BLACK HISTORY Month is an American import. It was introduced to Britain in the late 1980s having begun as Negro History Week in the America of 1926. Over the succeeding three decades it has become so much a feature of the calendar, part of the rhythm of British national life, that an October without it would, for many people, be unimaginable.
A central element of every Black History Month, in schools and in community events across the country, is the collective urge to celebrate the story of the Windrush and the great wave of migration that began – symbolically at least – when that famous ship docked at Tilbury.
The Windrush has become part of British folk legend; its name recognition extends far beyond the black community.
Ever since the spring of 2018, however, individuals and communities who celebrate Black History Month have been unable to deploy the Windrush story, or even use the word Windrush, as freely as we once did.
This is because the word that now most commonly follows Windrush is the word scandal.
Before the scandal the Windrush story tended to be presented in purely celebratory terms.
There is nothing essentially wrong with this, and there is much to celebrate here; the story of a remarkable generation and its gradual triumph over discrimination and disadvantage is among our most important narratives.
But too much focus on the resilience of that generation, and how they overcame the racism and discrimination that they encountered, has at times obscured other discussions and other narratives.
What was sometimes lacking were discussions about where that racism came from and how far up the chain of British society it spread?
It seems perverse to suggest that anything positive could come out of a scandal that has devastated the lives of so many people. It should not be forgotten that survivors (a better word than victims) of the scandal are still struggling through the labyrinthine compensation system.
Yet if there is a positive it is that the shocking revelations of 2018 reminded us that hostility towards non-white migrants existed long before the Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment.’
The scandal now firmly associated with the word Windrush, began even before the ship had set sail.
The events of 2018 were, in truth, merely the latest chapter in a longer story because what happened in the scandal of 2018 was intimately linked to less well known events that took place decades earlier; behind closed doors, in the offices and corridors of power in Whitehall.
Britain’s post-war migrants – if that is the right word for them – came to find work and new opportunities.
Many were invited by London Transport, the NHS and other companies and quangos.
But one of the main reasons why so many got on ships and later planes and headed for Britain was because as subjects of the British empire they had every right to do so – and they knew it.
They also knew that Britain needed them. According to figures calculated by the British Cabinet Manpower Working Party in 1946 Britain needed 1,346,000 additional workers and in every practical respect the Caribbean was perfectly placed to be part of the answer to Britain’s labour shortage.
The West Indians who came to Britain spoke English, were well educated had skills the country needed and, as a result, British companies wanted them. The problem was that Britain’s leaders did not.
Decades ago the documents that reveal the views of Britain’s post-war governments on the issue of black migration started to be released. What they reveal is the story of how successive British governments sought to discourage West Indians from coming to Britain.
When that proved difficult they almost unthinkingly equated the emergence of the black British community with the emergence of a ‘colour problem’.
The arrival of the Windrush was described by officials and ministers as an ‘invasion’ and an ‘incursion’.
The 1945-51 Labour government launched a campaign of disinformation in the Caribbean designed to convince black people not to come to Britain.
People were told that there were no jobs in Britain and that the thousands of vacancies they could see listed in the British newspapers – widely available in the colonies – were not real jobs but ‘paper vacancies’.
When these falsehoods failed to prevent West Indians leaving, officials in the Caribbean were ordered to tamper with shipping lists and make sure that migrant workers were moved to the back of the shipping queues and, as one document reveals, ‘delay the issue of passports to migrants’.
After this came a 14 year struggle by British governments – both Conservative and Labour – to pass immigration laws that limited the numbers of black and brown people able to exercise their rights and settle in Britain. It was a relic of one these acts, that had lain inert for years, that was detonated by the Hostile Environment and led to the Windrush Scandal.
What 2018 made clear was that there is another way of looking at the Windrush moment, not just as the symbolic start of post-war migration but as the beginning of the long and ugly debates on immigration, race and Britishness that have been part of British politics ever since 1948.
The scandal compels us to confront the fact that the racism and discrimination that the Windrush generation of 1948 and their children endured did not just come from the teddy boys who attacked the black community of Notting Hill or the boarding house owners who put ‘no dogs no blacks’ signs in their windows. Some of it came from governments led by some of this country’s most celebrated prime ministers.