A ‘hostile’ immigration policy has wrecked lives, forced the resignation of the home secretary and further tarnished Britain’s reputation abroad. As the Windrush Generation scandal continues to unfold, Stephen Spark digs deep into its roots.
At the launch last year of the Windrush70 project, the overall feeling was of celebration. There was a sense that the pioneering migrants to Britain from the Caribbean were finally being recognised and getting their long overdue time in the spotlight. Nor was it confined to the older generation: commemorating the 70 years since the ship Empire Windrush docked in Tilbury was a way of recognising the wider contribution made to UK society and culture by all those of Caribbean – and by extension those of African and Asian – heritage. Britain wouldn’t, and couldn’t, be the country it is now without that contribution. In some quarters there was a touch of satisfaction, even smugness, that, well, things hadn’t worked out so badly after all, had they?
Perhaps we overlooked then that the coming year, 2018, would mark the 50th anniversary of something far less palatable – Conservative MP Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech delivered in Birmingham on 20 April 1968. That speech needs to be understood in the context of the fear, violence and racial division that existed 50 years ago: race riots and violent protests against the Vietnam War in the USA, student riots in Paris and the very real prospect of nuclear war.
The atmosphere in Britain then was sad, grey and frightened. Ultimately, though, Powell’s prophecy – borrowed from Roman poet Virgil’s Aeneid – of “much blood” proved false. What Powell would have thought of a mixed-race American divorcée marrying into the royal family is anyone’s guess – no doubt he’d have given us a suitably depressing classical quotation to sum up his forebodings!
After being sacked for inflaming racial tensions, Powell sank into political obscurity, but his words had a massive impact. A Gallup poll found that 74% of the population supported his views. The speech stoked fear of immigration to such an extent that new laws were passed to attempt to stem the flow of immigrants.
Arguably the most significant of these was the Immigration Act 1971, which took effect on the day that Britain joined the European Economic Community, the forerunner of the European Union, on 1 January 1973. Whilst it took away many of the rights of Commonwealth citizens, it gave favoured immigration status to EEC citizens. Crucially, the right to live in the UK was now determined by birth or parentage, not nationality; possession of a British passport by itself counted for nothing. However, there was a concession and perhaps it was one that too few understood or took advantage of at the time: Commonwealth citizens who had lived in Britain for at least five years before 1 January 1973 could register for the right of abode (equivalent to today’s ‘indefinite leave to remain’). They had the right to do this, but were not required to do so. And in retrospect, perhaps that was a pity.
The first ‘modern’ immigration law was the 1905 Aliens Act, which was passed in a panic over the ‘wrong type of immigrant’ – meaning poor, unskilled, possibly criminal… and Jewish. New arrivals had to show proof that they could support themselves and their dependants. Rules were tightened up, understandably, during the First World War, and again in the Second World War – when the ‘wrong kind’ (German spies) were simply executed – but otherwise the main concern was to keep out Communist and Anarchist agitators. Apart from refugees fleeing Nazi persecution, immigration was on a very small scale; for most people it was just too expensive.
The first sign that a new wind was blowing came with the arrival in Liverpool on 31 March 1947 of RMS Ormonde, a ship belonging to Orient Line that had been chartered by the Ministry of Transport to take emigrants to Australia. On its return journey it brought 108 immigrants from Jamaica, Bermuda and Trinidad & Tobago who had taken advantage of a cheap fare to Britain at a time of economic depression in the Caribbean. On 21 December that year, Allan Wilmot – the 92-year-old guest of honour at the Windrush70 launch – was one of several Caribbean ex-servicemen who was on the Almanzora when it docked in Southampton. This ship, too, was intended to take people out of the country to a sunny new life in Australia rather than bringing West Indian migrants in to cold, smoky, austerity Britain. Six months later, Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury.
The real movement, though, didn’t begin until the mid-1950s when a labour shortage prompted companies and state bodies such as the NHS, the Post Office, British Railways and London Transport to recruit directly from the Caribbean and the Punjab. For a while, this free flow of people suited the government, but the welcome on the streets was a lot cooler. The ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs’ signs in front windows were no urban myth, and the Notting Hill Riots of late August 1958 highlighted the tensions of the times. Claudia Jones, of course, had the best possible riposte to the Teddy boys and the Mosleyite bullies – an annual showcase for Caribbean creative talent. The genes of her indoor ‘Caribbean Carnivals’ have been carried through to Notting Hill Carnival.
Jones achieved a lot in her short life, but even her persuasiveness couldn’t overcome the popular calls for curbs on immigration from the ‘new’ (i.e. non-white) Commonwealth. The first attempt was the Commonwealth Immigration Act 1962, although its most noticeable effect was to create work for document-forgers. Then came ‘Rivers of Blood’, the tougher 1968 Commonwealth Immigration Act (chiefly aimed at East African Indians) and the 1971 Act. Parallel with these were successive Race Relations Acts, in 1965, 1968 and 1971, which attempted to address some of the worst abuses in employment and housing.
For the past 40 years the focus of the fear of immigration has moved from the Caribbean to the Indian Sub-continent, South East Asia, Eastern Europe and lately Syria and Afghanistan. Until recently, the ‘Windrush Generation’ seemed relatively secure in retirement. That was until Theresa May, as home secretary, introduced a new policy in 2010. In her own words, “The aim is to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants.” The ‘hostility’ is expressed by demanding of pretty much everyone documentary evidence that they have a right to be in the country, to work, to claim benefits and to use the health service. Employers, doctors, bank workers, landlords and even charity workers have been forced to become de facto immigration officers, demanding to see proof of address, birth and marriage certificates and passports. Those without the right paperwork must, the reasoning goes, be illegal. Failure to produce the right certificate might not just stop you getting a job; it could, and has, resulted in deportation.
The legislation has unpleasant echoes of South Africa’s infamous Pass Laws – particularly as it emerged this year that the Home Office had set targets for forced removals. On 29 April, home secretary Amber Rudd resigned after admitting she had misled Parliament by denying there were any targets. On 16 May, new home secretary Sajid Javid revealed that more than 63 people may have been wrongly deported from Britain because they lacked evidence of their right to stay. They lacked that evidence because, when they got off the boat in Southampton or Liverpool or Tilbury, they never needed it and were never asked for it until now. Today, after more than half a century of residing peacefully in Britain, the chances of obtaining that evidence are slim – especially as the vital landing cards recording their arrival are said to have been shredded.
The results have been devastating, with people saying they have been left homeless and jobless, one denied cancer treatment, another on the verge of committing suicide. And, underlying it all, there is a deep sense of hurt and betrayal that those who have done so much for so long have been treated so badly.
Sajid Javid, like London Mayor Sadiq Khan, is of Pakistani origin; both men’s fathers were bus drivers who might easily have faced the sort of strangulation by red tape that has ensnared the Windrush Generation. Javid said of the scandal: “It immediately impacted me. I’m a second-generation migrant. My parents came to this country, just like the Windrush Generation…. When I heard about the Windrush issue I thought, ‘That could be my mum, it could be my dad, it could be my uncle, it could be me.’” Unsurprisingly, he has sought to distance himself from the ‘hostile’ rhetoric: “I don’t like the phrase hostile… I think it is a phrase that is unhelpful and it doesn’t represent our values as a country.”
The prime minister apologised to Caribbean leaders at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in April, saying: “We are genuinely sorry for any anxiety that has been caused. Those who arrived from the Caribbean before 1973 and lived here permanently without significant periods of time away in the last 30 years have the right to remain in the UK.”
It is hardly likely to be enough to save her credibility as evidence mounts that she presided over exactly the sort of ‘send them home’ policy that Enoch Powell advocated in his speech half a century ago.
Checkout our list of Windrush related events: