Beyond Windrush: Setting a path for a future UK-Caribbean partnership

Debbie Ransome

Windrush 75: Celebrating 75 years of the Windrush generation. National Windrush Day marks 75 years since the MV Empire Windrush arrived in the UK. The ship has become symbolic of the generation who travelled from the Caribbean to settle in, and help rebuild, Britain in the decades after the Second World War.

By Debbie Ransome

What do you do when a special day (plus hashtag) is created to contain centuries of so-called “hostile environment” treatment? Do you celebrate it, accept official funds for special events, laud the special events, stamps and other paraphernalia and then allow the fallout to be packed away by the wider public?

An event organised by the University of London’s Institute of Historical Research (IHR) set out to chart a future course ahead of the 22 June #Windrush75 events for the Caribbean and its diaspora in the UK beyond the Windrush scandal.  

The day-long conference, The Windrush Scandal in a Transnational and Commonwealth Context, brought together historians from the UK and the Caribbean, academics, lawyers who had worked with the Windrush compensation scheme and people whose relatives were still feeling the impact of the Windrush immigration crackdown, five years after the UK government had promised to sort the scandal out.

Panellists put the issue in its historical context – from Queen Elizabeth I’s request to remove “blackamoors” from the streets of London, to the “black loyalists” who fought on the British side during America’s War of Independence only to find themselves resettled from Britain in Sierra Leone, right the way through to the 1970s “rivers of blood” period of racism and the continuing Windrush scandal.

For a number of the panellists, putting the centuries-old hostile environment into perspective allowed an opportunity to look at repairing future UK-Caribbean and race relations.

Veteran political activist and educationalist Gus John said that the discussion about reparations should not just be about handing out money, but about skills development, support for Caribbean countries to build their infrastructure and amnesties, instead of criminalising some of the Windrush generation and their children.

On deportations, Prof John said: “There is nothing foreign about them. When white people are arrested, they’re not deported.”

Many of the panellists pointed out that #Windrush75 was a convenient label which was underpinned by centuries of hostile treatment from the transatlantic slave trade, encompassing the way in which black people were viewed in Tudor times, encapsulating the start of large West Indian migration symbolised by the arrival of the Empire Windrush and reflecting decades of changing legislation which left many people of Caribbean origin facing challenges to their right to remain in the UK.

Amelia Gentleman, the award-winning journalist who shone a light on what became the Windrush scandal, outlined how a century of legislation had created a “complete muddle” and a Kafkaesque world for the Windrush generation to face, with the onus on them to prove citizenship and the right to access to basic services in the UK.

It was her work and the “guerrilla diplomacy” of the Barbados High Commissioner to the UK at the time, Guy Hewitt, which forced then British Prime Minister Theresa May into having to acknowledge the Windrush scandal against the backdrop of the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in London.

Mr Hewitt, the first Barbadian high commissioner to be born in Britain, told the event that he could see the Windrush scandal from both the Caribbean and diaspora perspective.

“Colonialism is about exploitation,” he said, adding that the process had been about extracting all that you could for your country’s benefit.

Speaking about the Windrush scandal and the UK’s five-year delay in sorting most of the problems out, he said that “the system did not fail us… it was never designed to protect us.”

Social justice activist Patrick Vernon, born and brought up in the constituency of Enoch Powell, said that the MP’s “rivers of blood” speech in 1968 had influenced the political thinking of all UK governments since. He added that the anti-deportation campaigns and anti-racism activity came to a head in 2018, accompanied by the diplomatic and journalistic activity to create a “perfect storm” over the Windrush scandal, forcing the British government to look at the issue of race and nationality.

A former British High Commissioner to Trinidad & Tobago, Arthur Snell, now a diplomatic consultant, started his panel contribution by apologising for his country behaving “like a criminal gang” and for its “racist agenda” over decades. He said that, during his time as a high commissioner, he had faced difficulties accessing information to answer questions on people’s cases. He described the government’s approach as “tone-deafness” to the way the scandal was viewed abroad. He said that the “bubble around British foreign policy” had allowed then British Prime Minister David Cameron to offer in 2015 to build a prison in Jamaica with a “complete inability to see the image that is sent by a former colonial power”.

IHR organisers praised Mr Snell’s courage in taking part in the panel, pointing out that the Home Office had been asked to take part in the event.

Despite the lack of official government response, panellists pointed to some positive developments, including the programme by the Trevelyan family to support development in the Caribbean, compensation money put aside by the Anglican Church, proposed research into slavery links by King Charles III, resources being put in place by the Guardian owner, the Scott Trust, over its founder’s links to slavery and the fund proposed by Lloyds Bank.

Barbados’s ambassador to the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), David Comissiong, said that the hostile environment “runs across the history of Britain”. He said failure to face up to the issue of reparations and the transatlantic slave trade would poison the UK’s future relationship with the Caribbean.

“The information is out there,” Ambassador Comissiong said. “The British government cannot believe that it is going to go away. It is going to fester.”

The final panel on reparations, compensation and justice included suggestions to apply the methodology of the reparations process to dealing with the Windrush scandal, calls for Caribbean high commissioners to take a greater interest in the welfare of their people and a need to refocus a whole range of issues on justice.

“We are in the phase now where we are educating public opinion in the UK … a very important morale question is being posed to the UK government,” David Comissiong said, adding that issues from slavery to climate justice were “part and parcel of the Windrush campaign”.