Historian David Olusoga investigates the story, behind the story, of the Windrush Scandal. He unearths government papers to show the duplicity and hypocrisy of the British Government in creating ‘a hostile environment’ for those considered undesirable because of skin colour.
Who can forget Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists? Enoch Powell and his ‘river of blood’ speech? Powell had conveniently forgotten he’d been to Jamaica to recruit nurses for the overstretched NHS in the early 1950s. Or the Smethwick election of 1964, which the Conservative candidate won using the message, ‘If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour’?
A hostile environment wasn’t some ruse thought up by the then Home Secretary, Teresa May. It has a long lineage and includes both the creator of the NHS, Clem Atlee and Winston Churchill. The latter wanted to fight an election using the rubric of Smethwick and elected Prime Minister in early 1950s worked to ensure public institutions like the Post Office didn’t employ non-nationals (i.e. ‘niggers’).
Ukip and Brexit are rooted in a picture of the British Empire in which everyone knew their place. And stayed where they were. Empire Windrush, a decommissioned ship, taken from the German navy was returning to England from Kingston and didn’t want to return to London empty, so advertised for passengers. 350 Jamaican and British Commonwealth citizens paid their fare and arrived in Tilbury docks on the 22nd June 1948 to be met by the media. They thought they were coming home to a place where the streets were paved with gold. They didn’t know they weren’t wanted. If they’re black, send them back was unofficial policy.
The government favoured displaced European, such as former Waffen SS, and those that couldn’t speak English but where white, for absorption into the working population. Unofficial surveys, such as those taken in dole offices, a week after the Queen’s coronation in 1953, were snapshots that were meant to show that coloureds were sponging off the British state. Chief Constables in our major cities were asked to provide data showing the extent of the coloured problem and the relationship with criminal behaviour. Here we have the crude eugenics of the early twentieth-century resurfacing after Auschwitz and given a new emulsion coat of paint.
Ironically, the threat of no longer allowing those Jamaicans that held a British passport entry into Britain created a self-fulfilling prophecy. At the end of the 1950s immigration to Britain had slowed to around 15 000 to 20 000 a year. Let’s put that into context, official figures in post-war Britain claimed to need an extra two million additional workers. In 1960 and the threat of their British passports become invalid, around 500 000 people travelled to Britain from the Caribbean and Jamaica.
Many of those features in this programme were the children of those that had travelled in the first wave of immigrants to Britain from Jamaica. It was these people that had been reunited with their parents, went to school here and worked here for thirty, forty or fifty years that were caught in the ‘hostile environment’ which conflated two ideas in a toxic mix: austerity and immigration. A system that sought to blame the former on the latter. A propaganda war in which the poorest are always culpable. A Kafka like system of bureaucracy that sought to fulfil targets and treat people as things and not as individuals. None of those featured in the programme could provide the documentation that said, categorically, they were British Citizens. No government official appeared to explain how it all worked. After all, if it’s politically expedient and they were black, send them back.
Their stories of our shame feature here. Olusoga stands outside Lunar House a place where those deprived citizenship, no longer allowed to work, not allowed to access our NHS when ill, not allowed to claim government benefits. Incarcerated – indefinitely. Think about that for a minute. Lunar House with 500 000 on its closed books. Gulags of anxiety.
But there is another landmark that Olusoga should have visited. Grenfell Tower. The blackened remains in Kensington, one of the richest boroughs in London, tells us everything we need to know about the un-United Kingdom.