Most historians of post-war immigration begin with some reference to June 22nd 1948 when the cruise ship Empire Windrush docked in Tilbury. The passengers came from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Bermuda and other islands in the Caribbean. Britain paid an enormous social and economic cost for its participation in World War II and the Labour government needed to replenish the workforce to rebuild the war-torn metropoles. In 1948 Clement Attlee enacted the British Nationality Act which gave migrants from the Commonwealth the status of “citizen of the United Kingdom and the colonies”.
There was some hostility expressed when news of the impending arrival became public. Some newspapers reacted with what was to become the standard line of ‘Send Them Back’ but this was not easily sustained in a post-war situation, where Black colonial citizens from the Caribbean had made considerable contributions to the war effort. Many on the Empire Windrush were ex-servicemen. Some Labour backbenchers wrote to Prime Minister Attlee voicing fears about Britain becoming an ‘open reception centre’ for colonial immigration. Attlee stressed the need to support colonial citizens but offered the caveat that there might be cause for review if “a great influx of desirables occurred”.
Almost at once, the Windrush immigrants faced the problem of racism, especially when it came to finding accommodation. Mainly they found menial jobs such as porters, street cleaners and workers in factories and building sites. These were jobs where long work shifts and low wages made the jobs unattractive to British workers. Women easily found work as nurses but encountered discrimination around training and career progression. Nursing authorities at the time thought that immigrants had limited intellectual capacities which made it impossible to reach the level of their white colleagues.
As well as encountering widespread discrimination in housing, employment and commercial services, the reintroduction of police powers to stop and search powers at the end of the sixties created unhappiness in the Caribbean community. It was felt that it was used by the police to target black youths. January 18th 1981 is a date embedded in the memories of Caribbean immigrants. On that day 13 Black youths were burned to death while they were celebrating a birthday in New Cross Road, London. Investigations found a liquid fire accelerant substance at the house but no arrests were made. The community consensus was that the blaze was a racial attack.
The New Cross deaths received scant coverage in the mass media. Incensed by societal indifference and the slow police progress, The New Cross Massacre Action Committee was established and they organised a 15,000 strong march with the slogan “Thirteen Dead and Nothing Said”. An angry and grief-stricken minority confronted the police. The next day media coverage emphasised the disorders, leading Les Black, one of the organisers of the march, to declare: “The national papers unloaded the full weight of racial stereotyping”. Political smears and media misrepresentation have again resurfaced with recent coverage of Black Lives Matters protests in London.
The Deptford Fire sharpened the discontent in the Black Caribbean community. There were increasing incidences of police harassment in Brixton, an area where there was high levels of deprivation and unemployment. On 10 April 1981 a policeman was patrolling Brixton and stopped a young black youth who was bleeding and trying to run away. A rumour quickly went around that the policeman was trying to arrest an injured man, rather than taking him to the hospital. Within an hour, the riots started. Darcus Howe, a local resident, declared that “It was a spontaneous social explosion transformed itself into an organised revolt”.
The Brixton riots became an outlet for anger and frustration and soon spread to other British cities in July of that summer. In his state-commissioned inquiry into the Brixton uprising, Lord Scarman conceded that police stop and search (sus laws) triggered it but rebuffed the claim that the Met police were institutionally racist, despite evidence that the racial disproportionality of sus arrests was well documented by the late 1970s.
The racist murder of Stephen Lawrence in in 1993 led to greater recognition of institutional racism. Lawrence’s family realised immediately that the investigation into Stephen’s murder was blighted by police racism and corruption. The investigation was exposed in all its ignominy by the public inquiry into Stephen Lawrence’s murder that was initiated by the recently elected Labour government in 1998. Institutional racism was no longer something that was only discussed by community activists or in small academic seminars. Instead the publication of the Macpherson Report in 1999 placed racism at the centre of the debate about the workings of the British state.
A generation later and a number of officially commissioned publications show how little has changed. In September 2017 a review by the Labour MP David Lammy concluded that “BAME individuals still face bias, including overt discrimination in parts of the justice system”. In 2018 the Windrush deportation scandal, a consequence of Theresa May’s 2012 policy to “create a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants”, illustrates clearly how racist, imperialist legacies are still writ large within the British establishment. The term “hostile environment” was first used by Labour in 2007 when discussing policies pertaining to undocumented migrant workers.
The recent BBC drama Sitting in Limbo is the traumatic real-life story of Anthony Bryan who was almost deported after living legally in the UK for 53 years. Like many migrants of his generation, Bryan arrived in Britain from Jamaica on his mother’s passport. Those children knew of no other home and never considered themselves to be anything other than full citizens of the “Mother Country, but did not have the paperwork to confirm their legal status.
When Bryan applied for citizenship, he was met with a wall of bureaucracy and red tape. He was later arrested, detained and released without explanation. He loses his home, is re-arrested and rescued from imminent deportation when his family and friends raise £1,500 for a solicitor. This nightmare was played out over three years. In 2019, 83 were deported and at least 13 died before the Home Office acknowledged their mistake. In May 2020, the Home Office revealed 1,275 applications for the Windrush Compensation Scheme. Only 60 received any compensation.
The Windrush scandal created a political firestorm that led to the Tory government inaugurating June 22nd as Windrush Day to recognise the contribution of the Caribbean community to Britain. The Tilbury Carnival, a celebratory event launched last year, commemorated these historic links and celebrated the birth of multiculturalism in Britain with the arrival of the Empire Windrush. This was an important community event raising consciousness of the Windrush stories. The courage and bravery of the Windrush generation in fighting for equality and civil rights is far too often overlooked and forgotten.
The Windrush scandal should be placed in historical context. This is not the first time the Black Caribbean community have suffered at the hands of Britain. It began approximately 350 years ago with colonisation and slavery. Racism will always exist in a world based on exploitation. It should come as no surprise that the Black Lives Matter movement has found a powerful echo in Britain today. 150 protests have occurred in cities, towns and villages all across the country. As the recent statement from the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs asserts: “We recognise that the COVID-19 crisis has shone a brutal light on existing racial and class inequalities….The Black Lives Matter movement has shown that the time for empty commitments is over. Now is the time for leadership within the UK and across the world, to meaningfully and immediately address the scourge of racism”.
Words: Dara O Cogaidin