Seventy years after the Empire Windrush completed its historic voyage from Kingston, Jamaica to Tilbury, formal requests for a National Windrush holiday to celebrate the contribution of first generation migrants to British identity and society have yet to be answered.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the ‘Windrush generation’ in England. On 22 June 1948, the ex-troopship Empire Windrush docked at the Tilbury port in Essex. On board were around 500 men and women from various Caribbean islands seeking a new life in Great Britain. Although West Indians had been living in Britain before 1948, the Windrush wave is recognised as the most significant one, paving the way for numerous newcomers from all over the Empire. The symbolism of this migration, of the Empire Windrush arrivals, transcends West Indian identity and represents something much larger: post-war migration from the British colonies to Britain.
In 2013, a petition was launched by a collective of politicians, academics, faith groups and artists, requesting the official and formal recognition of the hardships faced by the Windrush generation and of their transformative contributions to British society. The petition’s aim was to make the 22 of June a public holiday, a celebration of modern day multicultural Britain. Were it to be accepted, it would be far more than just an official gesture; it would remind us and posterity that multiculturalism was not always tolerated. It has been a long, bumpy journey – and an ongoing one at that. It matters because the experience of the Windrush generation ties into what many other colonial migrants (from India or from Pakistan) have faced, while navigating their new lives in Britain.
The matter is urgent, all the more so as very few of the original ‘Windrushers’ are still alive to witness such a historic moment. The aim of the Windrush70 Project, staged by the Windrush Foundation to celebrate the anniversary, is to honour the legacy of 70 ‘Windrush Champions’, such as Lord Kitchener, a famous Trinidadian Calypsonian who conceived his famous tune ‘London is the Place for Me’ as he stepped off the Empire Windrush in 1948. Music like this shows how much hope and enthusiasm the United Kingdom inspired in some of the newcomers. Another memorable champion is Allan Charles Wilmot, a Jamaican World War II veteran, who fought for the British Royal Navy, and became a singer, conquering the London entertainment scene of the 1950s and 1960s with his male singing quartet The Southlanders. After returning to Jamaica in 1946, he decided not to settle there, and instead set sail for the UK.
In terms of foreign policy, The British Nationality Act of 1948 granted British citizenship to all subjects from British colonies, which also recognised their right to work and settle in the UK along with their families. Apart from attracting additional labour force to rebuild the country after World War II, it is said that this open-door immigration policy was a cohesive measure to prevent the already contested British Empire from crumbling. Approximately half a million Caribbean nationals migrated to the UK between 1948 and 1970, helping to pave the way towards a more inclusive British society. However, the new arrivals from the colonies faced hostility from the local population. They were often denied decent housing and pushed into low-skilled jobs, and 23 years later, the British Nationality Act gave way to the 1971 Immigration Act, which considerably restricted the ‘right of abode’ in the UK for Commonwealth Citizens. From then onwards, the right to settle in the UK was limited to those with a prior link, such as a proof of a parent or grandparent who was born in the UK. Although these restrictions considerably reduced primary immigration, many of the settled communities remained.
The current Immigration Act 2016 builds upon the 1971 ideology by seeking to enforce measures to ‘combat the threat of illegal immigration to the UK’. The ‘broader strategy’ includes a reduction for the demand of skilled migrant labour and a ‘crack down on the exploitation of low-skilled workers’. However, reading between these official lines, one is inclined to think that the main priority is to keep migrants out, even if their skills could benefit the British economy. It appears that the overall mentality toward migration has not greatly changed since 1971.
Creating a National Windrush Day is not about creating a ‘one-size-fits-all’ collective memory of what the ‘migrant to Britain’ must have experienced at the time, nor is it about undermining the cultural diversity of Britain. It is about honouring the nearly 2.5 million women and men from the colonies who volunteered to fight in the British ranks during World War II. It is about celebrating the diversity of the peoples from all over the former British Empire coming together in what many hailed to be their ‘Mother country’. For numerous third and fourth generation descendants of primary migrants, identifying as British is perfectly compatible with honouring their heritage. Creating a National Windrush Day would be a decisive step towards the acknowledgement of current realities, reflecting the plurality of British identity.
The recently uncovered Windrush scandal, referring to the hardship some have been facing, despite living and working in the UK for decades makes it all the more pressing to honour the facts: that these individuals have been denied health care or other benefits, lost their jobs or even been threatened by deportation because they were unable to produce ‘satisfactory documentation’ proving they have the right to be in the UK, were British citizens by law when they first arrived between 1948 and 1971. The careless disposal of landing cards by the Home Office back in 2010 may have placed thousands of ‘Windrush babies’ in citizenship limbo, but it cannot erase history.
Caroline Burleigh is Head of the Identities Programme at Agora.