The Unwanted: The Secret Windrush Files – BBC 2

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Early on in this programme, we were shown that Clement Attlee’s government preferred to fill the post-war labour shortage with white men who’d fought for the Nazis rather than black men who’d served in the British forces.  That set the tone for the rest of it.  Britain, unlike some other countries, has never had immigration laws officially based on ethnicity, but this programme showed how successive governments, of both main parties, tried to find ways of making it difficult for non-white people to settle here. We *are* talking governments here: business, and organisations like the NHS, did actively recruit staff from the West Indies. Nothing that the Establishment’s done really surprises me any more – we know that it’s covered up child sex abuse, the infected blood scandal, what really happened at Hillsborough, and who knows what else – but you can be shocked and appalled without being surprised, and there was some very unpleasant stuff in this programme.  I’m not sure that the argument about there being a direct line from the attitudes of the post-war era to the recent (and indeed ongoing) Windrush scandal entirely worked.  And I’ve also got a quibble about the programme not showing that discrimination in immigration and naturalisation systems is nothing new: it goes back to 1905, and arguably even to 1708.  But David Olusoga made some very interesting, important and distressing points, and showed us the paperwork, in black and white, that went with them.

Just a quick historical note, seeing as I said I had a quibble. In 1708, legislation was introduced allowing for the naturalisation of foreign-born Protestants, mostly Huguenots, living in Britain. It only lasted a few years, before the previous system of having to apply for an individual Act of Parliament in order to be naturalised was re-introduced, because people got hysterical at the thought of an influx of foreigners pouring into the country, but the point is that it was only for Protestants. To be fair, at that time Britain was at war with France, the Jacobites were hoping to regain the throne, and it was genuinely feared that foreign-born Catholics posed a threat to national security, but it wasn’t until the 1820s that anyone could be naturalised without taking the sacrament in a Protestant service. Apart from between 1753 and 1754, when foreign-born Jews, who unlike Catholics were accepted as being loyal to the British Crown, were also allowed to be naturalised – but that initially only lasted a year, because people got hysterical at the thought of non-Christians becoming British citizens.

Fast forward to the Aliens Act of 1905. The religious requirement in relation to naturalisation was long gone, but, in the midst of the second wave of pogroms in the Russian Empire, large numbers of Eastern European Jews were arriving in Britain. There’d also been an increase in the number of people arriving in Britain from China. No-one had moaned about (mainly Protestant) German immigration to Britain in the 19th century, but, as soon as you had large numbers of people who were mainly working-class, weren’t Christians and, in the case of the Chinese immigrants, weren’t white, in came the immigration restrictions.  The “wrong type of immigration” idea did not begin when SS Windrush arrived at Tilbury docks.  It goes back long before that.

Unlike what happened in some other countries, though, immigration and naturalisation laws in the UK have never been legally, officially, based on race (nor, since the 1820s, on religion, for the record). In the US, for example, Asian immigrants, mainly Chinese people working in California, were specifically denied the right to become US citizens until the 1940s, and, in 1921, immigration quotas were brought in, based on the numbers of people from each country living in the US in 1910 – i.e. making it a lot easier to enter the US from northern and western Europe than from southern and eastern Europe. I’m not having a go at the US, or at any other country, just making a point.

The difference in Britain – and a lot of this was due to the idea of promoting a sense of Empire/Commonwealth unity, not just the acceptance that legal discrimination on grounds of race (and we’re talking race by this time, because we’re mainly talking about the immigration of black and Asian people) was morally wrong – was that governments felt unable to bring in immigration laws which were openly racially-based. But, as David Olusoga showed, successive governments didn’t want non-white people coming into the country, and tried to find ways to keep them out, one way or another.

The programme did get a bit emotive in parts. There were lots of pictures of cute little kids, and interviews with people talking about the distress of families being separated. And it was strongly suggested that some of the Ukrainian soldiers who fought for the Nazis during the war and then settled in Britain, preferred by the government to Caribbean men who’d fought in our own armed forces, had been involved in war crimes – this is a very controversial subject, but the official verdict is still that they hadn’t. But it was generally factual. The cameras focused in on the documents, on the government and civil service paperwork, there in black and white, actual physical proof of what went on, so that we could see it with our own eyes. And it made for very unpleasant reading.

In 1948, as a result of changes to citizenship laws in other Commonwealth countries, the British Nationality Act was passed, confirming the fact that people born in British colonies were British subjects. That didn’t actually change anything, in that people from colonies and Commonwealth countries had already had the right to enter and remain in the UK without any restrictions.  But it did confirm it.

Also in 1948, the famous SS Windrush brought 802 people, many of them ex-servicemen, from the West Indies to Britain – the first of the “Windrush generation”. This was at a time when the country was facing a significant labour shortage due to the huge task of rebuilding after the war. The newly-created NHS, the railways, the Post Office and public transport all actively recruited staff from the West Indies during the late 1940s and the early 1950s, but the Windrush had barely docked before a group of Labour MPs approached Clement Attlee with their concerns about excessive immigration and a “flotilla” of ships bringing people from the Caribbean to the UK. (Some people have been keen to cast one major party or the other as the party associated with racism, but, over the years, both parties have been involved in racially-motived immigration policies. This is not a party political issue, and no-one should be trying to make it one.  Both main parties have been at fault.)

Meanwhile, the government introduced a programme to fill gaps in the labour market with Displaced Persons from various parts of Europe. And, yes, these did include some German POWs, and some people who’d served with the Ukrainian division of the SS. Most of them, to be fair, didn’t have any connections with the Nazis, and I think there was also some idea of “saving” them from communism (which the programme didn’t mention), but it’s certainly true that they didn’t have any historical, cultural or linguistic ties with Britain either, and yet the government wanted them to fill the gaps in the labour market in preference to black people who were British subjects and, in many cases, had fought for Britain during the war.

In 1950,a Cabinet committee was set up specifically to try to find ways to restrict “coloured” immigration into the UK. In 1953, hitting on the idea of trying to paint black people as scroungers, the government instructed labour exchanges to keep records of people claiming benefits, showing how many of those people fell into each of various racial categories. The programme actually showed examples of the forms used.

However, no immigration controls were actually introduced at this stage, and many people arrived in Britain from the Caribbean and other parts of the Empire/Commonwealth during the 1950s: at this stage, no steps were taken to change this. But, as the 1950s went on, racial tensions developed, and there was some serious unrest in 1958. As talk grew that immigration restrictions were going to be introduced, levels of immigration increased.

Then, in 1962, the system was changed.  The Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962 brought in a system based on employment prospects, with people to be divided into three categories –  skilled workers, and anybody with a guaranteed job, to be encouraged, and unskilled workers with no guaranteed job, numbers to be severely restricted.  On the face of it, it sounds quite reasonable. However, the programme showed us papers which clearly stated that the government believed that the restrictions would “operate on coloured people almost exclusively”, and that this was being done specifically to restrict numbers of “coloured” immigrants, without doing so “ostensibly”.

Then, in 1968, the system was changed again, restricting the automatic right of settlement in the UK to people who’d either been born in the UK or had at least one parent or grandparent brought here.  And, in 1971, the automatic right of Commonwealth citizens already in the UK to remain here was removed – although they would still be allowed to remain in UK if they had lived and worked here for five years.

The 1968 Act, passed shortly after Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech, wasn’t aimed at black people, but was rather intended to stop large numbers of Kenyan Asians coming into Britain after the Kenyan government brought in laws against them. David Olusoga did rather rush over this one, which I must say I wasn’t very impressed with. He didn’t interview any Kenyan Asian people, and he didn’t even mention the situation with Ugandan Asians seeking to come to Britain in 1972. Nor – typical BBC – did he explain that the 1971 Act was brought in as part of preparations for Britain to join the Common Market.

And the programme did lose its coherence at this point. It was explained that the 1971 Act granted Commonwealth citizens already living in the UK “deemed leave” to remain here, but that the burden of proof, if their right to be in the UK was challenged, was on the individual to prove that they did have the right to be here, not on the authorities to prove that they didn’t.

But then we were shown clips of Tony Blair and David Cameron saying that legal immigrants were welcome in the UK but illegal immigrants weren’t. That wasn’t about racism, or racially-motivated immigration controls, and it certainly wasn’t aimed at the Windrush generation.  Different times, different immigration-related issues.  For everything that went on in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, no-one was talking about deportations. And, with regards to the 1971 Act, the people who wrote it couldn’t possibly have foreseen the issues surrounding immigration, worldwide, that would exist by the 2010s. Equally, the people who wrote the legislation in the 2010s never meant for it to affect people who’d come here legally and been here for over half a century.  To be fair, David Olusoga did say that the “hostile environment” legislation of the 2010s wasn’t aimed at the Windrush generation, but … well I think that part of the programme could have been put together a bit better.  And why was there no reference to the destruction of the landing cards?  That’s been a big part of all this.  It wasn’t even mentioned.

Anyway.  I was reading in the Manchester Evening News only this week that there are still people, who’ve been here for decades, living in fear of deportation.  No, the legislation wasn’t aimed at the Windrush generation … well, the very kindest interpretation of the Windrush scandal is that it’s been about people being more concerned about ticking boxes than about other human beings’ lives.  A probably more realistic interpretation is that it’s been about heartless government departments so desperate to meet their net migration targets that they didn’t care if they ruined the lives of decent, innocent people, who were easy targets because they weren’t keeping under the radar because they had no reason to do so.  People who’ve lived and worked in the UK, quite legally, for decades,  have lost their jobs, been refused medical treatment, and even been dragged off to detention centres, because they haven’t got paperwork to show what they were doing in the 1960s.  Over 80 people have actually been deported, wrongly.  It’s one of the most shameful episodes in recent British history.

And the attitudes of successive governments from 1948 to 1971, wanting to restrict immigration not because of pressure on housing or public services but in order to “Keep Britain White”, a slogan in widespread use in the 1950s, is equally shameful – maybe even more so, because it was deliberate.  Some very nasty things go on in the corridors of power.  This programme showed us some of them.  It did not make for pleasant or comfortable watching.

 

 

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