The Windrush Scandal and the Incoherence of Liberal Exclusion

The Windrush Scandal and the Incoherence of Liberal Exclusion

Katherine Tonkiss

In late 2017, the Guardian newspaper began to run stories about members of the ‘Windrush’ generation of post-war migration to the UK, comprising individuals who arrived in the UK from Caribbean Commonwealth countries between 1948 and 1971. Despite, at their time of arrival, holding UK and Colonies citizenship and being granted leave to remain under the 1971 Immigration Act, the Guardian reported that individuals from this group were being threatened with deportation to countries they had not lived in since childhood and were facing homelessness, unemployment and having medical care withheld on the basis that they could not prove their right to live in the UK. By May 2018, the scandal had caused national and international outrage and the Home Secretary had resigned as a result.

This scandal raises fundamental questions about how the collective ‘we’ is imagined in the UK, and about how such a scandal could arise in a supposedly liberal, multicultural country. But in this article I argue that the scandal is not an isolated event. Rather, it is illustrative of an incoherence in the notion that a liberal state can pursue restrictive immigration control.

To make this argument, I want to suggest that border control is not only a practice of exclusion affecting noncitizens. It is also a practice of exclusion affecting existing citizens. Not only does bordering contravene the rights of noncitizens, as has been extensively documented elsewhere, it also exposes existing citizens to a level of exclusion and discrimination incompatible with liberalism.

The physical borders of nation-states are the geographical spaces in which the border is the most visible and its immediate impacts most obvious. In these spaces the border is a ‘spectacle’ which divides between noncitizen illegality and citizen belonging through the regulation of entry and exit. Yet these are not the only spaces in which borders exist. Rather, borders pervade everyday lives. They burden individuals with the need to continuously document and perform their belonging to the nation-state throughout their lives. The action of this internalised border is less visible than the physical external border of the state but is just as problematic from a liberal perspective.

Borders render the parameters of who belongs in a particular nation-state. If the contours of who is deemed to be an insider shift, then so do the lived realities of everyday bordering, with citizens who were once defined as on the inside finding themselves in ever more precarious positions as citizen ‘outsiders’. It is the action of this internal bordering which led to members of the Windrush generation suddenly finding themselves positioned as outsiders. They faced demands for proof of belonging and the threat of exclusion should they be unable to meet these demands. This occurred as the government sought to create an ever more hostile environment for noncitizens and changed the goalposts in relation to how the status of these citizens should be documented, having originally not issued any paperwork documenting their leave to remain and then in 2010 destroying their landing cards. As a result, the internal borders of belonging shifted and members of British society were exposed to rights deprivations and precarity by their own government.

This is not an isolated occurrence. It was the same in the 1960s when a series of pieces of legislation restricted the right to reside in the UK for people holding UK and Colonies citizenship status who had not already moved to the UK. This meant that, after 1971, these individuals could only move to the UK if they were granted a work permit and could prove that at least one of their parents or grandparents was born in the UK. Beyond the UK, it is also the same for Dominicans of Haitian descent whom the Dominican Republic now deem to be undocumented Haitian migrants required to prove their right to citizenship in their country of birth. Owing to a series of legislative changes these individuals have been left stateless and, unless they manage to jump through complex bureaucratic hoops, facing potential deportation to a country in which they have never lived. In all of these cases, a state-mandated shift in the contours of belonging have stripped individuals of rights and left them in ever more precarious situations.

The construction of nationality also intersects with other perceived markers of social diversity. These distinctions, in turn, pervade the ways in which borders are constructed. This, again, is a characteristic of the internalised border of the state as well as its external border, impacting on existing citizens as well as noncitizens. In many instances it is ‘race’ which is drawn upon to draw lines of national belonging between insiders and outsiders, and this is apparent in the Windrush case where black people have been subject to the suspicion that they do not belong and defined as migrant-outsiders despite the fact that they moved to the UK as citizens and, as a consequence of the 1971 Act, were later granted leave to remain. It is predominantly these people, and not their white counterparts with similar family histories of migration, who are persistently required to prove their belonging.

This is, again, not an isolated occurrence. It was apparent when the British government sent ‘go home’ vans – a slogan of the British National Front in the 1970s – threatening deportation for visa-overstayers to predominantly deprived minority ethnic neighbourhoods.[1] It is evident in research which shows that police are more likely to question the immigration status of black suspects than white suspects. Beyond the UK, it is evident in the stopping and questioning of US citizens regarding immigration status on the basis that they appear to be of Hispanic descent. Time and again, the construction of nationality intersects with racial and class-based divisions in ways which undermine the equal moral worth of co-citizens on the basis of ascribed characteristics.

Liberal states have a problem with border control, and this is a matter of significant incoherence with regard to the way in which liberal political theory accounts for the rights of noncitizens. Critics have questioned how, in a liberal society, the exclusion of people based on unchosen characteristics such as place of birth can be justified.[2] As I’ve discussed here, the problem goes further, too, as a result of the ways in which borders persistently demarcate between those that belong and those that do not on the basis of the ascribed, arbitrary characteristics of the existing citizenry.[3] This is a further dimension of the incoherence of a liberal state implementing restrictive border control. When viewed from this perspective, the Windrush scandal is deeply shocking but also not surprising.

See also Alexander, C. (2014) The Empire Strikes Back: 30 years on. Ethnic and Racial Studies 37 (10), 1784-1792.
[2] See also Carens, J. (2013) The Ethics of Immigration Control. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Cole, P. (2000) Philosophies of Exclusion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
[3] And see further Bhambra, G.K. (2015) Citizens and others: the constitution of citizenship through exclusion. Alternatives 40 (2), 102-114; Bosniak, L. (2008) The Citizen and the Alien: Dilemmas of Contemporary Membership. Princeton: Princeton University Press; Yuval-Davis, N. (2011) The Politics of Belonging: Intersectional Contestations. London: Sage.


Katherine Tonkiss is Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Policy at Aston University. Her research explores migration rights, post-nationalism, (non)citizenship and belonging. Katie’s recent publications have focused on noncitizenship, statelessness, and post-national forms of activism. She has recently completed British Academy funded research examining migration rights activism in the UK and Australia and is writing a book on practices of resistance to nationalism in policy spaces and everyday life. Twitter: @ktonkiss

Image Credit: Cornelius Kibelka, 2008