the 1960s and 1970s inflated hopes invested in severe controls were unfulfilled. Primary immigration largely ceased but was replaced by people coming to reunite and form families. Unanticipated crises such as the expulsion of Asians from Uganda led to the arrival of an additional 28,600 immigrants in 1973. The hope that Britain would become a country of zero-immigration was dashed.

In this light it is not surprising that the apparatus of immigration control has been overwhelmed by refugees and asylum seekers since 1990. Nor that the Government finds itself helpless in the face of unauthorised immigrants. Repeatedly, immigration control has been undermined by the weakness of the state’s capacity to catch, detain and eject immigrants and it has been mitigated by the value placed on family life and a sense of obligation to refugees.

Politicians’ pronouncements raise expectations that immigration will be stopped and these, in turn, give way to hostility, xenophobia and racism when they are not met.

These sorts of attitudes constitute one barrier to integration. More generally, though, the sorts of changes that lead to integration take place over generations. We can see this if we look at the trajectory of Irish and Jewish immigrants and subsequent generations. Patterns of employment, residence and marriage become less distinctive over time. Similarly, both groups participated in party politics even though, at times, allegiances to Irish Republicanism and Zionism placed them at odds with the British state. In this perspective the Government’s effort to promote integration will only scratch at the surface of changes that are likely to develop over an extended period.

Government energies and creativity would be better spent ensuring its own institutions and services do not exclude immigrants or promote racism. In this regard the welfare state is crucial. The impact of immigration on public services has become one focus for popular hostility. At the same time, commentators such as David Goodhart argue there is a conflict between the diversity that immigration brings and the solidarity on which the welfare state depends.

Yet it’s immigration’s perceived impact on certain elements of welfare – as opposed to the entire system – that has fuelled public hostility. In the 1960s and 1970s, for example, it was housing not access to the NHS that provided the flash point. In these years immigrants’ entitlement to benefits connected to national insurance was wholly uncontroversial.

Only with the massive extension of means tested benefits in the 1980s did the impact of immigrants on welfare become a point of political debate. Subsequently, in 1996, the Conservative government withdrew welfare benefits from thousands of asylum seekers who, the courts ruled, now became the responsibility of local authorities.

The inevitable upshot was a massive surge of hostility to asylum seekers in those areas where they were concentrated. The lesson is clear: some welfare systems are much better able to absorb immigrants and promote integration than others.

Three lessons from history
1. We have now had more than a hundred years of modern immigration controls. Despite much tough talk, immigration restriction has had very patchy results. Both governments and the public hold unrealistic ideas over what can be achieved.

2. Past governments have talked a lot about control, yet remain timid in trumpeting the economic benefits of immigration. The opportunity to transform public debate is therefore being passed over.

3. Immigrants’ entitlements are brought into question when individual areas of the state are seen to provide welfare. When the fiscal demands arising are spread across the nation, they are less likely to become the focus for resentment.


David Feldman is an editor of History Workshop Journal and author of Englishmen and Jews: Social Relations and Political Culture, 1840-1914 (Yale University Press, 1994). He is now writing The Welfare of Strangers: Migrants and Immigrants in England since 1600


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