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. (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.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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3 Responses to Windrush

  1. TJ says:

    This is really a moral rather than legal issue, and British government’s have never faced up to the moral issues of empire, hiding behind legal obfuscation on occasions as in this case where some West Indians may have neglected to apply for a new passport (UK or Jamaican , Barbadian etc) at independence to make their citizenship clear (1960-62) I believe they were (are?) allowed dual citizenship. One way of partially facing up to imperial moral responsibilities is paying compensation (slavery, kenyan shootings and ‘interrogations’ etc) and perhaps in this case too.

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  2. [O]ne 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.
    Do you mean that, for example, Indigenous Australians were given the full range of rights enjoyed by “indigenous Brits”? Or do you mean that Indigenous Australians merely had the right to travel to and live in Great Britain?


    • Travel, live and WORK, I think. I don’t believe the Australian cricket tourists of 1868 (all aborigines) needed to get visas, or even carry passports. Remember most native Britons didn’t enjoy many ‘rights’ either: there was no state-provided social or medical provision. I can even imagine an aborigine being allowed to vote, if he was a male householder in Britain like all other voters; but of course that’s unlikely. So the privilege was merely theoretical. He or she was certainly subject to the same laws, with the added benefit of being tried by a jury half-composed of other ‘foreigners’ (his or her ‘peers’). I think my generalisation holds, certainly for the C19th and part of the 20th, though I’m prepared to be corrected on this. The ‘Indian Empire’ may have been an exception.

      Liked by 1 person

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