As the Windrush controversy deepens, the misguided UK feels it can waltz back into the lives of the Commonwealth nations, writes Shelina Janmohamed
Five decades after the 'rivers of blood' speech, prejudice still festers in Britain
On April 20, 1968, British MP Enoch Powell made his infamous “rivers of blood” speech. To an audience of his own Conservative political party, he recounted the story of a woman who said she was the only white resident on her street due to "white flight". He told the tale of a middle-aged working man, who said that “in 15 to 20 years time, the black man would have the whip hand over the white man”.
Five decades on from that day in 1968, it sometimes feels like Britain has stood still in time. The same words, the same rhetoric, the same anti-immigrant propaganda is rife. While the world has moved forward, Britain has remained stuck in the past and is struggling to define its place and identity in the modern world.
This week the government found itself in a storm of its own making, where this mix of racism and denial of reality came to the fore in the legacy of the Windrush generation.
After the end of the Second World War, Britain invited workers from the Caribbean to come and help make up for labour shortages. The first wave came in 1948 on board the Empire Windrush.
It carried 492 passengers, among them many children. The Windrush generation, as they came to be known, signified all those who arrived between 1948 and 1971, when the Immigration Act gave indefinite leave to remain to all Commonwealth citizens.
But under recent Conservative government policies called "hostile environment", some of the Windrush generation have been deported to countries they left as small children, places where they have no connections, having been forced to leave Britain where they have worked, raised families and paid taxes.
There is a habit that the right wing press in the UK have of dictating to people of colour that they should be grateful for living in Britain. The Windrush generation, who came at the behest of Britain to do all the jobs that weren't being done and that people couldn't or wouldn't do, to build the country back up after the war, show how ludicrous that habit is.
Shelina Janmohamed is a weekly columnist for The National:
It was a cold, miserable, difficult existence, where they faced abuse and poverty. Their labour had already been instrumental in generating the wealth of the British empire and of course, as long as they were "over there" doing the grind for the British empire it was fine.
But over here in the UK? That wasn't liked. It still isn’t. In the aftermath of empire, Britain has failed to understand that "over there" and "over here" are not two different things. It explains why on the one hand, it feels it can treat the Windrush generation this way while at the same time hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government summit and cosying up to the very same countries, hoping to generate trade.
Witness Powell's own dissonance: he invited the workers from 1960 to 1963 to build the NHS and the economy and five years later, he made the rivers of blood speech.
Earlier this year, the UK’s Treasury gushed on Twitter that the debt the government accrued in order to pay slave owners of Britain to release their slaves and thereby end slavery – in law if not in practice – had finally been paid off.
That in itself is shocking but doubly so if you consider that it might well have been the taxpayers among the Windrush generation and their children who were paying off the loans to those who kept their forefathers as slaves and were now being expelled a second time.
And yet, seemingly without any sense of irony of its own role in bleeding the colonies and the legacy of chaos and instability it has left behind, the British government has re-branded itself "Global Britain" and feels it can waltz back into the lives of the Commonwealth nations and become the leader of the gang, as though it continues to run an empire and that its clients will fall prostrate at its feet in delight at trading with Britain again.
The Commonwealth countries are less than impressed. Even The Economist called the concept "Globaloney".
As someone who was born and brought up in Britain, the child of immigrants who arrived in the 1960s and contributed to the nation, as I continue to do, I shake my head at a country that seems to struggle to realise that the world has changed and so has Britain's place within it. There is a certain myopia about what happened in the past, which is the root of our failure in the present.
As the debacle of Windrush shows, without understanding its past and the role it played, Britain's aspirations of being truly global once again are hollow dreams. If it doesn't quickly reassess its real standing in the world, they will soon turn to nightmares.
Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World