“We have a right to keep out everybody who does not add to the strength of the community – the industrial, social and intellectual strength of the community,” asserted Arthur Balfour, speaking in the House of Commons in support of the 1905 Aliens Bill, the first modern legislation designed to restrict immigration to the United Kingdom. This imagined the nation as a whole as a community, and immigrants, in this case east European Jews for the most part, as outside its boundaries. Today, too, immigrants are set outside of the parameters of the community. In July 2013, the immigration minister called for stronger controls on immigration, as without them, ‘communities could be damaged.’ He was especially concerned that immigrants were generating overcrowding, anti-social behaviour, and longer waiting times at GP’s surgeries.

In his 1976 compendium Keywords, Raymond Williams writes, ‘unlike all other terms of social organisation’, community ‘seems never to be used unfavourably.’ It is, ‘a warmly persuasive word.’ As he noted, ‘community politics’ suggest a form of organisation not only distinct from national politics but also from formal local politics. In contrast to bureaucratic and hierarchical types of governance and mobilisation, community activists claim to represent the unmediated voice of the people in a particular place. This idea of community, as the expression of authentic bonds which develop from everyday experience, continues to thrive. We have community councils, community care, community centres, community workers, community groups, community spokesmen and women.

It is one indication of the benign, yet vague, meaning of community that governments too have adopted the term, not least when they seek to invest an unpopular measure with legitimacy. In 1990 when the Conservative government introduced a fiscally regressive form of local taxation – when the property based tax, known as ‘rates’, was replaced by a levy placed on the head of almost every adult – it labelled the new and much reviled tax ‘the community charge’. Since 2006, the British government has included a Department of Communities and Local Government. The department’s website attempts to infuse the arid system of local administration with the nurturing juices of community. Its mission, it states, is to support local government and in doing so to ‘put communities in charge of planning’.

These connotations of community run deep. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the etymology of ‘community’ to the Anglo-Norman and Middle French term communité meaning joint ownership or association. By the late fourteenth century it indicated ‘a body of people who live in the same place, usually sharing a common cultural or ethnic identity’. These meanings, concerned with ownership, association, culture and ethnicity, do not exhaust the semantics of community – it can describe a body of people practising communal living on religious or ideological grounds, or be applied to a group that follows a sport or hobby, such as the ‘football community’. Nevertheless, in the second decade of the 21st century they remain central and powerful.

These historical roots reveal why the term is so often used in relation to migration and indicate its subtly manipulative qualities. In 1603, Chester City Council objected that “strangers… not only take away… the maintenance and relief which belongs to the poor born in the said but… impoverish the state of the commoners of the said City.” Yet, in early 17th-century England only a minority of people lived and died in the same town or village. The population was a collection of migrants. Moreover, access to common land was far from common. It was distributed unequally and, at times, a point of bitter conflict. The welfare system – parochial poor relief – was discretionary, grudging and sometimes penal, as rate payers strived to minimise their obligations. The language of community was a fiction disguising economic inequality and institutional power. It was also a vital social force when mobilised to exclude poor migrants.

An emphasis on shared ownership and origins can be used to promote a sense of solidarity that is also exclusionary. At this point, community assumes a less benign aspect. In this register, the language of community is liable to place people who have a different culture or ethnicity, or who do not have a pre-existing share in the common fund of goods, or who have not qualified for membership, outside the community of solidarity. The 17th-century complaint – that migrants were draining the welfare system and other collective resources – has a familiar ring. Only now, the complaints are not directed at people who have walked ten or twenty miles, but at the growing number of international migrants who are placed beyond the boundaries of collective solidarity, both as they strive to enter contemporary Britain and also, for those who manage to settle, once they arrive.

There is one other usage of community in relation to immigration that we must mention: namely, the use of the term ‘community’ to denote an immigrant, ethnic or religious group. In the 1960s, many towns established Community Relations Councils as they tried to manage the arrival of immigrants from the Caribbean and South Asia. They expressed an assumption that the immigrant and the established population comprised separate ‘communities’. Their founders were well intentioned people who wanted to promote and manage integration. The same language can also be found, however, in Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech delivered in Birmingham in 1968. Here, Powell condemned ‘the Sikh communities’ campaign to maintain customs inappropriate in Britain’. The idea that immigrants and ethnic or religious minorities comprise ‘communities’ remains commonplace in the present. It pays no regard to the fractures, hierarchies and conflicts within these populations, nor to the bonds of interest and association, through trade unions, tenants’ associations or chambers of commerce, for example, that might unite immigrants with others born in the country. In this respect, the use of the term community to classify immigrant groups is the regrettable yet predictable counterpart to its use to try to exclude them. In both cases ‘community’ erases divisions of wealth and status, and transforms a potentially unruly and contentious population into an imagined united whole.

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