Windrush scandal stirs bitter memories for Sir Geoff Palmer

Scotland's first black professor yesterday said the Windrush scandal was 'almost unpardonable' as he recalled the hardships faced by his own family when forging a new life in the UK.

Professor Sir Geoff Palmer at Heriot-Watt University. Picture: Alistair Linford
Professor Sir Geoff Palmer at Heriot-Watt University. Picture: Alistair Linford

Almost 70 years after his mother left him in Jamaica to find work in the UK, Professor Sir Geoff Palmer said the problems faced by the Windrush generation were down to laws based on prejudiced attitudes.

The emeritus professor at Heriot-Watt University said he felt let down by the UK.

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Speaking to Scotland on Sunday, Palmer said he owed all his achievements to the courage of his mother, Ivy, who left Jamaica in 1948 on a liner which followed the Windrush bringing immigrants to the UK.

Palmer as a child (left) with his mother Ivy and his brother Trevor

Palmer was only eight when his mother, like thousands of others, headed for the UK to find work and do the best for her family at the invitation of the British government. In her case, she struggled to find accommodation in London.

Eventually she was taken in by the Salvation Army after finding that many boarding houses racially discriminated against her. She took a job sorting mail bags for the Royal Mail on the night shift.

After seven years, she finally saved enough money for the £86 boat fare to bring the young Palmer, who had been looked after by his aunts, over to be with her. As he spoke of the sacrifices made by people like his mother, Palmer, 78, paid tribute to the Windrush generation and condemned their harsh treatment at the hands of the UK government today.

“When a lot of people talk about this Windrush thing, they miss out a lot of the trauma that people were going through. They were coming to work and they were leaving their children,” said Palmer. “I stood as a wee boy of eight looking up at my mother getting on this large thing which was a ship. I’ll never forget it.

Palmer as a child (left) with his mother Ivy and his brother Trevor

“All the contribution I have made to society as a professor and a knight of the realm is owed to that woman who left Jamaica. But it is not just the work that generation did, but the people they have produced like myself who have made a contribution to this country.”

Palmer explained that Jamaicans like his family looked upon Britain as the “mother country”, a relationship which dated from the island’s colonisation by England in the 17th century.

“The whole idea that Jamaica became part of Britain dates from 1655,” Palmer said. “Therefore when my mother was leaving she was coming to the mother country. Probably the worst thing in the world is to be treated badly by your mother country. It is almost unpardonable. This is the Windrush situation. That’s what this is about. People came to the mother country with the expectation that the mother country would treat you like any mother would.”

Last week saw the scandal escalate with Prime Minister Theresa May being forced to apologise twice for the situation which sees 50,000 people at the risk of deportation if they have not formalised their residency status and don’t have the documentation to prove it.

The situation arose as a result of a policy introduced by May when she was Home Secretary. The so-called “hostile environment” policies require employers, NHS staff, private landlords and other bodies to demand evidence of people’s citizenship or immigration status. It was introduced to make the UK “a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants”.

According to Palmer, such legislation stemmed from prejudice. “The negative images of the past condition the prejudices of today,” he said. “I think what has happened is that we have had prejudiced attitudes made law which overlook certain aspects of human rights or the rights of people. It is awful that the Prime Minister has to apologise about the rights of human beings who have been part of this set-up.”

The determination of Palmer’s mother to provide for him during his youth was to lead to him becoming a specialist in brewing research. That saw him come to Edinburgh where he worked at Heriot-Watt, becoming Scotland’s first black professor in 1989. In 2013, he was knighted for his services to science, human rights and charity.

Reflecting on the challenges faced by the Windrush generation, he described encountering Oswald Mosley’s fascist blackshirts with his mother in North London.

“We were coming up in the road and there in front of us were a lot of blackshirts – Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts. His office was near where I lived. The blackshirts blocked our way to get to our street. So we had to walk two streets down and around the block to get to the house in the other direction.”

He added: “I saw the signs ‘no blacks, no Irish, no dogs’; I saw the signs in London. It is not somebody telling me they were there.”

And on the 50th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s notorious “rivers of blood” speech, he said that during his childhood mention of the politician would strike terror into black communities.

“When their names [Mosley and Powell] appeared in the newspaper your heart broke because you thought someone was going to attack you. The newspapers were terrifying as a boy. You would look at the headlines and they would say things like ‘500 more arrive’. They meant immigrants.”