When I embarked, many years ago, upon the study of the law of the contract of employment, I looked at the legislation and case law concerning settlement in parishes by annual hiring, because it provides one of the most important sources of early law concerning the contract of employment. Many years later, I’ve become extremely interested in the modern law of labour migration. Most recently, I have come to realise that we need an imaginative understanding of the long history of legal regulation at the point where concerns about labour migration, anti-social behaviour and poverty intersect. Us and Them? (Anderson 2013) powerfully sums up this intersection to argue that legal regulation makes divisions between community and alienation, and that these things evolve and mutate, over time framing different categories for persons who are perceived to be alien and therefore undeserving of support by the community.
This book, looking back through British legal history, shows how the idea of the alien and undeserving migrant has shifted towards the non-citizen of the state as a whole, having in earlier times been focused on the ‘vagrant’ who wanders from town to town or rural parish to rural parish, perhaps seeking casual work, perhaps begging, but above all seeming to represent the presence or the threat of social and economic instability and disorder. It gives an historical survey of the long story of the control of ‘vagrancy’ and of the labour market itself in England from the time of the Ordinance of Labourers in 1349, tracing the strings of a cat’s cradle of regulation which connected up efforts to control the supply and mobility of labour, and to put pressure upon the wandering poor. As a lawyer, I found it interesting to consider the evolution of this, our elaborate body of law and administrative practice, and to be reminded how various terminologies that to us now sound rather quaintly Shakespearian – ‘sturdy vagabonds’ and the like – become technical legal terms, upon the nuances of which depended criminal or quasi-criminal liability to sentences of whipping or sessions in the stocks or the pillory.
These of course, as Anderson suggests, are, then as now, all ways of differentiating others from ‘hard-working people like us’. Indeed, largely from the later 18th century onwards, much of that differentiating between ‘them and us’, another great axis of differentiation, came to consist of control of immigration in general and labour migration in particular. Primarily it was from elsewhere in the British Empire, and then in due course from the world at large, as that Empire or Commonwealth progressively ceased to represent a zone of even partial inclusion in British subject-hood.
In Anderson’s book, this historical platform is laid out in order to construct a multi-dimensional tableau of the modern law and culture of treatment of migrants as somewhat conjoined with ‘failed citizens’, failed in that they can, for example, be regarded as ‘benefit scroungers’. Far from being without contemporary relevance, the chapters in this book that describe the old law of vagrancy and settlement in parishes and the early history of migration controls illuminate issues that we grapple with today. Consider the proposals apparently taking shape in the Department of Work and Pensions as I write this late in 2013, that would further tighten the rationing of welfare benefits in a new system which, it seems, might include such mysterious prescriptive notions as ‘persons too committed to work’ and ‘persons not working enough’. Reading Us and Them? thus encapsulated for me one of the special pleasures and privileges of pursuing my own research work in Oxford, namely that I often quite unexpectedly and serendipitously derive inspiration from colleagues working in totally different and disparate disciplines.
Anderson, B. (2013) Us and Them? The Dangerous Politics of Immigration Control, Oxford: Oxford University Press.