Inside Story

How citizens became aliens

The British government’s torment of West Indians links two national fixations: immigration and Europe

David Hayes 29 May 2018 5979 words

Long chain of responsibility: members of the Windrush generation with Labour’s David Lammy MP (centre) in Westminster, London, following an apology from immigration minister Caroline Nokes. Yui Mok/PA Images/Alamy

Dexter Bristol arrived in Britain from Grenada as an eight-year-old in 1969. He travelled on his mother’s passport and never needed another. He lost his cleaning job in 2017 — and then his claim to welfare benefits, and then his home — when he couldn’t prove he had a right to stay in Britain. He collapsed and died on a London street in March this year.

According to his mother, Sentina, a retired nurse, Mr Bristol had spent a year trying to prove he was not an illegal immigrant. A lawyer’s letter with good news about his case arrived too late. After his funeral on 18 May, his mother said that she believed Theresa May should resign: “She’s ruling the whole country and to behave so negatively towards black people, foreigners, I think it’s very, very disgusting and disgraceful.”

Dexter Bristol was one of the hundreds of black people of Caribbean origin — all of them resident in Britain for decades — whose lives have been turned upside down by bureaucratic officiousness rooted in government policy and laced with malice. Some have been deprived of their right to remain, others prevented from re-entering Britain after family trips to the region, and more of them harassed into an exhausting limbo.

Since the overriding motive of the policy was to cut immigration numbers rather than achieve justice for individuals and families, shaming publicity and political costs were always a risk. The cost came on 29 April, with the departure of home secretary Amber Rudd, which also exposed her predecessor in that job, Theresa May, to harsh criticism — while also, it soon became clear, confirming the prime minister’s knack for absorbing humiliation without falling over.

Both had already offered apologies for the hardship imposed on these members of the so-called “Windrush generation,” a reference to the Empire Windrush, a converted troopship that brought a big contingent of West Indians to London in June 1948 and became a metonym for the entirety of the postwar arrivals. The government also promised citizenship status and financial compensation, which in some cases were hurriedly given. But no scandal of this magnitude is amenable to a neat fix. Not just because of its size, but also because it touches the neuralgic point of Britain’s current psyche where borders, race, history, nationhood and now Brexit meet.

Among these generic drivers, Brexit, or more exactly the United Kingdom’s late-period membership of the European Union, has a specific role. If the country’s departure from the European Union long seemed scarcely plausible, even less conceivable was a future in which black British people would be treated with such systematic callousness. Flawed planning and tunnel thinking in one case, a surplus of cynicism and lack of political courage in the other, were foremost in making them possible. But the two outcomes are also connected: first by a long chain of indirect responsibility and then, since 2004, by the interaction of two shaping themes of England’s post-1945 history — immigration and Europe.

“We felt less than we are”

Before tracing this connection, it is worth noting what is at stake for a few of the people whose rights have been challenged or denied. Exact numbers are still wanting, though new home secretary Sajid Javid told a House of Commons committee on 16 May that an examination of 8000 records yields the estimate that sixty-three people who entered Britain before 1973 (a significant date, as will be seen) could have been wrongfully deported: “It’s not a final number, it could change, because the work on those records in ongoing.”

What those affected have undergone is in each case unique. But the common features indicate the coercive mentality at work in the home office. Stories like Dexter Bristol’s, each linked to the ten independent Caribbean states whose history and Britain’s were interwoven by colonial power and race slavery, give only a glimpse of the stresses that dealing with this overloaded department can entail: in documents demanded, communication delayed, steep financial costs charged for everything at every step, and mental burdens imposed. Here are three more of the reported cases.

Jessica Eugene came from Dominica to east London in 1970 aged ten, was given indefinite right to remain, and has never since left Britain. She supported four children by taking many jobs, but in March was sacked from her receptionist job at a charity giving support to migrants, after being unable to prove her right to work. “This is a terrible situation but I have to deal with it,” she said.

Ruth Williams travelled from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines in 1959, and now has cancer. Her son Mozi Haynes, in his mid thirties, had two applications to stay in Britain rejected after the breakdown of his marriage to an EU national, which had given him a right of residence. He was about to leave to avoid the “shame” of deportation, meaning he could not look after his mother, when a last-minute reprieve arrived. “It was really a hostile, hostile situation where we felt less than we are,” said Ms Williams.

Paulette Wilson arrived from Jamaica in the late 1960s as a ten-year-old. Her working life includes serving in a House of Commons canteen. In 2015 she was told that she was in the country illegally. After two years seeking to prove her right to stay, then a week in the Yarl’s Wood removal centre, imminent deportation was averted thanks to support from her daughter, a charity and her member of parliament. “It’s just upsetting to think that an ordinary person like me could go through something like that,” she said. “What about all the other people who were sent away before my case became big?”

Javid told the committee that 4482 of the 11,500 calls to a home office helpline have been marked as potential cases. With 1482 appointments made, 526 people have received documents confirming their status. The Windrush imbroglio has a long way to run.

“A really hostile environment”

Such family traumas, gradually coalescing, had hidden in plain sight for months. Many were tracked in meticulous and humane reports by the Guardian’s Amelia Gentleman, and though they were also mentioned elsewhere the broader issue was slow to gain real traction. When at last it burst into the open as a single many-sided story, the moment fortuitously aligned with three events in which the echoes of Britain’s modern experience of immigration, racism and post-empire would be inescapable.

The issue permeated the summit, or CHOGM, which brought heads of government from the body’s fifty-three members to London on 16–20 April. Its last day coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of a notorious speech by the Conservative shadow minister Enoch Powell, whose lurid foretelling of black immigrant supremacy — all the more malign for its strewing of classical allusions — unleashed rival firestorms of acclamation and protest in 1968.

Powell was instantly banished from the shadow cabinet of opposition leader Edward Heath, but his calculated incitement would for decades overshadow public debate on immigration and “race relations.” The defensive liberal consensus survived, but failed to regenerate in ways it might otherwise have.

Two days after CHOGM ended and the speech had been nervously debated, leaders — royal, religious, civic, police, political — packed into central London’s lovely St Martin-in-the-Fields church. This gathering marked the passing of twenty-five years since a grim incident that took a half-decade to acquire larger significance: the random murder at a bus-stop in southeast London of eighteen-year-old Stephen Lawrence, a black student, by a gang of white males. The naked racism of the stabbing was compounded by a delinquent police reaction whose slow exposure led to the pivotal Macpherson report and institutional reforms. Among other such killings and official negligence elsewhere, the senseless loss of an ambitious youngster who planned to be an architect grew to represent a society’s determination to change.

By this point, “Windrush” was on every front page, with more shocking details by the hour. Several Caribbean representatives at the CHOGM were notably more restrained in their criticism than the situation warranted. But May was directly in the frame over her crafting as home secretary of “a really hostile environment for illegal immigration.” In that job she was a draconian stopper, closer, spoiler and capper. In pursuit of targets, as Sussex University’s Erica Consterdine points out, the burden of proof of status shifted to harassed individuals and civic institutions.

In effect, the Caribbean victims of May’s and Rudd’s strategy had been made illegal, using methods alarmingly evocative of the kind of dark instincts that were around in 1968 or 1992. As their stories of persecution filled the media, the long-planned events intended to mark Britain’s social progress — intended at the CHOGM to connote Brexit’s dream of “global Britain” — fell between flat and surreal. Jonathan Prosser observed a piratical impulse: “That this situation was ever allowed to emerge points to a lack of respect for those who have worked hard their whole lives to make a meaningful contribution, and perpetuates a view of an uncaring, dastardly persona, cut-throat in its logic, and swaggering with a superiority complex.”

It took another week for Rudd to go, and even then on a technicality: her erroneous statement to a parliamentary committee that her department did not operate precise targets for illegal immigrants’ removal from the country. Her replacement, Sajid Javid, whose upbringing in a Pakistani immigrant family was the foundation of a successful career in finance, is a free-marketeer whose convictions were tested in his previous jobs at energy and housing. His powerful early remarks on the scandal — it could be my mum, dad, uncle or me forced out of Britain, he said in an interview published on the day of Rudd’s resignation — reinforced the symbolism of his appointment with a definite signal that the tawdry language surrounding immigration policy, and in time the policy itself, will change.

The Windrush convulsion will also need time to work itself out, however. The reckoning will inevitably call into renewed question not just the pitiless recent milieu, but also the longer history of postwar immigration, its successive legal regimes, and the place within it of Caribbean, and wider Commonwealth, incomers. All of these overlapping elements have helped create the current situation.


A saga that ended in cruelty began in contingency. Labour’s government of 1945–51, facing major tasks of reconstruction amid a domestic labour shortage, is often said to have regarded loyal West Indians as suitable workers in transport, mines, and the incipient National Health Service. It’s a customary, indeed central, component of a now quasi-national arrival myth, that the passengers of the Empire Windrush were invitees, called to rebuild the mother country.

This post hoc rationalisation, as so often in this saga, underestimates the agency of the people at its centre. In fact, when the vessel left Jamaica with a thousand passengers, half of them self-supporting West Indians, their bold initiative alarmed London politicians. George Isaacs, minister of labour, speaking as the ship was mid ocean, said he didn’t know who sent those aboard: “The arrival of these substantial numbers of men under no organised arrangements is bound to result in difficulty and disappointment.”

Some parliamentarians expressed disquiet. But that it should be stopped was not an option. The “sons of Empire,” as London’s Evening Standard greeted them, were not in a legal sense immigrants. The United Kingdom’s borders were open to what the British Nationality Act of 1948 would define anew as “citizens of the UK and colonies” or “Commonwealth citizens.” The act, passed just a month after the Empire Windrush’s arrival, made no distinction between the terms. Anyone who qualified was eligible to enter, live, work and bring family into the United Kingdom.

By the time they sailed into Tilbury docks on 21 June 1948, and the next day entered a grey London of gaping bombsites, a war-tested control system — mandatory identity cards, all-round rationing — had recovered its mettle. The newcomers were sorted and shunted, basic provision arranged. Local councillors and church people helped. Those lacking contacts were placed in a cavernous, deep shelter in the south London district of Clapham. From there the nearest labour exchange was Brixton, also the natural place to haul suitcases and look for rooms. The seeds of an unimagined transition, from raffish late Victorian suburb to the informal capital of black Britain, were planted.

This wasn’t a story from nowhere, though it could feel that way on both sides. Many of the West Indians had served in wartime Britain and then gone home — indeed 500 of the recently demobbed had been on the Empire Windrush on its outward trip from London.

Black people, including those of more direct African descent, had long lived in or passed through British cities, not least the ports of Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow and Liverpool that the Atlantic slave trade had made prosperous. But in affective terms, if not those of history, those factors now counted for little. In the absence of explicit leadership or sense of commonality among the hosts, the latest encounter kept its distance.

The political kerfuffle around the Empire Windrush, and cheery newsreel footage of its disembarkation on 22 June, gave the event a flash of publicity. Only much later would these bestow totemic status. There were low-key events and a memorial booklet on the fortieth anniversary, though only in 1998 — just after Tony Blair’s New Labour was elected — did things accelerate. A multi-voiced book published that year, Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain, accompanied by a BBC2 series, was a landmark. This rich panorama, edited by the writer Mike Phillips and his broadcaster brother Trevor Phillips, fixed the era, central to their own family’s experience, as formative of a “mosaic” of Britain’s modern history.

In June, an array of official and independent events is scheduled to mark the seventieth anniversary, all now given extra piquancy by the state’s treatment of the Windrush generation’s children. If all Britain’s history wars — see also Brexit, statues, the Great War, India and empire as a whole — pack a topical punch, this is among the lowest.


For many years, as flows from the Caribbean became commonplace, the arrival of Empire Windrush was recalled as seldom as the names of the ships that came in its wake: Orbita, Reina del Pacifico, Georgic. The local economy’s ebb and flow, transmitted in letters home from those already settled, influenced both numbers and destinations. There were 330,000 West Indians in Britain by 1962, a tenfold increase since 1948. Fellow islanders gravitated to particular London districts (Jamaicans in Brixton/Clapham, Trinidadians in Notting Hill, Dominicans in Paddington), a tendency replicated as people began to find work outside the capital. At the same time, emigration itself fertilised a sense of Caribbeanness, to which the BBC’s influential program Caribbean Voices gave literary shape.

The ambiguities of arrival cast their influence down the years. West Indians, around three-quarters of them men, adjusted to a cold country with determination and stoicism. To most in the majority society, they were at best an afterthought. The hosts’ repertoire could include practised indifference and casual hostility, although English decency and punctiliousness were also part of a rendezvous more complex than is usually allowed. Into the early 1950s, a sense of the provisional hovered over their presence. But halfway through what was to prove a long Conservative restoration (1951–64), a loosening air brought the recent arrivals under more exacting scrutiny.

Postwar austerity and control had given way to a post-rationing consumer economy with restless new freedoms. The Suez disaster of 1956 had crystallised doubts about Britain’s global status and highlighted the lure of “third world” nationalisms. By then, continuing the great dominion exodus of almost two centuries, almost two million of its citizens had emigrated since 1945. Seeds of cultural and political discontent blew in the wind. Several of Britain’s stay-at-home tribes, looking to make sense of the unsettlement, found it variously reflected in their image of the growing population of West Indians.

Anxious liberals roamed east London collecting evidence of “the coloured problem” and wrote up their findings in earnest pamphlets and books. Newspapers depicted a shady world of loose morals. Trade unions cast a suspicious eye on putative job-takers or wage-undercutters. Left-wing radicals alighted on comrades in social progress, literary ones discovered partners in cultural renewal. Most sinisterly, far-right activists viewed West Indians through a degraded ideological lens as racial inferiors, sexual threats, and corrupters of white purity.

The activists’ dream was that such prejudices, latent in many citizens, could be activated in violent assault and ultimately help to (in a viral slogan of the period and later) “keep Britain white.” It was burnished by ugly interracial clashes in the East Midlands industrial city of Nottingham in August 1958, sparked by sexual jealousies, the first such major manifestation of the decade. These were eclipsed a week later by a series of assaults on Caribbean men in west London’s Notting Hill, which made the area a focus for Britain’s prewar fascist leader Oswald Mosley and his acolytes. In May 1959 an Antiguan carpenter, Kelso Cochrane, was stabbed to death there by a gang of white men, an unsolved crime regarded as Britain’s first racial murder — at least since 1919, when riotous attacks involving multinational groups of black and white workers led to five deaths in seven dockland areas.

Beyond a policing response, official thinking increasingly turned to legal restriction of immigration levels as a policy tool. That created an incentive for Caribbeans to move before the shutters came down. A spurt brought 49,650 in 1960 and 66,300 in 1961, big increases on 27,550 in 1955. This was reversed by the Commonwealth Immigration Act 1962, which regulated entry of those Commonwealth citizens born or resident outside the United Kingdom who didn’t have a British passport. A requirement for employment vouchers was among the new measures. In subsequent years, annual entry of West Indians fell towards and then below 10,000, many of them children of family members already domiciled in Britain — many, half a century on, to be caught in a bureaucratic net. The downward turn continued as the islands gained independence: Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago in 1962, Barbados and Guyana in 1966, eight others in the 1970s–80s.

Britain’s stop–go economy, pained imperial retreat, and cautious turn towards Europe kept in play the instincts of the 1962 act. The shift was as much psychological as geopolitical. It is in the nature of empires to be multicultural; in retreat, borders metamorphose from freedom’s symbol into barriers. Narrowing horizons were the consequence, and the logical remedy was proactive efforts towards the civic integration and substantive equality of those already inside the gates. In the absence of such efforts, the near inevitable result would be to perpetuate their marginalisation.


The 1962 act, applying to the whole Commonwealth with its 600 million people, left unaffected the reality that those with British passports could still enter the country if they wished or felt compelled to do so. Harold Wilson’s Labour government, elected in late 1964, considerably tightened its regulations in such areas as employment vouchers, health checks, and powers to repatriate. It also passed two Race Relations Acts, in 1965 and 1968, prohibiting discrimination in public life. But the new model of internal reform plus more restrictive borders was little prepared for the crises in newly independent Kenya and Uganda in 1967 and 1971, when large Indian-origin minorities faced persecution. A third round of legislation followed.

Wilson’s cabinet rushed a bill into law in early 1968 that controlled the entry of Commonwealth citizens without close family ties to Britain, facilitating the exclusion of 200,000 Kenyan Asians who had chosen to stay British when colonial rule ended. (“Would it be respectable to take the whole thing through in one day,” Richard Crossman, leader of the House of Commons, wondered in his diary, “in a matter which would be dismissed as unconstitutional in any country with a written constitution?”) Edward Heath’s Conservatives tightened the “right to abode” in the Immigration Act 1971, but amid vocal opposition it also set up a Uganda Resettlement Board that allowed 28,000 Ugandan Asians, almost half the total, to settle in the United Kingdom.

Margaret Thatcher’s British Nationality Act 1981 brought a fourth makeshift, slotting Britain’s far-flung citizens into three new categories. The 3.5 million people of Hong Kong belonging to one category, “British Dependent Territories,” became pawns in her negotiations with China, with the status fiercely resisted by Emily Lau and other principled democrats. The handover of the territory in 1997 without an offer of full citizenship was another desertion that symbolised, more than any other event, the end of empire.

When the fifth generation of nationality laws appeared in the early 2000s, it was significant that alongside the strategy of “managed migration,” asylum was the foremost theme. With it came a new lexicon, as spats over asylum seekers, border controls, work permits, induction centres, residence tests, exporting borders, and above all numbers spanned the Tony Blair decade, toppling ministers along the way.

The sixth generation turned further inward. A provision of the 1971 act had granted indefinite leave to remain to Commonwealth citizens who arrived before 1973. In principle, that would cover the children of the Windrush generation today. In practice, the UK state’s long arm was well able to reach across decades and take away what it had given. Such was the import of Theresa May’s immigration acts of 2014 and 2016, which imposed strict requirements to prove residency rights and obliged employers, educators and care services to check the immigration status of people in their charge. These measures, applied with punitive fervour to people such as Dexter Bristol and Paulette Wilson, could make compliance impossible. They became a means to exclude people of West Indian roots who had lived in Britain for more or less continuous periods from the late 1950s onwards.

Here, that long chain of indirect responsibility breaks the surface. Wilson’s and Heath’s contrasting choices had testified to two of its links: the power of the executive in the British political system, and the contradictions of national citizenship in a state becoming notionally post-imperial. These factors are also highly relevant in the Brexit debate, where arguments about parliamentary versus popular sovereignty interact with those over the now uncertain future status of EU citizens in the United Kingdom.

In fact, one way to understand the Windrush disgrace is to see it as a much-delayed contact between two parallel histories, each at times tortuous and circuitous, that Britain lived through in the post-1945 decades: a retreat from empire and an approach to Europe. Or, to put it another way, from one warped promise of global citizenship to what turned out to be a successor.


During these decades, with one exception, “immigration” had come to connote non-Europeans. At first they came from the empire-becoming-Commonwealth, and their citizenship status was little remarked. South Asians, from doctors to sailors, had long settled in Britain; after India’s independence, Sikhs, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans from particular localities came to work in England’s textile towns, factories, transport nodes and restaurants, the next generation creating a kaleidoscopic “British Asian” reality. Chinese, Australians, apartheid-era South Africans and Africans from postcolonial Ghana and Nigeria also made their imprint. (By 2011, the number of black Africans had exceeded Caribbeans.) Chileans in 1973, and Vietnamese rescued at sea from 1978, many of Chinese ethnicity, were a precursor of flights from war or repression by Colombians, Somalis, Iranians, Iraqis, Kurds, Algerians, Libyans and more.

Europeans in Britain after 1945 were at one remove from the vaunted imperial family. Many had been refugees from Nazism or war veterans who could not or did not want to return to ravaged, and soon Stalinoid, homelands. Many of the sixty-five Polish women and children (and one man) who joined the Empire Windrush on its Mexico stopover — at best a footnote in its myth — had endured Stalin’s Siberian gulag. Later strife brought a younger generation (Hungary’s 1956, Czechoslovakia’s 1968, Poland’s 1981) and, in the case of Bosnia and Kosovo’s 1990s, new contingents. Britain also shared some of the northern European states’ experience as a receiver of emigrants from the continent’s south driven more by opportunity than politics: Greek and Turkish Cypriots, Italians, Portuguese, Maltese. But if these currents produced a few studies and memoirs, they were always a minor key in Britain’s immigration discourse as a whole.

The exception was the Irish, whose longstanding and pervading presence, routinely shadowed by doltish native prejudice, earned them a rare insider–outsider status. In the early 1960s, a million Irish-born people lived in Britain. The neighbourly relationship across the Irish Sea, occasionally jolted during Northern Ireland’s conflict, was softened by the common travel area, established in 1922, which guarantees mutual rights in all areas, including to vote. The Irish thus uniquely straddle Britain’s “immigration” and “Europe” stories. It’s appropriate then that the most outstanding recent book on immigration to Britain is the Irish historian Clair Wills’s Lovers and Strangers: An Immigrant History of Post-War Britain, published in 2017. Equally fitting is that no state is more perturbed by the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union, nor more active in trying to minimise its effect on the island’s north–south border, than the Irish Republic.

In the process, substantial tension has developed between Dublin and London. The Brexit vote, and the government’s subsequent incoherence, bears the major responsibility. But the characteristic Brussels pose of adamantine legalism and imperious disdain has helped undermine the bilateral relationship. On its own account, Ireland’s long-awaited switch of leadership from the emollient Enda Kenny to Leo Varadkar in June 2017 also shifted Dublin’s stance towards the British government and pan-Ireland affairs. Brussels had been a useful backstop in the 1998 agreement that sealed the northern conflict. Its conduct in the Brexit negotiations has exacerbated the Ireland–United Kingdom fallout, just as its obduracy on freedom of movement was a boon to the Brexiteers.

When Edward Heath fulfilled a lifelong ambition by taking the United Kingdom into the then European Economic Community in 1973, the EEC’s founding commitment to “ever closer union” and its economic ambitions were yet to cohere. Over the next thirty-five years, a series of treaties conjoined them. From the early 1990s the rebranded European Union’s single market put fourfold mobility (of capital, labour, goods and services) at its heart, a process continued after 1989 with a series of enlargements. But as the European Union grew from fifteen to twenty-eight states by 2010, existing members sought to ease the transition by delaying free movement of workers from the accession countries.

The major expansion, in May 2004, would bring ten states, seven from the former Soviet bloc, into the European Union. Only Britain, Ireland and Sweden ignored the provision and opened their borders from the start. This was myopia rather than generosity on London’s part: it expected between 5000 and 13,000 prospective workers each year for a decade. In fact, the restrictions in other EU states thrust Poles and Slovaks, Balts and Hungarians towards Britain — otherwise, in most cases, not their primary choice — and Ireland, thus spurring the latter’s evolution into an immigration country.

In the first year, 2004–05, over 50,000 nationals from other EU states arrived in Britain, and the annual total soon rose to more than 100,000. For the year to the Brexit vote, it was 189,000. By 2016, 3.5 million people born elsewhere in the European Union were living in Britain (almost a million of them Polish); as a proportion of all arrivals, they had risen from 13 per cent in 2003 to 43 per cent. Again, for the first time in England since 1945, the “Europe” story was becoming hitched to the “immigration” one.


European settlement, like West Indian and Asian (and others) before it, was changing the face of Britain in ways both tangible and still to unfold. In many ways, this latest big flow of people enhanced ordinary human happiness. Over a dozen years from 2004, the new arrivals fanned out to every corner, where they domiciled, set up businesses, made friends, married, had kids, went back and forth, kept their heads above water, got promoted, became hyphenated.

Britain, and mainly England, had turned into a multifarious society rather as it had “conquered and peopled half the world,” namely “in a fit of absence of mind.” So far, the sequel seemed to be working pretty well, although in February 2006 the Labour MP John Denham wrote a memo alerting Tony Blair and colleagues to a squeezing of public services and wages following the arrival of 14,000 east-central European migrants in Southampton, the south-coast English city he represented.

Most studies charted the EU arrivals’ overall impact on public finances as narrowly positive, ahead of the fiscal contribution of non-EU migrants, and of benefit to economic activity as a whole. Regional or temporal pressures were placed on facilities and livelihoods, and assessments of the effect on quality of life could also be mixed. But the context was becoming as important as the content, for amid plenty of serious debate each fresh report was being launched into an increasingly polarised and distrustful world.

This febrile climate, newly amplified by social media, fed on multiple discontents: the financial morass of 2007–09 and the shrivelling of incomes, careers, horizons and savings that ensued, institutional abuses large and trivial, political ennui. Separately, immigration and Europe had often figured as areas of public concern. Now, as the “Polish plumber” stereotype succeeded the (often Muslim) “bogus asylum seeker” of the early 2000s, social frustrations found a political outlet in rising support for the retro-nativist United Kingdom Independence Party, or UKIP, and even the far-right British National Party, or BNP.

UKIP, whose founding purpose was to get Britain out of Europe, took almost a million votes in the 2010 general election that brought a Conservative-led coalition to power, and 3.8 million in 2015. It finished third, second and first in Britain’s elections to the European parliament between 2004 and 2014, gaining 3.5 million votes in the last. In the first two, the BNP scooped nearly a million votes. While only a minority of these voters were hardcore, backing for reduced immigration was widespread. The new prime minister, David Cameron, a Conservative moderniser, had called UKIP a party of “fruitcakes, loonies, and closet racists, mostly,” but also sought to outflank it with a dual strategy: a new deal with the European Union, extracting favours over economics and sovereignty as well as immigration, then a referendum on membership to clinch the renegotiated partnership.

Cameron wanted to cut net immigration — which reached 332,000 in 2015 — to “tens of thousands.” The dynamics of migration as they operated on Britain’s open, rule-bound economy made that impossible, though the right mix of policies might alter trends over a whole electoral cycle and more. Any efforts would in any case also have to focus on movement from outside the European Union, where London had putative control but was in effect also constrained by those same dynamics.

Britain’s routinely abrasive tone towards the European Union, and the latter’s exasperation at London’s unclubbability, would always be likely to complicate any new deal. The timing was also off. “EU27”–United Kingdom talks, and the equally important bilateral ones, came on track in 2015–16, at the very moment when combined emergencies were pushing a million-plus refugees and migrants from Syria, the Middle East and north Africa towards Europe. In chaotic circumstances, a divided European Union informally suspended its key regulations governing immigration and cross-border travel. But where Cameron’s weak hand was concerned, Angela Merkel and other European leaders made the principle of intra-EU movement a red line. Several other factors would intervene to shorten the odds on a referendum upset. But with only meagre, face-saving concessions to take to British voters in June 2016, Cameron’s Brexit gamble was lost.

When she took office in its aftermath, Theresa May, who had overseen immigration and related policy in Cameron’s government, reaffirmed the “tens of thousands” aim. Almost two years on, the net immigration rate is trending downwards (244,000 in the year to September 2017), with non-EU now forming the larger component. A slowing economy, migrants’ return or relocation, corporate departures, and a fall in student numbers are doing the job, leading to recruitment difficulties in food, health, manufacturing, finance and other sectors: all not quite what the doctor ordered. To add to the post-Brexit twists, attitudes towards immigration as tracked by opinion polls are softening.

Windrush rematerialised against this background, this time as dystopia. When the 1948 original began to be remembered at all, its Ealing-esque, Passport to Tilbury touches added a dose of whimsy. Today, the only comfort in the government’s readiness to punish Britons of Caribbean origin for its own failures over immigration — and for its impotence over Europe — lies in the shocked public reaction.


In most circumstances, the home office’s covert squeeze on a particular group of citizens would have guaranteed the prime minister’s resignation alongside Amber Rudd’s. The fact that Theresa May survives, as she did in June 2017 when an electoral upset was followed by the Grenfell housing-block fire, can be taken as more evidence that the acknowledged rules of politics are in abeyance.

Immediate responsibility for that situation belongs to the Brexit-induced political stasis, which consumes most of the available energy and attention while leaving the rest to the Conservatives’ cold calculation. A change of party leader is risky and would not guarantee a better deal with the European Union, they believe; cabinet divisions over the issue make any contest fraught; the party and May herself are still competitive in the polls; her bland perseverance still earns her reluctant backing; the next election could be four years away. For the moment, then — perhaps until the Tories ignite over Brexit — inertia rules.

A by-product of this lack of momentum is that the Windrush affair now becomes a matter of catch up and patch up by the same home office, a politically sensitive department with a severe trust deficit. Despite the outrage raising a host of issues — immigration policy, staff and data management, public ethics, race and class prejudice, institutional memory, the state–citizen relationship — it meets a lack of capacity for strategic thinking in government and of the tools to address underlying causes. Instead of essential future-proofing, the cost of the shortfall is measured in endless reparation by a state increasingly cornered by past negligence.

While government stagnates, and the Labour opposition festers, many — like the country itself — live in a political limbo. If that is nothing compared to the plight of members of the Windrush generation whose very existences have been put on hold, it is also part of the current impasse. For some residents of limboland, this confirms a hard truth: the people are better than their rulers, but these rulers are still more tolerable than the only current alternative.

After all, politicians and officials are not the only actors. The people are also calculating the odds. Just as they did at the Brexit referendum, itself the outcome of the interplay of immigration and Europe in post-2004 England, they are again trying to wrest the least worst from an impossible situation. But in suspending their larger judgement in face of the Brexit process and the condition of the Labour Party, they also allow Windrush, Grenfell and other injustices to be contained.

In this new stage of trapped transition, the long chain of indirect responsibility from 1945 to 2016 and beyond now touches everyone. Its main themes at both ends — immigration and empire, Europe and Brexit — have come together. The stakes are raised all round.

However the Windrush/Grenfell accounting and Brexit ends, Britain will remain a country whose social compact and global links are intertwined. In the coming period, the people’s own trade-offs over Brexit and domestic politics are bound to shift and their choices open. At that point, the true character of these uncompromising times will begin to be revealed. ●