Lessons about letting in outsiders

March 1, 2002

An unexpected discovery led David Feldman to research the historical changes in immigrant welfare provision.

It is only in the past 50 years that Britain has become a multicultural society. The demographic and cultural composition of the nation has been transformed. In 1945, there were roughly 30,000 non-whites living in Britain; today the figure is closer to 3 million, and there have been hundreds of thousands of European immigrants from places as far apart as Ireland and Ukraine.

Changes in the present prompt historians to ask new questions about the past. Over the past three decades, historians have begun writing the histories of immigration, ethnicity and racism in Britain in new ways. In my case, I want not only to recover the history of immigrants but to ask how mainstream British history looks different if we take account of their presence. In 1994, I published Englishmen and Jews: Social Relations and Political Culture 1840-1914 in which I tried to reinterpret Jewish and British history by studying both in conjunction. I point to the enormous authority exerted by the idea of England in the 19th century and the extreme anxiety of Jews to win acceptance.

At the same time as it produces new knowledge and understanding about the past, research on immigrants gives an opportunity to introduce a historical perspective into debates surrounding immigration, asylum and citizenship now. My current research takes up this challenge. It examines how successive welfare regimes have dealt with migrants and immigrants from the 17th century to the present. It addresses some of the central concerns of historians - the poor laws and the welfare state - and also deals with issues in the present that are acute and substantive for policy-makers, pressure groups and politicians, not to mention refugees and other immigrants.

The project grew from a chance conjuncture of discovery and politics. The discovery occurred while I was completing the research for Englishmen and Jews . I found that in 1911, Jewish immigrants were included in Lloyd George's pathbreaking scheme for national insurance on generous terms, even if they were not naturalised as British subjects. This was intriguing because it contradicted the common assumption that welfare states guarded their rights jealously in the face of outsiders.

It was all the more interesting because at the same time as my preconception was thrown into doubt by the past, it was being confirmed by the present. Through measures such as the 1988 Immigration Act, the 1994 Habitual Residence Test and the 1996 Immigration and Asylum Act, Conservative governments curtailed the welfare entitlements of immigrants. In the course of the century something had changed. My research project developed from an attempt to understand what this was and why it had happened.

Welfare systems necessarily place limits on collective solidarity. Rights are costly and resources scarce. If there were no barriers to entry, welfare systems would rapidly go bankrupt. This predicament was not a creation of the 20th century. In the 17th, 18th and even 19th centuries, poor relief in England was administered locally. Parishes were responsible for raising the poor rate and exercised a great deal of autonomous control over how it was spent. So far as welfare was concerned, migrants who crossed parochial boundaries moved from one jurisdiction to another. Migration created a population of "strangers" whose entitlement to poor relief in the place they lived was open to question.

The entitlement to poor relief of internal migrants in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries was scrutinised and defined in ways that are comparable to the procedure for determining the right to welfare of immigrants from overseas in the 20th century. Having made this connection, I am asking: how have the entitlements of strangers altered under different welfare regimes and what caused these changes?

So far, the lesson is that until the 1970s, where the burden of welfare fell on the local pocket, the entitlements of "strangers" were less secure than those of people who belonged. Welfare measures run by central government have tended to include migrants and immigrants within the embrace of collective solidarity. Something changed from the late 1970s. One possibility is that as governments tried to restrain spending on welfare, and as more and more benefits were received as discretionary handouts, immigrants were progressively disadvantaged. But if means tests are bad for immigrants, so too is local responsibility. As 17th and 18th-century migrants could have testified, the decision in 1996 to throw asylum seekers on the mercy of local authorities was a disaster. Asylum seekers received inadequate support and, at the same time, provoked new waves of xenophobia. One lesson seems to be that, if the goal is social inclusion, then centralised government can be good for immigrants.

David Feldman is reader in history at Birkbeck College, University of London. His research is supported by a British Academy Research Readership.

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