Windrush Scandal Reveals the Inherent Brutality of Capitalism

The Windrush scandal may be slipping off the front pages but the uncertainty and harassment of 21,000 ex-Commonwealth-born British citizens, who have no passport from any country, is an ongoing fact of life. About a quarter of those who have no passport and who suddenly find their status as legal British citizens questioned are from the Caribbean.

The HMT Empire Windrush docked in London in 1948 bringing over 1000 migrant workers from the Caribbean to Britain. They arrived at the invitation of the British State to provide much needed labour to rebuild Britain’s shattered economy in the wake of the Second World War. Although this was just the first of hundreds of similar transports, the Caribbean workers who arrived over the next twenty years or so became known as the ‘Windrush Generation’. The racism experienced by those early migrants particularly in the 1950s and 1960s is well documented. The sign ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ displayed by some landlords encapsulated widespread attitudes at the time. In more recent decades racist attitudes have been in decline and the children of the Windrush generation, now getting close to retirement age, have generally enjoyed greater acceptance than that experienced by their parents, but they were in for a nasty surprise.

In the early years of mass migration from the Caribbean and other colonial and ex-colonial territories, citizens of the British Commonwealth had an automatic right to enter and remain indefinitely in the UK. As numbers of Commonwealth migrants increased, the 1960s saw the introduction of further immigration controls. These came in the wake of anti-immigration and racist sentiments whipped up by populist politicians such as Enoch Powell, in the same way that the first immigration controls introduced in 1905 were enacted in response to a moral panic about Jewish immigrants. The Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1968 provided that only Commonwealth citizens whose parents or grandparents were born in the UK would have an automatic right to enter and reside. This was a deliberate attempt to restrict non-white Commonwealth immigrants who would be far less likely to meet the criteria than nationals of white Commonwealth countries such as Canada and Australia. It did not prevent the arrival of migrants from places such as the Caribbean, or the Indian sub-continent, but it meant that they had to satisfy the immigration rules (albeit far less restrictive than they are today).

The Immigration Act of 1971 preserved the right of Commonwealth nationals already in the UK to come and go freely and entitled wives (but not husbands) and children to join them. The Immigration Act 1988 significantly eroded these rights; Commonwealth citizens lost the right to remain indefinitely after two years absence. They also lost the automatic right for wives and children to join them, and to do so they would have to meet the requirements of the Immigration Act. So over several decades conditions changed for Commonwealth migrants from unrestricted immigration to significant immigration controls.

Children of the Windrush generation were typically admitted on their parent’s passports which could then have been lost. In 2010 the Home Office took the decision to destroy all the landing cards which for many would be the only evidence of their arrival in the UK. Others might have been born in the UK but, for various technical reasons, could not obtain citizenship despite having lived there all their lives working and paying taxes, or did not even realise that they were not British citizens.

For many this may never have become an issue but for changes introduced in recent years by the then coalition government’s Home Secretary, Theresa May. Remember the ‘go home or face arrest’ vans [1] which drove around areas with high migrant populations urging those without papers to leave and encouraging others to report illegal migrants to the authorities; even UKIP leader Nigel Farage claimed to find this offensive! This was part of the government’s specific policy to create a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants.

The ‘hostile environment’ was backed up by further Immigration Acts in 2014 and 2016 which required employers, landlords, hospitals and banks to require proof of immigration status. It was in this situation that problems began to emerge for the Windrush generation and their children who discovered that they did not have any documentary proof of their right to be in the country, even though most of them either are citizens, or would have the right to become so.

Their plight was worsened by the Home Office culture of disbelief and inflexibility in requiring documents which no longer exist, whilst other documentary proofs such as national insurance contributions were not deemed to be adequate. In other words, Home Secretary, Theresa May changed the rules to promote a deliberate policy of state hounding of a group people who were encouraged to settle down in Britain and have lived here for generations but now have to prove a 'right to remain'. Once an immigrant, always a migrant.

The resulting Windrush scandal, may be a (probably temporary) set back in the career of Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who denied there were targets for deportation in her Department but when this was exposed as a lie has been made to resign. But she was only carrying out Theresa May’s policies, which have had a devastating impact on hundreds of Windrush generation people. They have lost their jobs and homes and been made destitute, denied health treatment for life threatening conditions, locked up in immigration detention centres and either deported for falling foul of a bureaucratic nightmare or taken to Heathrow under threat of deportation only to be released without explanation.

The government’s apology to the Windrush generation seems hollow when they are told that they only need to call a Home Office helpline to have their status resolved. Nobody trusts the Home Office, and since 2013 legal aid for most immigration issues other than asylum has been abolished making it difficult and expensive for these affected to get independent legal advice. Even now the government is planning to go ahead with an exemption for migrants to the Data Protection Bill. This means that migrants will not benefit from data protection rights being given to everyone else, and will not be able to find out what information is being held about them by, for example, the Home Office and other government departments.

Furthermore the Windrush issues are not limited to Caribbean migrants, and could just as well affect other Commonwealth citizens in the UK. It also does not inspire much confidence in the Home Office’s ability to regularise the status of three million EU nationals after Brexit. Liberals and sections of the left have focussed on the racist element in all this. Whilst this is undeniable, the issue goes much wider. The Windrush generation were not targeted for callous treatment just because of their race. In fact the whole panoply of new technology, biometrics etc being used to “rectify the errors” could yet serve as a trial run for the repressive measures to be applied to “unwanted” EU nationals post-Brexit. What they thus did fall foul of more generally is the way in which the capitalist state, in all countries, not just the UK, seeks to foster divisions among workers along many lines including race. Immigration policy is one of the main tools for implementing this.

May's anti-migrant policies were generated more by the threat of a Tory breakaway to UKIP, and then encouraged by the Brexit referendum which was interpreted as 'foreigners get out'. This has only emboldened the little-Englander racism of many Tories which does exist, and which is being played on in the electoral arena. But it is not just the Tories who hypocritically play on immigration scares for electoral purposes. Let us not forget that it was the last Labour Prime Minister who promoted the BNP slogan “British jobs for British workers”.

The call by the left and liberal wing of the capitalist class for the abolition of immigration control is a piece of utopianism. In a decaying social system, with a stagnant economy, restrictions on free movement are an inherent consequence of the existence of capitalist nation states. The task of internationalist communists is to unite all workers, whatever their origins, in our common struggle against the rule of capital itself and the State that upholds it. This may be a long term goal but it is the only way to banish all the oppressive evils of this exploitative system once and for all.


8 May 2018


[1] For our comment at the time see

Wednesday, May 9, 2018