Book Review from the March 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard
Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats by Maya Goodfellow (Verso £12.99.)
In a world full of euphemisms, the term ‘hostile environment’ really does describe the government’s policies towards migrants. The Immigration Acts of 2014 and 2016 made life much tougher for those who had migrated to the UK, threatening to deprive them of health care and housing or even deport them, if they could not provide the right documents. But, as Maya Goodfellow shows here, complemented by examples of the plight many migrants find themselves in, this is all just part of a much longer history of hostility towards immigrants.
Britain, she says, was made by migrants (see ourmigrationstory.org.uk). The first inhabitants came from southern Europe, and there were plenty of people of different origins here before the Anglo-Saxons arrived in the fifth century. Migration did not always result in prejudice and opposition, but this began to change, especially as many Jews arrived in the nineteenth century, fleeing pogroms in eastern Europe. The Aliens Act of 1905 was the first substantial piece of legislation dealing with immigration, and was aimed at restricting the number not just of Jews who came here but of the poor as well. Irish immigrants, too, were often regarded as inferior to ‘white Britons’.
The 1948 British Nationality Act made it easier for people from the ‘white Commonwealth’ to come to the UK, in contrast to those with black or brown skins. This was passed under a Labour government, and both Conservatives and Labour were responsible for much legislation that limited immigration and even made it harder for those born here to get citizenship. The regulations relating to migrants are complicated and frequently change; legal help to navigate your way through them is expensive and not always reliable. The Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1968, says Goodfellow, was one of ‘the most reactionary immigration acts that has ever passed through Parliament’; it was brought forward by a Labour government.
A number of other good points are made, among them the following. There is no evidence that immigration has a negative impact on wages. A smaller percentage of migrants than of the general population claim benefits. Racism is not ‘a mistake or a consequence of demographic change; it is a product of history’. The tabloid press consistently peddle lies and exaggerations about migrants. People have inflated ideas about the proportion of migrants in the UK (it is about 13 per cent). If immigration is discussed in terms of numbers, there will always be ‘too much’.
Towards the end, Goodfellow refers to a world ‘without the borders or the immigration controls which give rich people the right to move but treat this same freedom as dangerous in the hands of the poor’; a world without global inequality or climate change. There is much of interest in these pages, but it is a pity that such ideas are not developed further.