The Windrush scandal: citizenship, politics and belonging

The Windrush scandal: citizenship, politics and belonging

Cecile Wright and Roda Madziva

What has come to be known as the “Windrush Scandal” is, in fact, a story of deportation and forced removal. It is a story rooted in empire, colonialism and racism. From those roots it developed into a narrative of citizenship, Britishness, immigration policy and British party politics. The lives of the “Windrush generation” became pawns in a game of immigration numbers.

The use of the term “Windrush scandal” disguises its basic reality, namely that it is about deportation and forced removal. This echoes where the narrative originated, i.e. the forced removal of Africans from their homes to the Caribbean to work as slaves (Hansard, May 2018; Wright 2018).

The past behind the present
The historical process of empire creation is embodied in enslaved African forcibly moved to the Caribbean. The wealth created formed part of the capital used to develop the Industrial Revolution in the UK. In the post 1945 period, the labour of Caribbean workers was again needed to help fuel UK economic growth. The migration of the descendants of enslaved African was now encouraged and sponsored in its movement, rather than forced (Fryer,1984).

In this understanding the actual and attempted forced removal of British workers, pensioners and their descendants to the Caribbean is one of a population that has become disposable. Their labour is no longer vital to the UK economy. However, there is much more involved.

The legacy of empire has produced contested views on what it is to be a British citizen and Britishness. The arrival of the Windrush in 1948 with its 500 migrants from the Caribbean can be seen as the empire and its subjects coming home. It is noticeable that the boat’s full name is rarely used. It has significance in that it was the ‘Empire Windrush’. The subjects of the British empire were granted citizenship in 1948. Indeed, the original idea of British citizenship (as outlined in the 1948 immigration act) was one that provided subjects of the UK and its colonies with a common citizenship. However, major sections of the political class and the UK population did not accept this. As Anderson (2013: 36) states, “colonialism was central to the creation of racial categories, as whiteness ‘at home’ was intimately and inextricably related to blackness ‘abroad’ thereby deeply engraining the notion of whiteness as a national identity”. Certainly, the presence of the Windrush generation was challenged on the streets, on windows (no blacks, no dogs, no Irish was the slogan of landlords of the day) and by politicians. MPs such as Enoch Powell reinforced notions of unchanging Englishness and indeed, the popular mindset equated being English with being white.

The state soon began to change the citizenship status of those of Caribbean ancestry. As the labour demands of the UK economy lessened there was no longer an economic need to encourage immigration. From 1962 onwards, anti- immigration legislation was passed. “Citizens” were no longer citizens but immigrants associated with today’s denial of citizenship and deportation and removal. This can be seen in the light of the British nationalist project of Powell, the National Front, keep Britain white movement etc., and the call for repatriation. Deportation is the outcome of a long legal process emanating from the first Commonwealth Immigration Act 1962.

The postcolonial context
Having ‘created and codified race’, and following the formal end of empire, the UK (like other European states) ‘now claims to have moved beyond it’ (Anderson 2013). Not only has the claim of this ‘moving beyond race’ been popularised through political claims of being a ‘post-racial’ society but has been made more apparent through the establishment of a ‘dehistoricised’ immigration regime (Anderson 2013). Indeed, immigration policy has been the tool used for over 50 years to deny citizenship to those of Caribbean ancestry. In the last 10 years, UK political parties have competed with each other in a numbers game to gain electoral popularity. This has been fuelled by a large increase in  net immigration resulting from the decision in 2004 by the Labour Government to allow unrestricted movement of people from eight new EU countries in Eastern Europe. UKIP based much of its agenda on reducing this immigration by a campaign to leave the EU and stop the free movement of labour. This gained increasing popular support electorally as UKIP fused issues of EU membership, immigration and British nationalism.

This played an important part in the Conservative/Liberal Democratic coalition policy of a reduction in net migration (as influenced by the Conservative Party’s 2010 election manifesto). However, this became intertwined with competing notions of citizenship.

UK immigration policy has long had one track for white migrants and a more restricted one for others. Unlimited immigration from the EU occurs because EU citizenship is paramount for countries who are members of the EU. Hence government policy to cut the migration total could not involve a restriction on movement of people from the EU to the UK. EU membership limited what action the government can take on immigration. What has come to be known as a “hostile environment” policy is one that cannot apply to migrants from the EU (at least, not until after Brexit). It therefore would target non-EU citizens.

The competition between UK political parties attempts to portray their anti- immigration credentials played its part in the establishment of the “hostile environment” policy. In fact, the long history of immigration policy has created an increasingly hostile political and legal environment. It was in 2012 where it was stated clearly and unequivocally by the (then) Home Secretary, Theresa May who (unashamedly) created the “really hostile environment for illegal immigrants”, and the subsequent 2014 Immigration Act. It seems that part of this policy would involve a conscious effort to label increasing numbers of people as ‘illegal’. In basic terms it has meant that a lack of official documentation held by citizens results in them being deemed an illegal presence in the UK, irrespective of length of residence. It is this that has come to be known as the “Windrush scandal” with unknown numbers of people of Caribbean ancestry (and others) targeted for removal.

The targeting for removal is a consequence of postcolonial populations having been citizens of the British Commonwealth. British citizens and British residents who cannot “prove” their citizenship with the necessary documentation are the targets for removal. This also derives from a long history in which the UK has failed to recognise the people of Caribbean ancestry as having the same rights as white British citizens (CCCS, 1982). It is therefore the people of colonial ancestry who are victims of a policy, which by intention or not, is institutionally racist.

The outcry which has ensued following the media discovery of what has been happening to particularly, elderly black people of Caribbean ancestry has brought out competing notions of what it is to be British. If there has been widespread public sympathy it suggests that notions of being British meaning being white are not all pervasive. A post empire narrative that black Britons belong here in the UK is a counter to the nationalist narrative of repatriation espoused by Powell, National Front, English Defence League and so forth. The attempts by the Conservative government to undertake deportations and repatriation has proved less easy than might have hoped. The media and public reaction suggests that the nationalist project of UKIP and their sympathisers in other parties is in fact nuanced in its “othering” (Heinemen, 1992; McEwan, 2009). If the numbers game of reducing net migration is to succeed it begs the question as to whether other postcolonial populations will also be targeted.

A vicious full circle of African populations being threatened and removed from their homes resonates with the current state action to do the same to post-colonial people of Caribbean ancestry. From the simple economic need of forced labour on plantations in the Caribbean to a population that the state sees as disposable has been a complex story of empire and post empire politics. In this sense, the Windrush scandal not only unmasks the past evils wrought by slavery and colonialism but the colonial attitudes and racism persistent within the British polity. Such a calamity therefore cannot be understood in isolation, but must be seen in relation to the wider political events and debates, particularly the prevalent political criticisms of and hostility to multiculturalism. This has seen citizens that are non-white increasingly being treated as temporary and/or as intruders and threats to the national identity, in ways that raise questions of identity, race and ethnicity in the contested area of citizenship, belonging and Britishness. The scandalous treatment of the members of the Windrush generation is therefore not only a notable political landmark in the UK’s more generalised ‘hostile environment’ but a reminder that a more nuanced investigation of racial discrimination that considers the diverse ways in which non-white British citizens are often (c)overtly excluded is urgently needed.

Anderson, B. (2013). Us and them? The dangerous politics of immigration control. OUP Oxford.
Fryer,P 1984, Staying Power: The History of Black  People in Britain, Pluto Press,London and Sydney.
Heineman, Benjamin, The Politics of the Powerless (London: Institute of Race Relations / Oxford University Press, 1972)
McEwan,C (2009) Postcolonialism and development. London Routledge.
Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) (1982).’The Empire Strikes Back- race and racism in 70s Britain’, Hutchinson , London
Wright, C.Y  ,2018, ‘The Empire Windrush generation and the continuing struggle for Black Education: Lessons to be learnt? In Windrush 70th Anniversary, Commemorative Magazine, 2018, pp58-60,


Cecile Wright is Professor and associate member of the School of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Nottingham. Roda Madzivai is Assistant Professor of Sociology, School of Sociology and Social Policy and Coordinator of the Identities, Citizenship, Equalities and Migration Centre( ICEMIC). A National Windrush Conference on Saturday 17th November, 2018 was hosted by the University of Nottingham. This national conference convened by the National BAME Lawyers for Justice in association with the Nottingham Windrush Support Forum, the Identities, Citizenship, Equalities and Migration Centre (ICEMIC), in the School of Sociology and Social Policy as a ‘Big Conversation and Call for Action’.

Image: Steve Eason CC BY-NC-SA 2.0