IN 1948 THE EMPIRE WINDRUSH sailed into history, beginning its journey in Jamaica and finally docking at Tilbury, England. The 492 passengers were the earliest group of post-war Caribbean migrants and achieved an almost iconic status. Now the Empire Windrush has given its name to a scandal which obliged Theresa May to apologise and Amber Rudd to resign.
Millions have been appalled at how we could have treated people who had travelled here legally, and were certain that they were British, with such cruelty. The Windrush generation came here after the war to help rebuild this country. They often did the jobs others were unwilling to do. Yet some of these people have been refused medical treatment even when they were suffering from cancer. They were refused benefits they were entitled to, including housing benefit, so some were made homeless, and others lost their jobs when a new owner of their company insisted on documentation they had never had. People were locked up in immigration detention centres, and others refused entry back into this country, when they had only gone to the Caribbean for a holiday. Others were deported.
It is one of the most common myths about immigration that we are not allowed to speak about the subject. But since the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury, the British Parliament has passed the British Nationality Act 1948; the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1968; the Immigration Act 1971; the Immigration Act 1988; the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996; the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999; the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002; the Asylum and Immigration Act 2004; the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006; the UK Borders Act 2007; the Borders Citizens and Immigration Act 2009; the Immigration Act 2014 and the Immigration Act 2016. This is not the legislative record of a political class that doesn’t want to talk about immigration!
In truth, the scandal surrounding the Windrush generation relates to how we have been talking about immigration. It relates to how too many politicians, newspapers and commentators have been using negative language and promoting negative views. A number of those same people now pay tribute to the contribution of the Windrush generation. They are right to do so. Some might even say it’s long overdue.
But I would argue that there is nothing uniquely saintly about that generation. They did what migrants do generally. They move for better opportunities, for themselves, and for their families. They work hard, they contribute. They enrich our culture, society, and diversity. But because there was always a consistently negative narrative about migrants it became easier to treat them in a way which was harsh and inhumane.
Migrants have always been demonised by racists and xenophobes, but they have also been increasingly demonised by those seeking political advantage. And guess what? That has increased the number of genuine and avowed racists.
So the answer of some politicians was to pander to that racism even further. And so the vicious circle takes another turn.
It is time to break that vicious circle. I want there to be a new circle where we call out the demonisation of migrants and its consequences, and where we try to correct terrible policies that have been implemented. If the underlying narrative was an increasingly negative view of migration, then it was the rise of the Tories’ ‘hostile environment’ policy that was the immediate cause.
The Windrush generation are the first, and among the most heart-rending, victims of this policy. They did not need papers to claim their rights to NHS treatment or benefits until that policy was introduced under Theresa May. The hostile environment policy has infected almost every area of life, from schools and universities, to employers, state agencies and landlords. They have all been turned into internal border guards. This policy was politically motivated and driven. It is not a product of analysis of our economic or social needs. It disregards our previous obligations.
UKIP is no more, but its rancorous politics are alive and well. They have found a home in the policies of this government. Enoch Powell was thrown out of a Tory cabinet for espousing policies that this government now enacts. In contrast, Labour will treat people with dignity and with humanity, and end the hostile environment approach for good.
is shadow Home Secretary