Windrush and Beyond: the irresistible rise of multi-racial Britain?
DR. KIERAN CONNELL
In September 2019, a Second World War veteran by the name of Oswald Dixon was laid to rest at the age of 100. He had in later years suffered with dementia and a loss of sight, and had been living in a care home in Salford in the North West England. He had no traceable family, and staff at the home therefore feared there would be no one present at his funeral. So they appealed to ordinary members of the public to help mark Dixon’s passing.
In a social media post that went viral, the appeal stated that Dixon ‘always tried to live life as it should be lived, by doing things for other people. His warm character will be missed by everyone.’ In the end, the staff at the care home need not have worried. More than 300 people – few of whom had ever met Dixon – came, from across Britain and beyond, to celebrate Dixon’s century in life.
Strictly speaking, Dixon wasn’t part of the ‘Windrush generation’, a phrase used to refer to the tens of thousands of Caribbean migrants who made their way to Britain after the Second World War, often on boats like the SS Empire Windrush, which docked at Tilbury Docks on 22 June 1948. But he was an early forerunner. Having been born in Jamaica in April 1919, Dixon was one of an estimated 10,000 troops from the Caribbean who fought with distinction for Britain during the war. He served as a flight mechanic in the Royal Air Force, and just before the war’s end moved to what was then the imperial ‘mother country’ to help train new recruits to the Force. It was a job he fulfilled all the way up until his retirement in the 1980s.
The reaction to Dixon’s death helps illustrate the complex status of the Windrush legacy in Britain. For the hundreds of people who paid their respects to Dixon at his funeral, and the many more who did so on social media posts, Dixon’s life was a symbol of the contribution made by that early generation of migrants to Britain – not just to the British war effort against Nazi Germany, but also in the herculean struggle that was required to rebuild the country in the years that followed the end of the conflict. ‘As a first-generation British person with Caribbean heritage, this was important to us’, one mourner at Dixon’s funeral reflected. ‘It was very moving and only confirmed that Oswald did have a family within the Caribbean community’.
The story of the Windrush generation is a story of the British Empire. In the popular memory of the Second World War, many think back to Winston Churchill’s famous declaration in the early-1940s that the outcome of the conflict would depend on ‘ourselves alone’. However, in reality, thanks to an Empire that at this stage still covered more than 20 per cent of the world’s land mass, Britain was never anything like alone. Alongside the 10,000 troops from the Caribbean, more than 2million people from India also volunteered to assist in the war effort. And Britain was likewise not alone in its post-war attempts to rebuild its economy. With a significant labour shortage, and manpower desperately needed to repair its crumbling cities and roll out the newly-established National Health Service, Britain once more turned to its colonies. In 1948, the Labour Government passed a British Nationality Act, which granted people in its colonies – as well as those in India, which won independence in 1947 – full citizenship rights to live and work in Britain. By 1958, 125,000 immigrants had arrived in Britain from the Caribbean alone.
It is important to remember that these migrants arrived in Britain with a strong attachment to the ‘mother country’, something that was strongly present long before the passing of the 1948 Nationality Act. Throughout the colonial period Caribbean societies were structured in such a way as to bestow loyalty to an idea of empire as a family of nations to which all subjects belonged. ‘God Save the Queen’ and ‘Rule Britannia’ was sung at school and portraits of the monarch hung in public buildings, while cricket – a game with close connections to the imperial ruling elite in England – was by far the most popular sport. When the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury in summer 1948, carrying more than 400 Caribbean migrants on board, one of the passengers – a calypso singer from Trinidad – gave an impromptu performance for the waiting news cameras that epitomised the strong attachment that his generation felt for Britain. ‘Believe me I am speaking broadmindedly’, he sang. ‘I’m glad to know my Mother Country/I have been travelling to countries years ago/But this is the place I wanted to know/London is the place for me’.
The reception that this generation encountered when they stepped off boats like the Windrush was not in keeping with the idea that the British Empire represented a happy family of nations. The Windrush generation – and those who later arrived from the Indian subcontinent – were immediately made to endure overt racism in almost every area of their lives. They were forced to live in the worst-quality accommodation, and barred from some areas of work (in spite of the fact they had been recruited by British government for the very reason that the country required a drastically expanded workforce). They were attacked and in some cases killed on the streets, and in the 1970s had to face down the emergence of an organised and highly visible neo-Nazi political party in the shape of the National Front. But they not only endured these assaults. Thanks to the determination and the political battles for equality that were fought by many in their midst, eventually they were also able to thrive.
There are countless examples we could use to illustrate this. In politics, we could cite the example of Diane Abbott, the Labour MP whose parents migrated to Britain from Jamaica in the 1950s and who as Shadow Home Secretary recently became the first black woman to conduct Prime Minister’s Questions on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition. In sport we could cite the transition from the moment, in 1993, that Paul Ince became the first black captain of the England football team to the present incarnation of that team, the vast majority of which now come from ethnically-diverse backgrounds. More generally, we could point to the way in which ethnic diversity from the myriad cultures of the Caribbean, the Indian sub-continent and Africa have become an everyday, even banal feature of life in Britain’s major cities – in the school playground, on buses and in the workplace. This is what some commentators have referred to as ‘the irresistible rise of multi-racial Britain’.
It is this history that helps explain the shock, hurt and anger felt by many when a scandal erupted in 2018 over the citizenship status of many in the Windrush generation. The issue mainly concerned the children of post-war migrants who accompanied or were later sent for by their parents to join them in Britain. As British citizens, these migrants were not required to provide any official documentation either on their entry into Britain, their enrolment at school or subsequently as they entered into the workforce. Their right to live and work in Britain was automatic, and therefore no official documentation was required to prove it – until 2018 which, in a cruel twist of fate, was also the 70th anniversary of the docking of the Windrush.
The context for this shift was the desire of a Conservative government to appeal to voters apparently gravitating to the right by appearing to be tough on immigration. As Home Secretary, the future Prime Minister Theresa May initiated a programme that became known as the ‘hostile environment’, which famously included billboards with the slogan ‘illegal immigrants go home’ being driven around areas with ethnically-diverse populations, but also introduced a legal requirement for landlords, NHS workers, and employers to carry out ID checks to ensure that their constituents had a legal right to reside in Britain. From having been recruited by the British Government after the Second World War and formally granted full British citizenship in 1948, members of the Windrush generation were now liable be asked to prove their right to reside in Britain using documentation they had never before been required to have and so in many cases did not possess. Without this documentation, they were prevented from working, collecting benefits such as state pensions (having in most cases paid national insurance for their entire working lives) and in some cases receiving essential medical care. More than 80 people were wrongly deported by the Home Office in this period – most of them to countries they had not been to since they were children many decades ago.
As far as we know, the scandal did not affect Oswald Dixon. At his funeral, his coffin was carried by RAF cadets and members of 34 squadron; the ‘Last Post’ was played, and ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘Eternal Father in the Sky’ was sung. The outpouring of emotion across the country over his death – and the widespread criticism of the Home Office over the Windrush scandal, which eventually prompted the resignation of the Home Secretary Amber Rudd – demonstrates the extent to which the Windrush story has become an integral part of the British national story. For most people, it is now seen as a jewel in the crown. But the racism that underpinned the scandal, and which greeted the Windrush generation as they set out to make new lives for themselves in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, has never gone away. The ‘hostile environment’ was only the most recent attempt by governments of both stripes to cut back on black and Asian immigration in particular, and recent research has shown that there has been a dramatic increase in race-hate crimes following the 2016 referendum on Britain’s future membership of the European Union. Oswald Dixon’s generation transformed Britain for the better. But constant vigilance is required to ensure that the cancer of racism is never allowed to halt the ongoing rise of multicultural Britain.