18 April 2018

Britain must learn the right lessons from the Windrush fiasco


Theresa May told the Conservative conference in 2015 that there were “millions of people in poorer countries who would love to live in Britain, and there is a limit to the amount of immigration any country can and should take”. To the then Home Secretary, this will doubtless have seemed an easy route to popularity among Tory members in preparation for an eventual leadership bid.

In reality there is a cost to reflexive warnings about an incursion of interlopers. Mrs May discovered it this week, when the grotesque consequences of half a century of political rhetoric like this were exposed to public view. While the Prime Minister’s own reputation has justly suffered as a result of the Windrush controversy, the damage to the quality of public life is far greater. It is perhaps irreparable.

The Windrush generation is so called after SS Windrush, which carried nearly 500 immigrants from the Caribbean to Britain in 1948. Many of these travellers were ex-service personnel seeking work. In histories of modern Britain, their voyage is often considered the beginning of large-scale immigration. In reality, though it has suited politicians in my lifetime to pretend otherwise, Britain is the creation of a millennium and a half of immigration and its effect on society, state and language. The Windrush passengers were, in that historic tradition, pioneers of postwar immigration to Britain from the Commonwealth. Their faith in this country was, on the evidence of successive British governments’ behaviour, altogether misplaced.

The children of this generation of immigrants are now of middle or pensionable age. Those who arrived in Britain prior to 1973 had their rights of residence guaranteed in the Immigration Act passed by the Conservative government of Edward Heath in 1971. Yet, till Mrs May buckled to criticism this week and offered an apology to heads of government of Caribbean states, these Windrush children were being pressured by the home office to prove their continuous residence over those 45 years. Not many people of that (or rather, of my) generation, whether born in the UK or not, would be capable of proving continuous residence.

There is a particular poignancy in the fate of the Windrush generation. It’s almost exactly 50 years since Enoch Powell delivered (on April 20, 1968) his infamous speech foreseeing “rivers of blood” due to Britain’s postwar immigration policy. To this day, Powell is widely regarded as a talented if eccentric figure. That’s an indication of the problems that the children of postwar immigrants still face. Powell’s speech was not just a prediction of strife that has been refuted by events. It was a repulsive feat of fraudulent, racist demagoguery by an unscrupulous politician that poisoned public debate for decades afterwards. Powell traded on his reputation as an intellectual all his life but it was undeserved. He was a charlatan and a crank, whose every contribution to purported scholarly debate – whether on the dating of Matthews’s Gospel or the authorship of Shakespeare – was derided by experts in the relevant fields.

The Windrush generation contended with the inflammatory terms of “debate” that Powell posed: namely, that immigration was a problem and that strife was its inevitable outcome. They did so with dignity and forbearance, continuing all the while to contribute to this country’s social and economic betterment, while raising a new generation and then another in their adoptive country. To this day, you will hear Conservative politicians and columnists praise Powell’s personality as if it was separate from his bigotry and fakery (for the constituents whose concerns he affected to ventriloquise turned out not to exist at all). And politicians on all sides talk of immigration, as Mrs May did in 2015, as if they’re being bravely heterodox in broaching the subject at all.

This is nonsense. If there’s one subject that politicians can’t keep away from – apparently just can’t shut up about – it’s immigration. And they are almost always wrong. I grew up in Leicester in the 1970s and 1980s, when the extreme right first gained and then lost support. In the decades since, the city has never experienced racial strife and its citizens of Asian origin have become a majority. I rejoice in the transition and in the way it exposes the alarmism widely expressed a generation ago.

Yet the political class and the media have not learnt. It was Mrs May’s determination, as home secretary, to create what she termed “a hostile environment” for illegal immigrants that contributed to this week’s miserable disclosures. People who have been resident in this country for decades, and never imagined their rights of residence were at stake, have been hounded, denied medical treatment and even deported for lack of documentary records. It is scarcely fanciful for British residents with passports from other EU states to worry about their own rights in years ahead.

This anti-immigrant feeling is a stain on Britain’s reputation and an indelible disgrace to a prime minister of undoubted personal decency but scant imagination. If no other good comes from the Windrush scandal, let it be more widely appreciated that treating immigrants as raw numbers rather than real people will have lasting consequences.

Immigrants are enterprising people whose ambitions extend beyond their countries of origin. The controls on their entry to Britain are not too loose but far too tight. To their shame, politicians of all parties, but especially the Conservatives, have preferred to avoid this truth for fear of media execration.

Oliver Kamm writes for The Times.