Fears that Eastern Europeans, unrestricted by any immigration controls, were taking jobs from British workers caused widespread public unrest and provoked xenophobic bile in the newspapers. One editorial complained of “the dirty, destitute, diseased, verminous and criminal foreigner who dumps himself on our soil,” while prominent politicians supported a far-right group that called Britain “the dumping ground for the scum of Europe.” Eventually the Conservative prime minister took action to shut down the “open door” to foreigners entering the country.
It’s an account not of events over the past year, but of the furore surrounding the 1905 Aliens Act, the first to introduce peacetime restrictions on immigration to the UK. It may come as scant comfort for liberals despairing of Brexit’s toxic atmosphere to know that we have been here before. But it does show that we should not pretend tolerance is some characteristically British virtue we have now lost.
On that earlier occasion there was a strong whiff of anti-Semitism in the opposition to immigration. Jews were presented as bloodsucking leeches who preyed on the vulnerable. There was a suspiciously Oriental strain of blood flowing in their veins and something uncanny about their gaunt appearance. What a terrible thought that this blood might mingle with good English stock and corrupt the race!
Yes, it is all ugly and melodramatic, but perhaps you see too where it is going. With unease about the Eastern European “invasion” at its peak in the late 1890s, who should appear in London but a certain Transylvanian count descended from Attila the Hun? Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) is about many things, and it seems plain that some of them—anxieties about the independent New Woman and an almost delirious terror of homoeroticism—seeped unconsciously from the author’s buttoned-up psyche. But Dracula was also a horror fantasy of an invasion by foreigners from the edge of European civilisation.
The vampiric count prowls Piccadilly, but he also deposits boxes of his vivifying earth in London’s East End, where many of the Jewish immigrants settled around Whitechapel. That, as everyone knew, was a den of squalor and wickedness, where Jack the Ripper perpetrated his crimes in 1888. When Dracula is forced to flee England, he is smuggled out by a Jew—a caricature with a fez…