This essay, on the historical echoes of current British asylum policies, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 19 March 2023, under the headline “‘Stop the boats’ does echo the language of the 30s – but those words were English”.
It has become a familiar political pas de deux. One side draws an analogy between some current policy or practice and 1930s Germany, as if Nazis provide the only measure of moral degradation. The other side uses outrage at the analogy as a shield to protect itself from having to justify that policy’s immorality in its own terms.
And so it has been with the Gary Lineker controversy. A striking aspect of the debate over his tweet that the government’s “stop the boats” policy deploys “language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s” is that defenders of the policy seem to imagine that Lineker’s well-meant but ill-judged words are more disturbing than the policy he was criticising. It reveals how far the moral dial has slipped, that so many are willing to countenance, or at least not condemn, the mass detention and deportation of people without proper papers to countries to which none of them have been, or want to go, and the effective shutting down of asylum possibilities.
The Channel crossings are a major problem for those making them. Yet, despite the panic about the numbers coming in small boats, asylum claims today are fewer than they were two decades ago.
The reason asylum seekers use small boats is that all other routes have been cut off. The government insists that it will open safe legal routes for refugees only once the “boats have been stopped”. This suggests both a recognition of the real issue – the lack of legal routes – and a greater desire to score political points than to ensure the safety of those making the crossing or to pursue practical solutions.
For all the furore over the Lineker tweet, there is an echo between the debate now and that in the 1930s. An echo not of Nazi policy but of Britain’s shameful response to Jewish refugees; and an echo not just of the response in the 1930s, but over a much longer period.
At the turn of the 20th century, a panic about Jews fleeing pogroms in eastern Europe led to Britain’s first immigration law, the Aliens Act 1905. Much of the debate is eerily familiar. Many Jewish refugees, critics claimed, “were never persecuted but came with the persecuted”; most were “paupers” and would be “taking the bread out of English mouths”.
The TUC deplored the fact that Britain had become “the refuge of all the rubbish of the central countries of Europe”. Jews were “the most lecherous breed in existence”, wrote Joseph Banister in his antisemitic tract England Under the Jews, and would run the sex trade.
William Evans-Gordon, MP for Stepney, wrote in his 1903 book The Alien Immigrant that “east of Aldgate, one walks into a foreign town”. A founder of the reactionary British Brothers’ League, Evans-Gordon told parliament that the “alien invasion” lay at the root of Britain’s housing problem because “Not a day passes but English families are ruthlessly turned out to make room for foreign invaders”.
“The Alien Invasion. Startling increase in those who come to stay” yelled a Daily Express headline in the run-up to the debate over the Aliens Act. Without the new law, the prime minister, Arthur Balfour, told parliament, Britain would irreparably change.
“Though the Briton of the future might have the same laws, the same institutions and constitution”, he insisted, British “nationality would not be the same and would not be the nationality we should desire to be our heirs through the ages yet to come”.
Three decades later, many of these themes were resurrected in the debates about Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. Numerous studies have detailed how British policy was defined by two sentiments: sympathy for Jews facing the horrors of Nazism and an insistence that their plight should not be seen as Britain’s problem.
Britain often lauds itself for its generosity towards Jewish refugees, especially the Kindertransport under which, during 1938 and 1939, about 10,000 children were brought to safety in Britain. But as Louise London reminds us in Whitehall and the Jews 1933-1948, perhaps the definitive account of British policy, Britain’s strategy “was designed to keep out large numbers of European Jews – perhaps ten times as many as it let in…. Escape to Britain was an exception for the lucky few; exclusion was the fate of the majority”.
German Jews, the Holocaust historian Steve Paulsson observes, were “treated as ‘bogus asylum seekers’ (because their lives were not yet in immediate danger) and as ‘economic migrants’ (because, having lost their means of livelihood, they would benefit economically by coming to Britain). In effect they were treated as immigrants who were trying to jump the queue, rather than as people in desperate need.” Sound familiar?
Then, as now, the need to preserve “British sovereignty” was wielded as a weapon to exclude refugees. To let in more Jews, officials claimed, would undermine sovereign control over who should be granted entry. Then, as now, there was a desire not to allow refugees to set foot on British soil before deciding their fate; in 1938, Britain imposed a visa system on migrants from Germany and Austria, “to stem… the problem at its source”, as Paulsson puts it.
When war was declared in September 1939, about 70,000 Germans and Austrians in Britain, including Jewish refugees, became classed as “enemy aliens”. Specially created tribunals declared most Jews not to be a threat. Nevertheless, 569 were interned, and another 6,700 had restrictions placed on them.
Then, a largely press-generated panic about “fifth columnists” led in May 1940 to the mass internment of 29,000 Germans, Austrians and Italians, mostly Jews. Internees were held in camps across the UK, the largest being on the Isle of Man, with Jews forced to mingle with Nazi sympathisers. More than 7,500 were also shipped to internment camps in Australia and Canada – the 1940s version of “offshore detention”.
Most detainees in British camps were soon released, though 5,000 remained interned even by 1942. Many deported to Canada were held behind barbed wire for up to three years.
There is no need to draw lazy comparisons between British policy and language and those of Nazi Germany. The echoes of Britain’s own shameful policies of the past are clear enough. As should be the immorality of Britain’s current policies.