22 June 2018

Windrush at 70: A totemic chapter in Britain’s long immigration story

By Sunder Katwala

Seventy years ago today, in 1948, the MV Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury docks. No account of Britain’s history of migration would be complete without it: we all recall that papier mache version of the ship, made from newspaper headlines, in Danny Boyle’s iconic opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics.

Those histories, of new arrivals to Britain, often start with the Windrush. Bringing that story to mainstream attention, as Mike Phillips and Trevor Phillips did with their BBC television series on the 50th anniversary, was important in 1998. It mattered that the black British presence was not confined to a “black season” of minority interest, but received a mainstream exploration.

Twenty years on, in a different era, it may be time to rethink what Windrush means today for the Britain of 2018. For Windrush was not the beginning, rather a new chapter in a longer story.

“Welcome Home” was the headline on the Evening Standard’s report of the arrival of the Windrush in Tilbury Dock. Though we talk about Windrush as a story of arrival, one-third of those on board were RAF servicemen, who were coming back to Britain.

That enormous pre-Windrush, Commonwealth contribution, not just to the Second World War but to the First World War too, will also be marked in this year of anniversaries. But it will surprise many people, during November’s 2018 centenary of the First World War armistice, to realise that the armies that fought a century ago – fully three decades before Windrush – look more like the Britain of 2018 than the Britain of 1918 in their ethnic and multi-faith composition. The roots of our shared history go further back than we think.

What made the Windrush a new chapter in the longer history of British migration was that it was an act of large-scale voluntary migration, while previous waves of migrants had come for sanctuary more than opportunity.

Though the boat had initially been sent to Jamaica to bring RAF men back, an entrepreneurial decision was taken to try to fill otherwise empty berths. Few are aware that 60 were in fact taken up by Polish refugees, who had travelled from Siberia, via India, Australia and Mexico before joining the boat in Jamaica, in the great upheavals of the post-war era.

Though the million Poles in Britain today are usually found at the end of a long list of those who have come to Britain throughout our history – from the Huguenots and the Jews, through the African-Caribbean and Asian communities – the Windrush presence reminds us that the Polish contribution to Britain long predates Polish entry into the European Union after 2004.

The Windrush arrived in the year that the British Nationality Act created the status of “Citizen of the United Kingdom and its colonies”, giving the right to live and work in the UK to hundreds of millions. It was celebrated on both sides of the House of Commons. It was, however, a very British invitation – “you really must visit sometime” – which few, perhaps, expected to be taken up.

In that we can perhaps find a parallel between the story of Commonwealth and European migration. Restrictions were placed on Commonwealth migration in 1962, 1971 and 1981, though the end of Commonwealth free movement did not end migration to Britain. Brexit may likewise end European free movement, but it will not end migration from Europe. The story of migration to Britain is partly one of our society coming to accept the Irish, the West Indians, the Indians and the Poles, though it sometimes seems as if we achieve that only by transferring the anxiety onto other, newer arrivals.

The Windrush passengers believed that their Britishness was non-negotiable. So it was an important moment of disenchantment, to find that the idea of Britain inculcated in Kingston’s classrooms was far from universally acknowledged on London’s streets. Integration does depend on the desire to belong – but also on the willingness to accept those who want to belong too. That was too often denied to the Windrush generation.

Like other migrants, many thought they might only be here temporarily. Yet they had families and put down roots just as, ironically, Britain was still debating the “send them back” slogans of the Enoch Powell era. Their children and grandchildren were to successfully renegotiate and expand the idea of what it meant to be British.

The Windrush scandal earlier this year has given the 70th anniversary a particular poignancy. It united the politicians and the public, eventually, though it took many months of persistent civic society campaigning and investigative journalism for the story to break through.

It was also, perhaps, the framing of the issue as the mistreatment of the “Windrush generation” that helped the general public understand what was at stake. The issues involved are, at one level, complex for even an immigration lawyer to explain, arising from Home Office maladministration and shifts in the burden of proof for residence, work and public services affecting those who had permanent residence in Britain, but who struggled to document it.

Understanding that legal and technical morass as a question of how to treat the Windrush generation fairly — and what Britain owed to those who had come here, often as children, between 1948 and 1971, brought both a moral clarity to the question and the imagery and optics which located it in our history of immigration.

The positive legacy of Windrush is that most people today will respect the diversity of our multi-ethnic and multi-faith society, while wanting to focus too on what can bring us together. Yet the idea of integration also demands that the promise of equal opportunity is kept – with fair chances for all and no discrimination against anybody.

Seventy years on from Windrush, nobody would claim we have yet arrived at the end of that journey. In an era of polarisation, perhaps the legacy of Windrush is that the history of how we got here can help us to find that common ground, a vision of the future that we do want to share.

Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future