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On Windrush Day, Theresa May is treating the Windrush generation like a PR stunt

22 Jun 2019

Last summer while writing a book on the Windrush generation and their descendants, I spent hundreds of hours on the phone, in sunny gardens and cramped Costa coffee shops speaking to members of the Windrush generation and their family members. They wove me their life stories – of lost family members who they left behind in perpetual youth and lost loves who left them behind in hospital beds. They trapped me in their pasts and carried me up until the present.

At first glance, as with any individual story, there wasn’t all that much they shared. But motifs would crop up. And always one strong emotion: anger. The British Caribbean people I spoke to were angry, furious even, with the treatment of the Windrush generation. It’s a justified, potent emotion and although not always healthy, one I hope that in some ways they have held onto, as we move towards it being two years since the Guardian first reported on the case of Paulette Wilson, a former parliament cook who was sent to the Yarl’s Wood immigration centre and threatened with deportation to Jamaica after living in the UK for 60 years. Her story was my introduction to the so-called “Windrush scandal”.

Today, 22 June, marks the second official Windrush Day since the government launched the inaugural day in 2018 in what was obviously a direct response to the scandal. At the time, the communities minister, Lord Bourne, said the annual celebration will help to “recognise and honour the enormous contribution” of those who arrived. This year, announcing the plans for a Windrush monument at Waterloo station, outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May noted that “The Windrush generation helped lay the foundations for the country we know today, which is richer and stronger as a result of their hard work and dedication to the UK.” Naturally, despite the foregrounding of the day, there was no mention by either official of the people whose lives have been thrown into disarray because of the hostile environment, overseen by Theresa when she was the home secretary.

“I am wary of the intention behind those who created it and the success they may have in glossing over the harm that has been repeatedly caused”

It’s disingenuous, to say the least. However much we should be celebrating the achievements of the Windrush generation, I am wary of the intention behind those who created it and the success they may have in glossing over the harm that has been repeatedly caused to black African, Asian and indigenous-descended British Caribbeans. The government is now treating the Windrush generation like a PR stunt – yes it is good their contributions have been recognised, but our lives have been pushed and pulled into a tiny tube of a narrative which is not broad enough to recognise the nuanced, complex and almost always heartbreaking histories we’ve had in this colonial society.

There has been a cacophony of harm caused not only by this government but governments past. David Olusoga’s upcoming documentary, Unwanted: The Secret Windrush Files (which airs Monday 24 June), points out that while the dominant narrative outlines the fact that Clement Attlee’s government invited the Windrush generation to the UK, in reality, it was particular companies like London Transport and British Rail who encouraged migration, while government studies were highlighting  “coloured workers’… irresponsibility, quarrelsomeness and lack of discipline”.

Clement’s own take on things was that while he was comfortable with the docking of the Empire Windrush ship and immigration from the colonies in 1948, “If our policy were to result in a great influx of undesirables, we might, however unwillingly, have to consider modifying it”. Our movement, or lack of it, has never entirely been our choice. Our freedoms have always been curtailed at the hands of the white elite.

Today it was reported that another Windrush victim, Richard Stewart, had died with no apology or compensation from those in power. He passed away age 74 without being able to return to Jamaica to visit his mother’s grave. In April, it was reported that only 13 of those affected by the scandal had been granted emergency support by the government and only nine had been given hardship fund payments. None of the hostile environment legislation had been repealed. At least five people deported by the Home Office have been killed in Jamaica since March 2018. Glyn Williams, who was the Home Office’s head of migration policy when the hostile environment policies were developed, was made knight commander of the order of the bath in June. The injustices stretch across reams of newspaper copy and thousands of people’s lives.

“While I don’t begrudge those who do want to celebrate, what we are not going to do is keep quiet about ongoing injustices”

Of course, the one positive I can take away from this is the display of solidarity from Caribbean-descended people who suddenly have an excuse (and the funds) to celebrate their heritage. In the past year we’ve seen Small Island at the National, J’Ouvert at Theatre503, The Long Song on the BBC, Passages from the Royal Court, Windrush: Movement of the People by Phoenix Dance Theatre and Get Up Stand Up Now at Somerset House. Journalists Amelia Gentleman and Kuba Shand-Baptiste are respectively working on books about the Windrush generation. There are dozens of events on today and tomorrow, all which do more than Theresa has done to encourage British Caribbeans to feel at home in this country. Campaigner and activist Patrick Vernon has even launched a new campaign to bring the Windrush anchor back to Britain – which might work as a less tainted memorial than the one planned at Waterloo.

But while I don’t begrudge those who do want to celebrate, and especially the older generation who are finding particular joy in seeing their histories represented for the first time, what we are not going to do is keep quiet about ongoing injustices. In my mind, Windrush Day cannot purely be a celebration of British Caribbean achievements when so many of us are still suffering. It must be a day of education and acknowledgement – the way they have been mistreated is as much as a part of the history as the Caribbean music, fashion, art and good food that has permeated the stiff tweed of British culture since the 1940s.

The picture is chequered but the most important thing we can do is wrest Windrush Day from the hands of the despicable Conservative government and extol our ancestors and those of the Windrush generation still living in a myriad of ways. As put by Kim-Marie Spence, one of the founders of Jamaica’s Kingston Creative, “We’re descended from people who burnt down the islands in protest – can we honour that legacy too?”