The Windrush Whitewash

Today's Windrush Day comes as government officials continue pushing through racist immigration laws and victims are still left waiting for compensation. They want us to believe the scandal is over – it isn't.

The British liner 'Empire Windrush' at port, March 1954. (Douglas Miller / Keystone / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

Today marks the fifth annual celebration of Windrush Day. Its official recognition comes after a lengthy campaign led by Patrick Vernon OBE, which called for a ‘national holiday to acknowledge the contribution of black and Asian communities to British life.’ To mark the occasion, a £1 million National Windrush Monument created by Jamaican sculptor Basil Watson will be unveiled at Waterloo Station.

Meanwhile, however, the Hostile Environment remains in force, and the Windrush Scandal continues. In this context, there is a criticism to be made—that an official ‘day’ only serves to paper over the cracks of the institutional racism at the heart of the British state. Worse, official celebrations of Windrush Day have been utilised by government ministers to launder their involvement in the Windrush Scandal, and to wash their hands of any wrongdoing.

Windrush Day itself functions as part of a wider official ‘Windrush narrative’ that has largely confined the presence of the African diaspora in Britain to a single moment in time, while obfuscating the power dynamic between colonised and coloniser. As stated by Professor Gus John in his scathing open rejection letter to the invitation extended by Michael Gove and Floella Benjamin to the unveiling of the monument:

The SS Windrush was not the Mayflower and those whom it brought to Britain were not pilgrim fathers and mothers. They were from the Caribbean but not of the Caribbean. They had had a life experience with Britain before boarding that ship, an experience defined by imperialism, colonialism and racism.

As the history of the Mayflower has been mythologised and warped, so too has the history of the Windrush. Caribbean subjects of the Crown who made the journey aboard HMT Empire Windrush are commonly portrayed as having made the ‘choice’ to travel to Britain in search of a better future. Often left out is precisely why the conditions in their native country were such that they could not envisage a ‘better future’ there, and instead made the perilous journey away from their homes to their ‘Mother Country’ to join the bottom of the pile of her labour force.

What the iconic footage of smiling Caribbean faces disembarking at Tilbury docks, soundtracked to Lord Kitchener’s ‘London is the Place for Me’, works to conceal, too, is that those who came in search of a ‘better future’ soon found themselves consigned to the poorest paid work, to the worst housing, and to vicious racism. Kitchener himself, met with the harsh reality of life in Britain as a colonised subject, reflected upon the hardships of everyday life in his song ‘If You’re Brown’, which is less likely to feature in the playlist for Windrush Day celebrations:

If you’re brown they say you can’t stick around, if you’re white, well everything’s alright,

If your skin is dark, no use to try, you’ve got to suffer until you die.

Establishment celebrations of Windrush Day ring all the more hollow after a recently leaked government report revealed that the Windrush Scandal was the result of ‘30 years of racist immigration legislation designed to reduce the UK’s non-white population.’ If anything, Tory government ministers standing up to applaud the ‘sacrifices made by Britain’s Caribbean communities’ (in the words of Kemi Badenoch) must feel like salt in the wound to the victims of their violent immigration policies.

There is something especially grotesque about the Tory government claiming to ‘honour and recognise the outstanding resilience, innovation and creativity of the Windrush Generation and their descendants.’ Why should we join the government in supposedly celebrating the ‘resilience’ of the ‘Windrush generation’, when said ‘resilience’ arose as a direct result of the racist immigration policies and brutal border regime that they and their neoliberal ilk have spent the best part of three decades constructing?

In the public consciousness, the Windrush Scandal has largely been reduced to past tense. It is portrayed as a sordid chapter in the career of then-Home Secretary and architect of the Hostile Environment Theresa May, despite the fact that its effects are being palpably felt long after the story first broke in 2018. The subsequent year, May treated the traumatised victims of her handiwork to a ghoulish pantomime in which she described Windrush Day as an ‘opportunity to remember the hard work and sacrifice of the Windrush Generation.’

While Theresa May was washing the blood off her hands, it emerged that less than one in five victims of the Windrush scandal had received compensation from the government. Not content with the suffering already meted out on descendants of the supposed ‘Windrush generation’, the ‘failed’ rollout of compensation has been a classic demonstration of the petty callousness of the Home Office, which is too often written off as simple incompetence.

It is not merely ‘regrettable’, in the words of now-Home Secretary Priti Patel, that at least twenty-three victims of the Windrush scandal have perished before receiving a penny of compensation, but a continuation of their degradation and humiliation at the hands of a racist British state. On top of this, initial offers of compensation were insultingly low, with many claimants offered as little as £7000. The fact that the Home Office—the institution responsible for this suffering—is the body responsible for distributing said compensation is a cruel irony, which victim and campaigner Glenda Caesar described as ‘a burglar burgling your house and you’ve got to pay them to get your stuff back.’

Victims of the Windrush Scandal deserve more than simply an official day of recognition. In the short term, they deserve substantial, swift financial reparations to immediately relieve their material hardship. In the long term, the best way to honour their legacy is to ensure that what happened to them—and what is happening to them—does not continue to happen to our friends, family, and neighbours.

Hundreds of Peckham residents illustrated this sentiment perfectly earlier this month, as they successfully blocked an immigration van from leaving with a man in detention following a five hour stand-off against violent police. So too was the sentiment shared by the hundreds of people who protested outside of Parliament, worked within the courts, and physically blocked the road to successfully ground the first of the government’s planned deportation flights to Rwanda. But until each and every victim of the Windrush Scandal has been adequately compensated and the Hostile Environment has been dismantled, Windrush Day only serves as a reminder of the continued brutality of the British state.