Martyn McLaughlin: A government incapable of shame or compassion is being forced to backpedal
A clutch of exhibitions, dances, and heritage workshops have been scheduled for this summer’s landmark anniversary of the arrival of HMT Empire Windrush at Essex’s Tilbury docks. It was there, on 22 June 1948, that 492 pioneers set in motion the wheels of postwar immigration, striking a blow against those striving to maintain Britain’s faltering grip over the Commonwealth, and with it, the ghost of an idea about our place in the world.
How grim an irony it is that 70 years on, as a new generation of reactionaries blow the embers of extinguished myths and imperial fantasies are writ large, those humble observances are overshadowed by familiar spectres.
However the Windrush debacle plays out, it should never be forgotten that the Home Office’s instinctive appraisal of the economic and cultural contributions of that trailblazing cohort of Afro-Caribbean migrants was so scornful, it deemed deportation a fitting reward.
The resultant backlash has sparked limp apologies and gestures at contrition from a government incapable of shame or compassion, now desperately retreating from a crisis of its own making.
For months, it has framed Windrush as an administrative wrangle, a headache from an era when those granted the right to remain were given no documentation confirming their status. The Home Office – helmed, lest we forget, by Ms May for six years – would have you believe its only crime is officiousness, but it plays a poor bluff. Its deflection is as abhorrent as its deceit.
The pathway for that inaugural wave from the West Indies – the British Nationality Act of 1948 – conferred British status on all Commonwealth subjects with a watershed single definition of citizenship.
It is only in light of a slew of spiteful immigration reforms which have rendered routine the requirement for proof of individuals’ citizenship or immigration status, that the Windrush generation finds itself ensnarled in a Kafkaesque bureaucracy. It is no accident. This is an ideologically driven design.
The end result is that early vanguard who answered the call to rebuild and reinvigorate our crippled, careworn island have endured fear, doubt, and much worse. It is of no consequence that parliament long ago entrenched their rights; if common decency is not immune from contempt, neither is history.
Perhaps the government thought enough time had passed to dull the impact of its cruelty. It has been seven decades after all. Yet how could we forget a legacy which burns so brightly?
Consider the inimitable contribution of Harold Phillips, a Trinadian who settled in Liverpool and, in a nod to his tab of choice, ennobled himself as Lord Woodbine. The moniker was a licence to indulge in his beloved calypso music.
He set up a club, at one point booking a bedraggled young band, even driving them to Hamburg for a concert. Philips knew what it meant to be offered an opportunity. The Beatles repaid his faith.
Or what of Sam King, a former RAF serviceman from Jamaica undaunted by a wintertime posting in Greenock. In peacetime, he returned to Britain on the Windrush, serving as a Labour councillor and, ultimately, became Southwark’s first black mayor.
Such characters played substantial roles in British life, and though few settled further north than Lancashire, it would be remiss to presume the ripples from the Windrush did not reach Scotland’s shores. A yellowing document in the National Archives reveals a largely forgotten chapter, one which enriches an already storied narrative.
While the majority on board were classed as British, the passenger list also designated numerous “aliens” – one man, 39 women, and 26 children. All were Polish nationals, torn from their homeland by the war, and left to languish in Colonia Santa Rosa, a refugee village in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato.
When the Windrush departed Kingston in May 1948, the timing proved opportune. Only 14 months before, Westminster passed Britain’s first ever mass migration legislation in the form of the Polish Resettlement Act; a lifeline which allowed those displaced by conflict to make a new life in Britain.
And so, while the Windrush stopped off in Trindidad and Bermuda, she called too at Tampico, picking up the hardy band of 66 souls. For many of them, Scotland would become their new home.
They included Piotr and Antonia Gural and Helena, their 16-year-old daughter, destined for Carron. Helena and Karol Pisula went to Banff, while Anna Jucha, a 39-year-old housewife, headed to Millitimber with her daughter, Janina. Maria Balcerzak, meanwhile, headed for a resettlement camp in Dalmeny. History does not record what became of them all, but it is the occasion of their arrival that mattered most.
The power of that journey remains undiminished. From the corners of the world, these disparate tribes were united on the Windrush, leaving persecution and poverty behind.
The past fell away in the Atlantic’s wash. On the horizon, they glimpsed what looked like the promise of a new beginning.
How dare our government have so many believe, in the twilight of their lives, that it was only a mirage.