Where do our modern borders come from?

As the government continues to debate immigration policy, we can learn something by returning to the historical roots of our current thinking.

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The idea that underpins the upkeep of borders – that certain people belong in certain places – is nothing new. In fact, one of the first myths children are likely to encounter in British education is the nativity story, in which the action is kicked off by a demand for citizens to go back to where they belong. In the Caryl Churchill play Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, set in 1640 and staged last year at the National Theatre, a vagrant character is tried for begging by means of a series of questions designed to ascertain where she has the right to be. “I don’t want to be told every place you’ve ever been”, a Justice of the Peace tells her. “Where were you born?” Then: “If you belong fifty miles away what are you doing here?” It’s only the local poor who have a right to assistance. Nor is the notion of carrying proof to show that you're the right person in the right place a recent one: historians describe how 16th century Prussian ordinances banned beggars and vagrants from obtaining “passes”, and the term “passport” has been a part of international diplomacy for centuries.

Yet UK borders today have their origins in a recent, specific history, being a reaction to increased migration at the turn of the twentieth century. It was at this time that the general movement of people became explicitly linked to modern conflict. Scholars like Helen Carr note how the technologies which allowed the twentieth-century boom in leisure travel were initially mobilised to support “empire building, trade expansion, and mass migrations.” Equally, even as trains, planes and automobiles became symbols of a newly leisured class, advertised with glossy posters from Thomas Cook & Son and later Shell, their increasing accessibility was “darkly paralleled” by what David Farley’s history Modernist Travel Writing terms “the rise and spread of global conflict”. Some friction is inevitable when heterogeneous groups share space, but this trend was something darker, with roots in empire and eugenics. New warfare strategies contributed to mass displacement of populations across Europe, affecting countries as geographically disparate as Armenia, Belgium and the France, and the numbers of migrants heading to the UK rose.

A Thomas Cook & Son poster from 1922 advertising a cruise in Egypt.

In Britain, newspapers and government agencies responded with palpable, if not universal, alarm. Particularly conspicious was the anti-Semitic anxiety around Jewish migrants, peaking during the Boer Wars. Specific events, however rarefied or unusual, were quickly instrumentalised in negative coverage of migrant groups - often with little regard for who was actually involved. Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel The Secret Agent draws inspiration from one such incident, the 1894 Greenwich Bombing, in which French anarchist Martial Boudin prematurely detonated the explosives he was carrying while en route, seemingly, to the Greenwich Observatory. In the novel, the bombing is covertly ordered by a foreign dignitary, unnerved at Britain’s lax response to the anarchism which threatens his own country. “A dynamite outrage must be provoked”, he says, urging his agent to “go for the first meridian. You don’t know the middle classes as well as I do. Their sensibilities are jaded. The first meridian.”

Conrad rewrote the story of the bombing, but kept certain details true-to-life; not least the idea that the middle classes would be particularly rattled by an attack in Greenwich Park. Newspaper accounts at the time gave gruesome details about Bourdin’s body, publishing photographs of his corpse while rolling his nationality into a broader debate concerning the possibility of threats from overseas. Suddenly, a sensational case was available to be leveraged against migration in general. Columnists lumped Fenian and continental bombings into Greenwich coverage to hint at an international anarchist conspiracy.

Ten years later, concern reached a crisis point. Politicians were voicing alarm over the numbers of foreign criminals in UK prisons, and overcrowding – particularly in the East End, which hosted a large number of Polish and Russian Jewish immigrants – became the topic of much parliamentary agonizing. The 1905 Aliens Act was the first piece of legislation to place discretionary restrictions on entry into the UK, branding groups of migrants as “undesirable”. Yet despite the UK’s coastal borders presumably making controls easier to enforce than they might be in a country with extensive land borders, the Act was fairly toothless: permission to enter was only given verbally and limitations on whom could be stopped restricted the number of those challenged. Yet the notion of the “undesirable alien” had passed into law, codifying the link between threats to Britain’s security and specific immigrant groups. (In this respect, it is no coincidence that the Polish immigrant Conrad has one of his characters use the name “Prozor”, the root of the Russian-Jewish name “Prozorov”, as a pseudonym  – nor that the character who famously, tentatively describes a nation as “the same people living in the same place . . . . or also living in different places” is Leopold Bloom, the son of a Hungarian Jewish migrant.)

If the 1905 Act introduced the legal “undesirable”, it is the 1914 Aliens Registration Act which is the closest progenitor to today’s immigration controls. Rushed into parliament on the eve of World War One, the Act introduced controls such as the power to make aliens register with the police. The renamed “Aliens Officers” stamped the new passports – valid for two years, and including a record of “identifying features” such as “shape of face” - on entry and exit to the country. In the spring of 1915, new regulations were introduced dictating that no alien was allowed to land without a passport (with photograph) or equivalent documents proving their identity. An index was set up to check whether those entering the UK had complied with their entry conditions - a set-up which remained until 1998.

James Joyce's wartime passport, noting a "regular" nose and forehead. Photo: Sotheby's

From then, immigration restrictions became increasingly sophisticated. Further measures were introduced after the rise of air travel forced the Home Office to appoint an officer to Croydon Airport, while the Aliens Order 1920 was designed to curb the employment of migrants. And while it is true that during the 1930s, after Kristallnacht, some aspects of border controls were relaxed, Britain's Home Office fell desperately short of providing the safe haven that the cosy, classroom narrative of the War would have British schoolchildren believe in. In fact, recent research has highlighted acts such as the introduction of “new, strictly controlled visas precisely to restrict [Austrian Jewish migrants’] numbers” after Germany began its annexation in 1938. Of course, it is impossible to tell exactly how many more refugees might have been taken in to the UK without such measures; but the answer is certainly not zero, and the gap between our collective historical memory and the truth is worth interrogating.

Yet a history of Britain which focuses on positive stories of migration, if told in context, still has the potential to offer something more than cheap redemption. There is a cynical story to be told here, in which the government repeatedly introduced measures to make our borders, seen from miles out at sea, harder and harder to reach for each vulnerable group of people. Yet there is also an alternate telling, in which migrants arrived regardless - as they are prone to - and helped foster a nation in spite of its own angry, defensive insularity. Recent research showing that immigrants contribute a net gain of £20 billion to the UK economy is cause enough to re-assess. It is not just to tell ourselves that we were kind, or to whitewash the struggle of those who came to Britain when the political and social odds were so firmly stacked against them. But we might still be grateful that the UK’s hand-wringing has not been wholly indulged, and consider our good luck as we assess what our borders should look like in the future. After all, people are unlikely to stop moving anytime soon.

Stephanie Boland is head of digital at Prospect. She tweets at @stephanieboland.

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