The first Commonwealth ‘subjects’ arrived in Britain on the Empire Windrush in 1948 from the Caribbean. Although on paper they came as citizens, the real reason for their arrival was a shortage of labour in the war-torn colonial metropole.
These citizens of Britain’s diminished Empire worked in labour intensive, menial jobs. Yet they quickly became indispensable to many of British capitalism’s industries and institutions.
Commonwealth citizens faced immense struggles and poverty when they arrived. They were heavily policed, discriminated against in jobs and housing, and hounded by groups like the National Front. Their courage and bravery in fighting for equality and civil rights are far too often overlooked and forgotten.
As the post-war boom ground to a halt, things began to change. The economy was slowing; the labour movement was strengthening; and further large waves of migrants were arriving from other Commonwealth countries towards the end of the 1960s and in the early 70s.
Instead of promoting migration from Britain’s former colonies, the ruling class began to stir up anti-immigrant sentiments. In 1968, for example, Conservative MP Enoch Powell made his infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech, warning of the dangers of mass immigration - particularly in terms of migration from Commonwealth countries. The National Front also was on the rise.
It was against this backdrop that the 1971 Immigration Act was implemented. It ended the permanent right to remain for Commonwealth citizens.
Over the past few weeks there have been countless stories about those who migrated as children within this Windrush period having their citizenship questioned and revoked.
The case of Michael Braithwaite is chief among them. He was born in Barbados and arrived in Britain in 1961 at the age of nine. Despite having been educated, married, and settled here (with three children and five grandchildren) for over 50 years, he was sacked from his job as a special needs teaching assistant after a ‘routine’ immigration check.
Or take the example of Junior Green. He arrived in the UK at 15 months old, but was refused re-entry after going to see his dying mother in Jamaica. He missed his mother’s funeral. Her body was allowed into the country, but he was not.
Albert Thomson (not his real name) arrived as a teenager in 1973. He was told, however, that he would have to pay £54,000 for his prostate cancer treatment, since he was apparently not eligible for NHS care. Remarkably, he only found out that this decision had been reversed on television!
Paulette Wilson arrived aged 10 in the late 1960s. She was recently forced to spend a week in Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre, and has had the threat of deportation hanging over her head for two years.
These are only a handful of stories that have been made known.
People such as Michael, Junior, Albert, and Paulette have been asked to produce up to four legal documents for every year they have been here. They have been forced to fork out hundreds of pounds to find affidavits, birth records, and a whole range of other legal documents. They have been made to jump through endless bureaucratic and legal hoops.
This is a system set up and designed for people to fail. The Labour MP for Tottenham, David Lammy, called this a “national day of shame”. In reality, this is a massive understatement.
Who is to blame?
Increasingly over the last decade, since the onset of Great Recession in 2008, the Tories, Liberals and New Labour ‘moderates’ have leant upon and whipped up the forces of reaction in order to distract from their attacks on the working class. They have done everything possible to hide from the working class the cause of their oppressive conditions. Ultimately, these are rooted in capitalism.
Unimaginatively, the ruling class have targeted the poorest and scapegoated migrants, blaming them for the lack of jobs and housing in broken Tory Britain. To quote the former prime minister, David Cameron, speaking about immigration in 2014: "When we find you, and we will find you, we'll make sure you are sent back to the country you came from."
Theresa May also sits very much at the heart of this scandal. As home secretary in Cameron’s cabinet, for example, she sent ‘go home’ vans to intimidate ethnic minority areas in 2013. In 2014 and 2016, immigration acts were introduced to extend the state apparatus so that businesses, the NHS, landlords, and a whole range of other bodies could act as part of the UK’s border force.
To top it all off, it has recently been revealed that the Home Office destroyed thousands of disembarkation records for Windrush immigrants. Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, rightly called on her opposite number, Amber Rudd, to resign over the deportation scandal, citing the “misery” and “lives ruined” by the Tories’ failure.
The hypocrisy doesn’t end there, however. Responding to the revelations, leaders of the former colonies in the Caribbean felt inclined to intervene and stand up for British citizens at the recent Commonwealth Summit. But the UK Prime Minister refused to participate in talks, telling the Commonwealth country representatives that her schedule was “full”. May only later issued an apology and agreed to meet when the story became frontpage news.
This all comes at a time when the British establishment have been attempting to strengthen their ties with their former colonies. This move is a result of Brexit, with the ruling class seeking alternative trading partners to make up for the loss of exports to its current biggest market, the EU.
Prince Charles, for example, recently attended the Commonwealth Games (formerly the British Empire Games). At the event, the Prince gave a speech on behalf of his mother, Her Majesty, in which he referred to the contest as “The Friendly Games”. This did not go down so well with indigenous Australians protesting outside the stadium, who correctly see nothing ‘friendly’ about a relationship built upon racism, plunder, and slavery.
This latest scandal over the treatment of the Windrush generation illustrates clearly that these oppressive, racist, imperialist legacies are still writ large within the British establishment.
The Windrush scandal exemplifies that at its root, the capitalist state is incapable of protecting the rights of working class citizens. The Tory-Lib Dem coalition government, for example, cut £350 million a year from the legal aid budget, reducing even further the working class’ access to any means of obtaining justice.
In reality, it is only as a result of the sheer disgust of ordinary people in response to the actions of this Tory government that Theresa May’s has even bothered to offer a half-hearted apology to the Windrush migrants. Yet despite one revelation after another in this scandalous story, there has still been no confirmation that these citizens will be re-compensated for their costs and trauma.
To be stateless, denied basic rights and access to public services, and to be told that you do not belong in the place you call home is one of the most alienating feelings imaginable.
This inhuman brutality is bred by capitalism and the ruling class, who use reactionary rhetoric and policies to whip up the most backward layers in society and divide workers.
The Windrush scandal epitomises this, demonstrating the crude hypocrisy and barbarity of this Tory government and the system they defend. But, even more importantly, it illustrates how fragile our own rights and freedoms really are under capitalism.