International / Politics / Short Stop / Vol. 1 No. 3-4

“Who Feels It Knows It”: The Windrush Scandal

Michael McMillan The West Indian Front Room

Image Credit:Michael McMillan, The West Indian Front Room: Memories and Impressions of Black British Homes, (2005-06), detail of installation, London, Geffrye Museum. Courtesy of John Neligan.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the SS Windrush on 22 June 1948 at Tilbury Docks, just outside London, with 492 West Indian ex-service personnel who had fought alongside British forces during the Second World War. Their arrival signaled the beginning of postwar Caribbean migration of young men and women who, imagining themselves as citizens of the British empire, sought new opportunities in responding to the invitation to help rebuild the “Mother Country,” which had been devastated by the war. Many of them helped build the newly-created National Health Service (NHS) and worked on the British Rail and London Transport, as well as other vital industries where there were shortages of native indigenous labour. They often found it easier to find jobs than somewhere to live, routinely confronting signs in windows declaring, “No Irish, No Coloured, No Dogs!”; and in many cities and towns, white people fled wherever they settled. They experienced racism in all spheres of life, yet in the British media they would be portrayed as social problems waiting to happen with the familiar chants of the popularist canteen culture: “go back to your own country,” “they’re coming to take out jobs.” These early black settlers, like my parents, have since been referred to as the “Windrush” generation. Their children, like myself, who were born in or grew up in the UK, also experienced racism in the British education system and the labour market and criminalization by the police.

This ongoing colonial racism in a purportedly post-imperial Britain has been resisted by a history of black community activism and struggle in a society that these migrants have transformed dramatically. The latest chapter in that struggle is the eruption of the so-called “Windrush Scandal,” where a conjuncture, as the late Stuart Hall would put it, has exposed the plight of thousands of children who came on their parents’ passports to the UK. They are retired or nearing retirement, and yet they have been treated like illegal immigrants even though they have paid their taxes and contributed to British society. As a consequence, many have been denied treatment for age-related illnesses on the NHS, have lost jobs and homes. Many have been incarcerated in detention centres, deported, and found themselves unable to attend the funerals of relatives. Traumatised in a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare, many have linked this mistreatment to the draconian immigration policies instituted by Theresa May—now Britain’s now embattled Prime Minister—during her time as Home Secretary under David Cameron. And who feels it knows it, as many others, especially in the black communities, know that the Windrush scandal is yet another symptom of institutionalised racism that they have experienced and resisted in Britain for decades. In a wider context, the scandal also signifies the contemporary zeitgeist for a populist politics, where the hegemonic, right-wing racist ideologies have been legitimised by the political elite in a global context. Historically, there is a sense of déjà vu; and it is crucial that across the African diaspora, we are aware of our similar, yet different struggles, so that they can be challenged and resisted in the ongoing process of decolonisation.

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