What do you do when a special day (plus hashtag) is created to contain centuries of so-called “hostile environment” treatment? Do you celebrate it, accept official funds for special events, laud the special events, stamps and other paraphernalia and then allow the fallout to be packed away by the wider public?

An event on 19 June 2023, organised by the University of London’s Institute of Historical Research (IHR), ahead of the 22 June #Windrush75 events, set out to chart a future course for the Caribbean and its diaspora in the UK beyond the Windrush scandal.

The day-long conference, The Windrush Scandal in a Transnational and Commonwealth Context, brought together historians from the UK and the Caribbean, academics, lawyers who had worked with the Windrush compensation scheme and people whose relatives were still feeling the impact of the Windrush immigration crackdown, five years after the UK government had promised to sort the scandal out.

Panellists put the issue in its historical context – from Queen Elizabeth I’s request to remove “blackamoors” from the streets of London, to the “black loyalists” who fought on the British side during America’s War of Independence only to find themselves resettled from Britain in Sierra Leone, right the way through to the 1970s “rivers of blood” period of racism and the continuing Windrush scandal.

For a number of the panellists, putting the centuries-old hostile environment into perspective allowed an opportunity to look at repairing future UK-Caribbean and race relations.

Veteran political activist and educationalist Gus John said that the discussion about reparations should not just be about handing out money, but about skills development, support for Caribbean countries to build their infrastructure and amnesties, instead of criminalising some of the Windrush generation and their children.

On deportations, Prof John said: “There is nothing foreign about them. When white people are arrested, they’re not deported.”

Barrister Martin Forde KC, who worked as an adviser to the Windrush Compensation Scheme and later criticised its implementation, said that the UK needed to move away from politicising migration.

“Windrush is beyond politics. It is about human rights,” he said.

Not my system

Many of the panellists pointed out that #Windrush75 was a convenient label which was underpinned by centuries of hostile treatment from the transatlantic slave trade, encompassing the way in which black people were viewed in Tudor times, encapsulating the start of large West Indian migration symbolised by the arrival of the Empire Windrush and reflecting decades of changing legislation which left many people of Caribbean origin facing challenges to their right to remain in the UK.

Amelia Gentleman, the award-winning journalist who shone a light on what became the Windrush scandal, outlined how a century of legislation had created a “complete muddle” and a Kafkaesque world for the Windrush generation to face, with the onus on them to prove citizenship and the right to access to basic services in the UK.

It was her work and the “guerrilla diplomacy” of the Barbados High Commissioner to the UK at the time, Guy Hewitt, which forced then British Prime Minister Theresa May into having to acknowledge the Windrush scandal against the backdrop of the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in London.

Mr Hewitt, the first Barbadian high commissioner to be born in Britain, told the event that he could see the Windrush scandal from both the Caribbean and diaspora perspective.

CHOGM eclipsed by Windrush scandal

The 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, the Windrush Scandal and the Legacies of Empire

“Colonialism is about exploitation,” he said, adding that the process had been about extracting all that you could for your country’s benefit.

Speaking about the Windrush scandal and the UK’s five-year delay in sorting most of the problems out, he said that “the system did not fail us… it was never designed to protect us.”

Social justice activist Patrick Vernon, born and brought up in the constituency of Enoch Powell, said that the MP’s “rivers of blood” speech in 1968 had influenced the political thinking of all UK governments since. He added that the anti-deportation campaigns and anti-racism activity came to a head in 2018, accompanied by the diplomatic and journalistic activity to create a “perfect storm” over the Windrush scandal, forcing the British government to look at the issue of race and nationality.

“Racist agenda”

A former British High Commissioner to Trinidad & Tobago, Arthur Snell, now a diplomatic consultant, started his panel contribution by apologising for his country behaving “like a criminal gang” and for its “racist agenda” over decades. He said that, during his time as a high commissioner, he had faced difficulties accessing information to answer questions on people’s cases. He described the government’s approach as “tone-deafness” to the way the scandal was viewed abroad. He said that the “bubble around British foreign policy” had allowed then British Prime Minister David Cameron to offer in 2015 to build a prison in Jamaica with a “complete inability to see the image that is sent by a former colonial power”.

IHR organisers praised Mr Snell’s courage in taking part in the panel, pointing out that the Home Office had been asked to take part in the event.

Despite the lack of official government response, panellists pointed to some positive developments, including the programme by  the Trevelyan family to support development in the Caribbean, compensation money put aside by the Anglican Church, proposed research into slavery links by King Charles III, resources being put in place by the Guardian owner, the Scott Trust, over its founder’s links to slavery and the fund proposed by Lloyds Bank.

Barbados’s ambassador to the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), David Comissiong, said that the hostile environment “runs across the history of Britain”. He said failure to face up to the issue of reparations and the transatlantic slave trade would poison the UK’s future relationship with the Caribbean.

“The information is out there,” Ambassador Comissiong said. “The British government cannot believe that it is going to go away. It is going to fester.”

The final panel on reparations, compensation and justice included suggestions to apply the methodology of the reparations process to dealing with the Windrush scandal, calls for Caribbean high commissioners to take a greater interest in the welfare of their people and a need to refocus a whole range of issues on justice.

“We are in the phase now where we are educating public opinion in the UK … a very important morale question is being posed to the UK government,” David Comissiong said, adding that issues from slavery to climate justice were “part and parcel of the Windrush campaign”.

Arthur Snell pointed to a path of integrating debate over the past issues of industrialisation and slavery to today’s vulnerability of small states to climate change.

After the ‘Windrush jamboree’

As the bunting of #Windrush75 was being taken down, articles started to appear about the lingering issues which had stoked the scandal in the first place. There were calls for better resourcing of the Windrush compensation scheme, along the lines of the Home Office efforts to support Hong Kong and Ukrainian nationals, and other calls for the Home Office’s responsibilities over policing, compensation and deportation to be broken up into separate areas.

At the 19 June conference, Prof John was applauded as he called for a continued joining of the dots on the issues of race, identity and nationality, beyond Caribbean people in the UK, after “this Windrush jamboree” had passed.

One audience member summed up the post-Windrush crossroads faced by Caribbean people in tackling the issues of racism, migration and identity.

“Are we evolving or just revolving?” she asked to audience applause.

This article was originally written by Debbie Ransome and published in Caribbean Intelligence.

Photo image: Top: Panel 2 – Rob Waters, Hannana Siddiqui, Stella Dadzie and Gus John, Panel 3 – Eve Hayes de Kalaf, Arthur Snell and David Comissiong [on screen]

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