Historians from the UK, the Caribbean and across the Commonwealth can cite centuries of evidence to show that what is today called the UK’s hostile environment dates back at least to the time of Queen Elizabeth I.
On 19 June, the University of London’s Institute of Historical Research (IHR) lined up an array of historians, diplomats, journalists and lawyers to trace the developments which forced the Windrush issue onto the agenda of the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) and into the UK’s public psyche. The one-day conference was held just before the 75th anniversary of Windrush Day on 22 June, marking the arrival of the SS Empire Windrush, used as a marker for the start of large-scale West Indian/Caribbean migration to the UK.
‘The Windrush Scandal in a Transnational and Commonwealth Context’ included panels taking the ‘long view’ of the Windrush scandal’, the history of UK deportations and anti-deportation campaigns, and UK-Caribbean relations and diplomacy, finishing with a focus on the future – including the issues of reparations and compensation for the slave trade.
“The system did not fail us as an anomaly,” former Barbados High Commissioner to the UK, Guy Hewitt, told the first panel looking at how the Windrush scandal had unfolded. “It was never designed to protect us.”
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Guy Hewitt and Guardian investigative journalist Amelia Gentleman were two of the panellists in the first session. As key actors in bringing the treatment of the Windrush generation into the British and global public eye, they explained how they’d managed to use a pincer movement of headlines and what Mr Hewitt called “guerrilla diplomacy” to force the then UK Prime Minister Theresa May publicly to face up to the Windrush scandal against the backdrop of the 2018 London CHOGM.
Amelia Gentleman spoke of the use of “powerful stories” of people who had been arrested, deprived of access to British institutions (including the health service) and threatened with legal action and deportation as the Home Office cracked down on people of Caribbean origin who had spent decades living and working in the UK. She outlined years of changing legislation on race and nationality which left the Windrush generation in a “Kafka-esque” situation.
Guy Hewitt, who is now a Racial Justice Director for the Church of England, outlined how he’d used tools outside the conventional diplomatic handbooks to rally his fellow Caribbean high commissioners into a campaign which had finally forced a meeting with Theresa May and her Caribbean counterparts on the fringes of CHOGM 2018.
All the panellists in this first session, including social justice activist Patrick Vernon and panel chair, IHR Director Philip Murphy, outlined the gathering storm of the Windrush scandal against the backdrop of a British system which, they said, had never been designed to accommodate the human rights of Caribbean people and other people of colour from across the Commonwealth.
Guy Hewitt, the first British-born Barbadian high commissioner, spoke of a “racial undercurrent” in the UK that needed to be addressed.
Amelia Gentleman outlined her encounters with a UK Home Office trying to minimise the Windrush narrative, losing landing card data and increasingly putting the burden on people to prove their right to remain in the UK.
Patrick Vernon, a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, spoke of a British “historical” legacy of using people for their labour and energy and then discarding them, which went back hundreds of years.
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A second panel looked at deportations and the campaigns against such action, outlining the use of community networks and local media in the 1970s and 80s.
Veteran political activist and educationalist Gus John was applauded by the audience as he voiced concern that the issues underlying the Windrush scandal would be ignored “once this Windrush jamboree has passed”.
Professor John called for people to “join the dots” from pre-Windrush racism in Britain to the 1970s backlash to Caribbean migration and onto the Black Lives Matter (BLM) response.
The third panel, on British diplomacy, focused on what some panellists described as a “racist agenda” at the Home Office, sometimes through direct racism but also caused by lack of resources, to set up a process for fairly assessing the rights of Caribbean people in the UK.
Former British High Commissioner to Trinidad and Tobago, Arthur Snell, spoke of the “tone deafness” and lack of understanding on how the Commonwealth had viewed Britain’s treatment of Commonwealth citizens which sat behind then Prime Minister David Cameron’s 2015 proposal to build a prison in Jamaica to house deportees.
He added that the current plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda indicated that the Windrush scandal was not an aberration but “part of a sustained policy”.
Barbados’ Ambassador to the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) David Comissiong said that the “hostile environment” ran across the history of Britain. He outlined the expulsion of black people from Britain, going back to the black loyalists of the 1700s who fought on the British side during the American War of Independence, found themselves treated badly when they went to Britain and Canada and were then steered towards Sierra Leone.
Ambassador Comissiong looked at the growing calls for apologies for the transatlantic slave trade and responses to date from the Anglican Church, King Charles III and the Trevelyan family while nothing has been forthcoming from the British government.
He said that a lack of response on apologies and reparations would poison future British foreign relations.
He said: “The information is out there … the British government cannot believe that it going to go away. It is going to fester.”
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Of climate justice, reparations and the future
The theme running through the panels and the lively Q&A sessions had been the pulling together of a post-Windrush 75 narrative.
Panellists and their audiences highlighted the way the growth of industrial Britain was founded on slavery and wider exploitation of the British Empire. They linked this to the campaign for climate justice, along the lines of growing calls by Caribbean and other Commonwealth leaders.
Speakers acknowledged some moves towards addressing this linked narrative being taken by the Guardian owners, the Scott Trust, King Charles’ proposed research into slavery links, the Trevelyan family’s programme to support development in the Caribbean and programmes by Lloyds Bank.
Professor John said that the Windrush scandal focused too much on the passengers of one ship and their descendants, when there was a bigger picture of people from others parts of the Commonwealth feeling the impact of today’s UK hostile environment.
The final panel’s team concluded that the discussion on reparations needed to be broadened out – beyond money, to skills and infrastructural development. Academic and solicitor Anna Steiner and other panel members also explored the need for better resources to deal with the issues thrown up by Windrush and for steps to move beyond politicising migration.
Panellist Martin Forde KC worked as an advisor to the Windrush Compensation Scheme and later criticised its implementation. He concluded: “Windrush is beyond politics … it is about human rights”.
Debbie Ransome is the web editor for the Commonwealth Round Table.