I don’t want to defend the British Empire – though I might want to excuse it in some small ways – but one of its more admirable traits at its peak was its inclusion of all its subjects as British citizens, irrespective of birth or ‘race’, with the rights to travel, live and work in the ‘mother country’ as freely as the indigenous Brits did (without the colonial people’s permission) in their countries.
In reality, the Empire was always an awkward mix of colonial oppression and genuine internationalism, which is why it gathered the support of some progressives and liberals at the time; with this notion of an ‘imperial nationality’ an expression of its ‘international’ side. Hence the situation that the ‘Windrush generation’ now finds itself in, of not having needed to secure a specific British nationality when they came in 50+ years ago, at Britain’s request – to help her repair her economy after the Second World War – but are now – or were until yesterday – suddenly uprooted from their lifetime homes in Britain, incarcerated in holding camps, and threatened with summary deportation to countries they hardly remember. (‘Windrush’ is a reference to the name of the boat the first 400-odd of them embarked on from Jamaica to Britain in 1948.)
Between 1962 and 1971, mainly as a result of public protest about the scale of foreign and especially ‘coloured’ immigration into Britain, this generous imperial-era policy was severely curtailed, so that – in effect, though this was never explicitly stated – only white colonials had this right. The new laws clearly operated retrospectively, otherwise the Windrush generation could have stayed. That’s the legal root of the position these good people find themselves in. Some may have been deported already. Others are in ‘detention centres’. All of them now feel under threat of removal from the only country they have known as home, and which they have served for – in some cases – half a century.
Fortunately a widespread public protest on their behalf, led by the Guardian newspaper and David Lammy, MP, has resulted in a last-minute re-think by Theresa May, and a stay of execution at the very least. Here is a clip of Lammy’s powerful speech in the House of Commons yesterday.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y2q2dQlsywY (just the first part).
OK, so it may all be put right now. But that won’t entirely erase the stain that will attach to Theresa May for having tolerated this situation for all the years that she was Home Secretary, desperate to appease the xenophobes on her side of the house, and intent on making Britain a ‘hostile environment’ (her exact words) for migrants. For a historian of Britain’s proud record of openness and inclusion, that indicates that she has very little idea of the best qualities that used to attach to her country’s self-identity, and of how close she is guiding the country to what could be regarded as the proto-fascist racial nationalism that we used to pride ourselves on being immune from. For someone brought up as a Christian, it also makes me wonder where her self-professed Christianity comes from. Maybe someone should look into her vicar father’s career and beliefs.