The Windrush generation: scandal is a reminder of how little we know about British history

The Windrush scandal exposed the mistreatment of Caribbean migrants who had the right to live in the UK, highlighting ignorance and racism in British history and immigration policies

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This week marks the arrival of a ship that brought the first wave of Caribbean migrants, who helped rebuild the country after World War II. The MV Empire Windrush graced the shores 75 years ago on 22 June. But despite the contribution of these people to our society, we still to this day hear the horrendous words “go back to where you came from”. What’s so startling about this particular phrase, apart from its hateful and racist tone, is the fact that it is completely wrong, and goes to show how little people know about their own history.

Only a month ago, I found out about the British Nationality Act 1948 - an important piece of legislation which signifies the change in the country’s nationality laws and the status of individuals within the British Empire. The Act introduced the concept of "Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies”, granting citizenship to people who were born or naturalised in the United Kingdom or its colonies. This included those in the British Caribbean, which meant that individuals from British colonies and territories, such as Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, were considered British subjects and had the right to live and work in the United Kingdom without restrictions.

As a result, it played a crucial role in facilitating the migration of individuals from the British Caribbean to the UK, including the Windrush generation. These individuals were initially encouraged to move to Britain to address labour shortages and contribute to post-war reconstruction efforts. However, despite their rights as British subjects, many faced significant challenges and discrimination upon arrival in the UK, something that continues today. It sometimes appears as if the UK government also requires a history lesson themselves.

Composite of Windrush-related items including photographs and statue (Kim Mogg / NationalWorld)Composite of Windrush-related items including photographs and statue (Kim Mogg / NationalWorld)
Composite of Windrush-related items including photographs and statue (Kim Mogg / NationalWorld)

The scandal arose due to changes in immigration laws and policies implemented in the UK over the years, particularly the introduction of the "hostile environment" policy in 2012. The policy aimed to make it more difficult for undocumented immigrants to reside and work in the UK. However, it inadvertently affected the Windrush generation, as many of them lacked official documentation or proof of their status, despite living and working in the UK for decades. The situation exposed cases of individuals being wrongly denied benefits, losing jobs, or being separated from their families.

Award-winning journalist Sathnam Sanghera is known for writing adult books about this particular topic including ‘Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain', which won the Best Book Award at the Bookseller Awards. However, he has changed direction by creating an equivalent for children called ‘Stolen History: The Truth about the British Empire and How it Shaped Us’. When speaking to me about his new book, he was clear about the fact that we cannot sanitise what happened with the empire, even while teaching children and the fact that in the UK, we are falling behind in understanding our past.

it causes huge problems that we don't understand this history and the sooner we teach kids about it the better I think, for us as a nation.

Sathnam Sanghera

“I thought if you write about the empire for kids you're going to have to get rid of all the violence and the violence is a big part of it and I didn't want to sugar coat it,” he said. In the book he also describes the Nationality Act, which “basically gave everyone who lived in the colonies the right to live in Britain. At the time that was a staggering 600 million people – around nine times today’s population of Britain.”

For this reason, he explains that many of the Windrush generation settled in Brixton, South London, as they spent their first night in a hostel in the area and decided to stay there. Brixton, of course, has had history of its own such as the 1981 riots, where racist discrimination against the black community by the mainly white police bubbled to the surface, causing several nights of violence and huge repercussions. Sanghera said: “Actually I don't think the government understands [our history] because they wouldn't have sent back all those people in the Windrush scandal if they had understood that those people were British citizens,” adding “so it causes huge problems that we don't understand this history and the sooner we teach kids about it the better I think, for us as a nation.”

The Windrush compensation scheme was “designed to compensate individuals who have suffered loss in connection with being unable to demonstrate their lawful status in the United Kingdom.” However, according to a 2021 report by the Home Affairs Select Committee, an influential group of MPs found that only 5.8% of the people who are believed to be eligible for compensation have received a payment. And shockingly, 23 people have reportedly now died, never having seen a penny of the compensation they were owed. 

Spoiler alert: what happens on Disney+ series Full Monty

The new Disney+ series revamp of the 90s classic film The Full Monty tragically highlights this very issue. The show is set 25 years on, but this isn't some empty nostalgic celebration. Not only does it showcase working-class areas in Britain today, and how systems have failed them, it also puts a spotlight on how the global majority have been neglected in this country - a country they were originally invited to. This is heartbreakingly explored through the character Horse, an older gentleman who joined the striptease troupe in the original film. Played by 72-year-old Paul Barber, the character sadly dies in poverty, something we have seen in reality for many people of colour dealing with a cost of living situation.

Whether it’s the Covid-19 pandemic, where people of colour were disproportionately affected, or the chaos surrounding the Windrush scandal - there appears to be a disconnect between understanding what has happened to these vital communities and the importance of their role in our shared history. People of colour aren’t just unwanted guests, they have made a significant contribution to this country and should be commended as such. And the government’s own lack of knowledge about this input goes to show that we all have much learning to do.

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