Hello, would you like to talk about immigration? Probably not. This was the initial response of most of the people I tried to persuade to appear on television while making a new documentary for BBC2. Immigration is a divisive subject, and although pollsters keep telling us that it’s one of the country’s biggest talking points, it’s actually quite hard to get ordinary members of the public to do so on camera.
The documentary is about the first wave of mass immigration into Britain between the 1890s and the end of the First World War, and the changes in our attitudes and our laws that this prompted. But I wanted to compare the situation then and now to see if there are lessons that we can learn from this period.
So when I turned up with a camera crew on the streets of Liverpool asking people about the Aliens Act of 1905, or on the beach at Folkestone asking people about Belgian refugees in 1914, they were, perhaps understandably, a little hesitant.
And in a sense that was perfect, because the modern immigration debate has been characterised by a reluctance to talk about the issue because it is so divisive and can become so toxic. What I wanted to do was to see what happened when Britain was first confronted with the problem, and find out the role of the public, the politicians and the press in dealing with it.
It’s an extraordinary story, largely forgotten now, of how Britain went, in the space of a couple of decades, from a country with no border controls at all to one with a complex system of enforcement that we recognise today.
The Victorians really did have an absolute open door policy. And they were very proud of this. Anyone from anywhere could come over here without a passport or a visa or a letter of introduction or a job or any money.
The rationale was quite simple – that Britain was such a marvellous country that unfortunate people from countries that were not so marvellous (because they were run by foreigners) might well end up being forced to leave them.
Britain, as the moral as well as the political leader of the world, would therefore welcome these refugees in and trust them to contribute to their new home in a way that would make it even more marvellous.
They were so fierce about this principle that in 1858 a British jury decided that a French immigrant who had supplied the bombs for a terrorist attack in Paris was not guilty of being an accessory to murder. Amazingly they decided that the French authorities were trying to interfere with the sacred duty of Britain to protect asylum seekers. Simon François Bernard walked free.
Yet in the 1890s the arrival in the East End of London of 100,000 Jewish immigrants fleeing persecution in Russia put this attitude under severe strain. The local population complained about the newcomers undercutting wages, putting pressure on housing and infrastructure and making their neighbourhoods unrecognisable with their clothes and food and religion.
The new popular newspapers were not slow to take up this story of “Aliens”, as they were known, and neither were the politicians, who sensed a cause that they could take up.
An anti-immigration movement called the British Brothers’ League was set up by Major William Evans-Gordon, who was the Conservative MP for the working-class constituency of Stepney. He told enthusiastic crowds at large rallies that the immigrants were a huge threat, would never be loyal to Britain and used the imagery of a storm brewing that would break with terrible results.
Anyone suffering from déjà vu at this point is quite justified. Similar treatment was given to the relatively tiny number of Chinese immigrants whose arrival in the laundries of British ports was greeted by a nationwide panic about “The Yellow Peril”.
It’s fascinating to recall that Winston Churchill was one of the great defenders of the Jewish and the Chinese immigrants at this time; he was against the proposals for legislation to restrict them. His desire to preserve Britain’s reputation for welcoming those seeking asylum in particular led to him deserting the Conservative Party because he thought it was too tough on immigration.
He unsuccessfully opposed the Aliens Act of 1905, which was the first time that Britain had imposed restrictions on those trying to “come over here” and decided who we would and wouldn’t let in. The period is rich in surprising stories and contemporary parallels.
Who now remembers that when Germany invaded Belgium in 1914 the British public hosted 250,000 Belgian refugees in the greatest single act of humanitarian aid in our history? And that this extraordinary feat was largely down to one classic British do-gooder called Lady Lugard?
As well as speaking to the public, I interviewed present-day politicians, historians and journalists to try to understand how we got to where we are now. Alan Johnson spoke about the Tony Blair government he was part of getting the numbers of Eastern European immigrants wrong and his worries that the fears of white working-class people had not been sufficiently addressed, but also of his optimism about racial integration based on his multicultural childhood in 1950s west London.
I spoke to Baroness Warsi, the Conservative peer and former cabinet minister, who told me about the loyalty of her grandparents’ generation and the economic contribution of her family and community, but also of the need for immigration control.
I spoke to Katie Hopkins – well, listened, really – about the role of the press and its responsibility to tell the truth. And I talked to Robert Windour, the author of Bloody Foreigners, about the history of the negative attitude to incomers and the repetitive nature of the arguments about their impact.
But my favourite bit of the programme came from filming vox pops in London. It was a chance encounter in the street with two distinguished-looking older men on their way to lunch. I asked if they would mind talking to me, and as luck would have it one was an immigrant from Pakistan, and one from Iran.
They were also both psychiatric doctors who had worked in the NHS for 40 years. The Pakistani doctor told me that he was in favour of strict immigration controls and had voted for Brexit to control our borders. He said he was grateful to Britain for the opportunity to make a new life.
His friend interrupted him and told him that Britain should be grateful to them, and that he was talking nonsense about restricting immigration. They then proceeded to disagree about every aspect of the subject.
When I pointed this out they both laughed, and the Iranian said that maybe they had learnt one thing from being in Britain, and that was tolerating each other.
Who Should We Let in? Ian Hislop on the First Great Immigration Row is on Thursday 22 June at 9.00pm BBC2