Where did it all go wrong? The Windrush myth after London 2012

The Windrush generation arrived in the UK after World War II. Credit: PA

Catherine Baker
University of Hull

Six years ago, in 2012, the dramatised arrival of the ‘Windrush Generation’ provided many British viewers with one of the most moving moments in the opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games. The dozens of black Londoners and the giant model of the Empire Windrush, which had docked at Tilbury in June 1948, entering the stadium during the ceremony’s historical pageant stood for the hundreds of thousands of black Britons who had migrated from the Caribbean to Britain, which was then still their imperial metropole, between 1948 and 1962.

The moment when the ‘Windrush Generation’ joined the pageant’s chaotic whirl of characters drawn from modern British social and cultural history symbolised, for millions of its viewers (if not those people of colour with more reason to be suspicious of British promises), a Britain finally inclusive enough to have made the post-Windrush black presence as integral a part of its national story as Remembrance or Brunel. Today, however, members of this same symbolic generation have been threatened with deportation – and some have already been deported – because they have been unable to prove their immigration status despite living in Britain for more than fifty years. The Daily Mirror’s Brian Reade was far from alone in wondering where it had all gone wrong since 2012.

What kind of British government would deport the children of the Empire Windrush? Not the openly fascist regime that the National Front took to the streets for in the 1970s, or that Alan Moore imagined taking control of a near-future Britain in his 1988 comic V for Vendetta (written at the height of the Thatcher years). Rather, as most of the British public only realised after the revelations of the Guardian’s Amelia Gentleman connecting dozens of individual stories into a chilling pattern, the answer lies with the Conservative government of Theresa May.

Suddenly, in mid-April, public sympathy mobilised in support of the ‘Windrush Generation’ alongside an eviscerating parliamentary intervention from David Lammy MP, who has taken up the cases of dozens of black Britons who have lost jobs, been refused medical treatment or even been deported. Lammy’s challenge in parliament (and ongoing pressure through Twitter) would force the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, to admit that the government’s actions have been ‘appalling’ in forcing potentially thousands of Windrush-era citizens to prove their right to reside in Britain all over again by requiring evidence none ever anticipated they would have to provide.

On 23 April, Rudd promised to help the Windrush generation ‘acquire’ citizenship by waiving application fees and test requirements, though Lammy continued to emphasise that their citizenship had been ‘taken away by your [Rudd’s] government, not something that your government is now choosing to grant them.’

Much of the white British public had not appreciated the harsh realities that black families had seen hitting their elder relatives for months until the plight of the ‘Windrush Generation’ became national news. The policy of extending border immigration controls into everyday life, which government officials themselves termed the ‘Hostile Environment‘, has caused dire consequences for this historic and symbolic group of citizens. Members of the Windrush Generation have lost their jobs because they could not show a UK passport; they have been charged thousands of pounds for NHS care under rules targeting ‘health tourism’; and some have even been detained awaiting deportation to countries they have not visited for fifty years. An unknown number of people, the immigration minister Caroline Nokes suggested last week, have even been ‘deported in error’.

The crisis has even been linked to at least one death. The mother of Dexter Bristol, a Londoner born in Grenada who died suddenly last month aged 57, blamed government racism and the ‘hostile environment’ policy for the stress her son suffered after losing his job and access to benefits: ‘My son is British. We didn’t come here illegally… No one expected this country to turn into what it is now.’

Why has public sympathy mobilised so quickly around this group when thousands of others, including younger migrants from the Caribbean, have been caught up by these regulations ever since Britain’s ‘everyday borders‘ started to tighten? Largely because the Windrush Generation is already a national myth that the British public had been invited to rejoice in celebrating – never more spectacularly than at London 2012.

Yet if the Home Office’s attack on the Windrush Generation feels like a shocking and disorienting reversal, this is because the ceremony’s triumphant story about Windrush was not even what the whole country believed in 2012 – rather, the difference between 2012 and 2018 is a matter of which narrative has had more power to be heard.

The Multicultural Narrative of 2012

By 2012, Windrush had already been worked into many versions of Britain’s national myth – part of a liberal, ‘post-racial’ UK public commemorative culture, a mythic voyage at the beginning of a story about tolerance and progress where Britain’s colonisation of the Caribbean and its enslavement of the Windrush Generation’s ancestors could be absolved.

This progress, one must remember, had been hard-won. Black activists had had to campaign for years for Windrush to be taught in schools and marked by local councils, before public institutions began to take it up. Arguably, Windrush commemoration gained momentum after the 1999 Macpherson Report, which had popularised the phrase ‘institutional racism’ to describe police inaction after the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993; museum and heritage professionals’ own anti-racist engagement combined with the impact of Labour equalities legislation to make institutions keen to show they were serving a diverse community by marking Windrush as the turning point (or, more problematically, the beginning) of black history in Britain. Even though in 2012 commemorating Windrush might have seemed like consensus, when black history campaigns first gained pace in the 1980s it had been a radical demand.

Commemorating Windrush as part of Britain’s national narrative meant telling a story about Britain where black Britons belonged on the same terms as white Britons – a story about a Britain which was comfortable with having a Commonwealth not an Empire, and had moved on from the racism the Windrush Generation had endured when they were young.

Remembering how Britishness had supposedly become multicultural and racism had supposedly been defeated, by celebrating Windrush, participants were invited to join in the happy feeling of how far ‘we’ had come.

The London 2012 opening ceremony was a pageant of history-from-below that imagined a nation made up of its oppressed groups as well as its elites: groups like the workers of the Industrial Revolution, like the suffragettes, and like the Windrush Generation. The ‘mosaic history’ Danny Boyle, with scriptwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce, depicted through the ceremony, alongside celebrations of children’s literature, the NHS and a modern-minded Queen, readily lent itself to liberal readings. The arts critic Charlotte Higgins, for instance, wrote of Boyle’s ceremony the next day that it was an ‘impassioned poem of praise to the country he [and ‘we’] would most like to believe in.’

Volunteers portraying black workers who came to Britain on the Empire Windrush entering the Olympic Stadium in July 2012.

The heritage of this mode of representation was demonstrably left-wing, dating back to leftist traditions of ‘radical patriotism’ (including pageants) from between the World Wars, and to the socialist principles that inspired historians like Raphael Samuel to suggest the heritage of ‘ordinary people’ could be a leftist way of linking the public with the national past.

Indeed, one thread even links Samuel’s vision of the nation directly to Boyce: Samuel edited a three-volume collection on Patriotism: the Making and Unmaking of British National Identity in 1989, assembling suppressed and everyday heritage into a national past, and a young Boyce contributed a chapter on the I-Spy books while researching his English PhD.

The Conservative Counter-narrative

In 2012, the BBC’s broadcast of a ceremony tugging quirky cultural heartstrings to a cheering stadium made it feel as if the whole country was celebrating the spectacle of a creative, confident and multicultural nation too. And yet, it wasn’t; the story of London 2012 was already being contested on the night itself, when Conservative MP Aidan Burley tweeted that it had been ‘leftie multicultural crap. Bring back red arrows, Shakespeare and the Stones.’

Where public narratives are concerned, the contrast between 2012 and 2018 is not so much ‘Where did it go so wrong?’ as ‘Which narratives had the strongest platform then and now?’

And narratives about Windrush do relate directly to the fact that the Home Office has deported black Britons who came to the UK with British passports before their islands became independent, because national identity itself is a story about who belongs. Or rather, national identity is a story about who belongs unconditionally on the land inside the nation’s borders, and whom the hosts might graciously extend the right to stay.

The Windrush Generation who came to Britain, and the children they have had there, spent decades hearing racists like Enoch Powell and the National Front openly call for them to be repatriated. The slogan of sending black and Asian Britons ‘back home’, to the Caribbean or South Asia, implied that they had no right to belong safely ‘at home’ in Britain at all.

The very members of this symbolic generation who listened with dread as young people to the possible consequences of Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech in 1968, had to relive the experience a few weeks ago when BBC Radio 4 had Powell’s words read in their entirety by a star actor: a broadcast that the journalist Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff and many other British people of colour argued only normalised Powell’s rhetoric, empowered the far right, and represented a ‘particularly jarring… resurrection’ just as the Home Office was ‘unceremoniously booting out’ some of the very people who had arrived on the Windrush or the ships that followed.

Conclusion

Today, when many of the Windrush Generation have retired – and some might have looked back and thought they were living in a better country than the Britain they had known in their youth – tens of thousands of them now find they cannot prove their citizenship to the degree that ‘hostile environment’ policies require. After all, why would they have needed to before, outside dystopian nightmares? Not only has that nightmare become a reality; it might also grow more chilling yet with the news that, as long ago as 2010, the Border Force destroyed thousands of the very landing cards that could have proved when they arrived in the UK.

Their situation has moved the British public so much more than other inhumane deportations because of the power of the Windrush myth itself.

Aidan Burley, tweeting in 2012, had wanted to turn the clock back on multiculturalism. So did the UK Independence Party, on the ever larger platform the BBC gave it after the 2014 European Parliament elections; so did many of the voices backing Brexit. In 2012, the idea that that progress could be thrown into reverse, and Britain in a few years’ time could become ‘more racist’ not less, was very far from most people’s minds apart from those who longed to make it happen.

Yet visa rules for non-EU citizens became even tighter than New Labour had made them; Brexit stripped 3 million EU citizens of freedom of movement rights they had never had to think that they would lose; and Caribbean-born elders are facing now what Powell and the National Front threatened them with in their youth. The threat to deport the Windrush Generation does not just disturb the myth of multicultural Britain that grew between the 1990s and 2012 – it has torn it up, and some have watched the reversal of the myth with glee.

Dr Catherine Baker is Senior Lecturer in 20th Century History at the University of Hull and specialises in the cultural politics of nationalism. Her books include Sounds of the Borderland: Popular Music, War and Nationalism in Croatia since 1991 (2010) and Race and the Yugoslav Region: Postsocialist, Post-Conflict, Postcolonial? (2018) Her wider research interests include the politics of international events such as the Eurovision Song Contest and the Olympics, and she published an article on the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony in Rethinking History in 2015. She blogs at http://bakercatherine.wordpress.com and tweets at @richmondbridge.

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