Brendan O’Neill

Why Theresa May is to blame for the Windrush scandal

Why Theresa May is to blame for the Windrush scandal
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To see the cruelty of bureaucracy, the injustice that can spring from reducing public life to mere process and human beings to paperwork, look no further than the Windrush scandal.

Scandal is an overused word these days. Everything from a politician’s ill-advised tweet to a celeb’s extramarital affair gets chalked up as scandal. But if we abide by the true definition of the word — to mean something that is morally wrong and which stirs outrage among the public — then the British state’s sudden, hostile turning against the Caribbean people and others who have made their home in Britain over the past 70 years genuinely fits the bill. This is truly scandalous. The Home Office harassment of the Windrush generation is a black mark, perhaps the blackest mark yet, against Theresa May’s government, and she urgently needs to end this wickedness.

It was on 22nd June 1948 that the Empire Windrush sailed up the Thames, carrying on it 492 migrants from the Caribbean. It marked the start of a wave of migration from Commonwealth countries. These migrants and their children and grandchildren became an integral part of British life. Many, many people born in Britain from the 1950s onwards will have been cared for, educated by or simply become workmates or good neighbours with the Windrush people and their offspring. It is hard to imagine Britain without them. 

Yet now, decades later, like a bureaucratic bolt from the blue, these people — these British people — are having their status as citizens called into question. In 1971, Commonwealth migrants were given indefinite leave to stay in Britain, which means that, understandably, many of them never formally naturalised. And suddenly, and ridiculously, this has become a problem because new legislation requires that all migrants must have the right official paperwork in order to work, rent property and receive benefits in the UK. As a result, Windrush people who are effectively paperless — because they were told they could stay, because they were told they didn’t need papers, because they feel and are British — are now having their lives turned upside down.

Some of their stories are harrowing. The 66-year-old special-needs teacher who has been in Britain since he was nine years old and yet who lost his job last year when he was judged to be an illegal immigrant. A 61-year-old woman who has been in Britain for more than 50 years and yet who was locked up in Yarl’s Wood detention centre for a week and threatened with deportation to Jamaica — a country she hasn’t visited for more than half a century. The man who has lived and worked in London for more than 40 years who was told he could no longer receive NHS care. He has prostate cancer. 

These people are as British as me. Or as Theresa May, indeed. It is as outrageous to threaten with deportation the 70-year-old woman who was born in Jamaica but who has worked as a nurse and a mum in Britain for decades as it would be to throw May out of the country. We now know how blind bureaucracy can be to common sense and basic decency. Did no one at the Home Office stop to think of the impact the new rules would have on these older migrants? Did no one in the detention system wonder why elderly, respectable Caribbean women were suddenly being shoved into cells? Did nobody high up the NHS hear about the turning away of sick people who have lived in Britain and paid taxes in Britain for half a century or more? This scandal gives us a terrifying glimpse into the moral lethargy that can descend when officialdom becomes all about ticking boxes and checking papers rather than thinking and understanding.

In her apology yesterday for the ‘appalling’ treatment of Windrush-era migrants, the Home Secretary Amber Rudd said officialdom ‘sometimes loses sight’ of individuals. It was a chillingly revealing comment, an admission that the machinery of state, especially of an increasingly technocratic state, can cause great harm to individual life and liberty without even realising it is doing so. Losing sight of the individual — that brilliantly captures what is possibly the greatest problem with political life in the 21st century. 

The Windrush scandal is a product of two things. First of an entirely degraded understanding of what it means to be a citizen. To many in officialdom, it seems, citizenship is just a piece of paper. It’s a list of questions on a citizenship test. It is document upon document: witness the surreal demand that the Windrush-era migrants provide proof of their presence in Britain for every year they have been here.

But citizenship is so much more than this. It is about really living in and really giving to a society. It is about feeling part of a nation and subscribing to that nation’s values. It is about working and raising children and, in the process, keeping your society alive and prosperous. So many of the Windrush-era generation have done precisely this. It is a profound insult to ask people who have been active citizens for decades — in workplaces, in communities, in elections, in family life, in public life — to produce a slip of paper proving their citizenship. 

And the second driver of this scandal is Theresa May’s great misreading of public concern about mass immigration as public hostility to migrants. This is one of May’s key failings. From her time as Home Secretary and her creation of a ‘hostile environment’ for illegal migrants, to her unjust expulsion of large numbers of foreign students, to her playing hardball with the rights of EU migrants in the UK in the wake of the Brexit vote, she has done a great deal to make life harder for migrants in the belief that this is what Britons want. But it isn’t. The majority of British people, as evidenced during the Brexit debates, want a greater democratic say over the immigration question, yes, but this doesn’t mean they hate migrants or want them to suffer. May is buying into the rather nasty outlook of that section of the political class which looks upon ordinary Brits as deeply anti-migrant, as a racist pogrom in the making, always just one dodgy Daily Mail editorial away from going on the rampage.

A poll by IMiX and the Runnymede Trust has found that 60 per cent of people oppose what the government is doing to the Windrush migrants, rising to 71 percent for people over the age of 65, many of whom will, of course, remember the arrival of the Empire Windrush. (So much for over-65s being bigots who love Brexit because they hate migrants, eh?) Mrs May, stop being ‘hostile’ to migrants. It isn’t what British people want, and you are making good people’s lives, our fellow citizens’ lives, a misery.