The Aliens Act – not for celebrating

The trouble with history is that so much goes on behind the scenes, and the record, when it reaches the books, only tells the sanitised  story.
Take, for example, the time when the prime minister complained of “the undoubted evils that had fallen upon the country from an immigration that was largely Jewish.” And, with that reasoning, the Aliens Act received the royal approval on August 11th 1905, 115 years ago to this day.
It was passed by Arthur Balfour’s ministry; the same Balfour who later made the Balfour Declaration.  It was the second attempt by the government to get the measure through, because the first bill had to be withdrawn; Winston Churchill, on the opposition Liberal benches, talked it out. It was an English example of a filibuster. The Conservatives had to introduce it again.
After the Aliens Act, as a Jewish immigrant, you could still get into the country if you had a job in the offing and could pay the Naturalisation Fee, which was £5.50. It’s £1,330 today. In real money it’s just about doubled. Complaints about the £5.50 went on and on, and not only were the. number of official Jewish immigrants reduced from 500 in 1906 to 50 in 1910, but over the same period 1,378 were deported as indigent.
The Aliens Act was a mess because so much depended on the attitude of the inspectors. We’re behind the scenes again. A lot of fiddling went on – for and against.
The Jewish establishment were in favour of the bill. Their charities were overwhelmed by the needs of the impoverished newcomers and the unfair reputation the immigrants had for undercutting the wages of native workers. Their respectable image was undermined, as a result, by a mass of Yiddish speaking, strangely dressed newcomers. They were indubitably foreign, and foreign was the last appellation the older members of the community sought. The four conservative Jewish MPs voted for the bill and one of the four Liberal Jewish MPs too.
Of course, a lot of the prospective immigrants were refugees, who were acceptable and it wasn’t until the outbreak of the Great War that immigration was really halted.
Was the government, therefore, anti-semitic? No, they were facing a General Election which they were very likely to lose, and pandering to the small but vociferous anti-semites, in organisations like the British Brothers League. They reckoned the bill might get them some votes. It didn’t save them, but the Liberals who took over, passed their own bill along the same lines.
The Liberals had won with a very radical manifesto and a majority of over 300. The vast majority of their legislation, however, was killed in the House of Lords. For example, a bill to reduce the number of pubs to satisfy the Temperance members of the Liberal party, was killed in the Lords, where so many of the members were known as the Beerage.
There was one up-and-coming Liberal Welsh MP called David Lloyd George. He would be prime minister when the Balfour Declaration was made. He was also commissioned to write the constitution of a new organisation, called the Zionists, about the same time as the Aliens Act. Consequently, he knew all about Zionism long before the question of a National Home became a general talking point.
Balfour had a Conservative Manchester seat, whose Chair was also head of the Manchester Zionist Association. and related to the French Dreyfus. Sir Charles Dreyfus was the founder of Clayton Aniline, a major Manchester company. Balfour would have had no trouble financing the constituency, so long as Sir Charles didn’t object to the Aliens Act. Clayton Aniline lasted till 2004 and went down with the British textile industry.
        Jewish Aliens and their children created Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Warburgs, Glaxo, ICI, and hundreds more pillars of the British economy. When there is talk of another Aliens Act, it’s worth remembering.
About the Author
Derek is an author & former editor of the Jewish Year Book