The Windrush scandal has revealed a stinking, festering hypocrisy at the heart of “Britishness”.
For decades immigrants and their children have been scolded by politicians and the like for failing to “fit in” with the culture and values of this country. If we were excluded, marginalised and segregated, it was our own fault—we had failed to integrate, they insisted.
Now we find that even those who have jumped through all their hoops are still considered not British enough.
People who came to Britain from its former colonies in the post-war years have passed every integration test set for them—and more.
They sweated in the dirtiest jobs, reared their children in the worst housing, and sent them to schools that regularly mistreated and excluded them.
And, despite all the hardships and abuse, they maintained their belief that they were citizens—and accordingly had rights that should be respected.
Subsequent generations jumped over all manner of racist hurdles to be accepted as British. Yet when they say they are from London or Birmingham, they are still asked, “Yeah, but where are you really from?”
The sad truth is that no amount of integration into British society was ever going to be enough.
It doesn’t matter to the Home Office whether you speak excellent English or have generations of family here. It doesn’t matter whether you have lots of white British family, friends and neighbours, or you have worked hard and paid taxes all your life.
You can even have represented Britain in the international sporting arena.
None of it means anything. It can all be wiped away at the stroke of an immigration officer’s pen.
For the much of the mainstream, this state of affairs is deeply wrong. Windrush is a scandal because the wrong immigrants are being targeted.
In their minds, they have constructed a vision of a “good immigrant” and a “bad immigrant”. The “good immigrant” has assimilated, they are “like us”. The “bad immigrant” isn’t. The “bad immigrant” is an “illegal”.
Maybe they have fled to Britain, crossing the channel underneath a truck carrying little more than the clothes they stand up in. Probably they know little English and, with their bewildered look, they seem totally unaware of British customs and culture.
“The bad immigrant” has nothing to contribute to our society—they can never fit in, we’re told.
This depiction of the recently arrived will be familiar to anyone who came to this country in the 1950s and 1960s, and who are today lauded by the right as, “one of us”. It’s exactly what they heard when they landed in the docks of Tilbury and Southampton all those years ago.
It’s undoubtedly what the Asian strikers at the Grunwick plant heard in 1976 as they walked out on picket lines. Their action was to galvanise tens of thousands of white workers into giving solidarity and today is rightly hailed a turning point in labour history.
It showed that white workers can be decisively broken from backward prejudices.
Years of similar struggles in workplaces, schools and the streets ultimately transformed both the arriving immigrants and the working class they joined into a new, multiracial force.
Together they forged a new culture, and transformed Britain—from the food people eat, the music they listen to, the clothes that they wear, their relationships and their communities.
The very notion of “Britishness” is designed to disrupt that process. It drives a wedge into the working class. It says to all those who qualify that you are a superior breed, and that you will be accorded status as a result.
And it teaches those left out that they can rely only on each other for assistance.
Happily, for the Windrush Generation, it is the tradition of struggle that has won out.
Class solidarity, not nationalism, supplies the groundswell of support for those demanding justice.