I don’t ever remember politicians working so hard to force a story out of the headlines. The Windrush generation will be given citizenship (as David Lammy points out, how can you give people something they’ve always had?). They will be given compensation (a minimum figure should be that £54,000 the state was proposing to charge Albert Thompson for cancer treatment on the NHS). Everyone caught in the scandal will have their right to remain confirmed within two weeks. The promises keep on coming, so fast that you almost end up having to ask yourself: what is it about Theresa May’s government, what are they trying to hide?
What the Empire Windrush generation exposes is not just a single Home Office policy, but a set of relationships which are at the core of British politics, have been for the last two years and will remain there until the next election.
The first point to grasp is this, that even prior to Brexit but with ever greater urgency since then, the contract between the British state and the British people has reduced to a single promise: if “we” can get “them” to leave, then there will be more for “you”.
Compared to Britain at every stage in its history, compared to any liberal state this side of military or fascist rule, our country tolerates an extraordinary degree of authoritarianism. It is only in the last twenty years that we have put migrant children in prisons. It is only since 2010 that “migrants” (meaning everyone that the Home Office considers a migrants, a much larger category than those who actually lack the right to remain) have been required to prove their immigration status when trying to marry, when renting a flat. It is only under this period of Conservative government that vans have been driving round London carrying a message to migrants that they must leave.
We think of the 1970s as the worst moment for racism in modern British history but Britain in 1976 was not a deportation state: just 291 people were removed from the UK that year. In 2015-2016, by contrast, there were 13,248 deportations. Since Brexit that number has grown – with new groups of people being targeted including EU national and those who had been living in Britain legally for decades.
Brexit has seen the office of Prime Minister go to the former Home Secretary, and all politics narrow to the two issue which May comprehends: reducing net migration to 100,000 people per year, and forcing through a deal with the EU.
Of course, this isn’t just a British phenomenon, it is the politics of Trump, of Le Pen, of Geert Wilders when his party told voters in Holland, “It’s one or the other, either a welfare state or an immigration country.”
The lie that the British people were told during the Brexit campaign was the one summed up by Aaron Banks, “less immigration [will] also mean less competition for jobs and higher wages.” Relatively few voters accepted this argument: most workers, after all, voted to Remain. But arguments for racial exclusion were key to swinging a group of older working class voters, and then delivering the Conservatives the gains in the 2017 election which now keep them in power, seats such as Derbyshire North East, Mansfield, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland.
In order to keep going, even cruel people have to tell themselves that they are kind. One reason why Theresa May remains in government is that most of the time an argument for the racialisation of welfare benefits and their restriction to UK nationals seems like an argument for generosity. If we just raise out borders, keep “them” out then of course there will be more for everyone.
What the Windrush generation expose is that the violence being inflicted by higher borders is not felt only outside the UK but impinges here as well.
The person who grasped this best was Enoch Powell, in his Rivers of Blood speech. What he saw was that immigration controls must be a question of numbers. For Powell, it was not a task of limiting net migration to 100,000 a year. What mattered to him was whether the black population of Britain was 1 per cent or 10 per cent. But even if the figures were slightly different, the politics were the same.
As soon as you start counting the inevitable next step is not simply to raise the borders but to remove those who are already here. In Powell’s words, which May’s government has carried into action: immigration control means “virtually stopping further inflow and … promoting the maximum outflow.”
Strip out the euphemisms and Britain in 2018 shows what that politics means: UK citizens who have given fifty years of their life to low-paid but necessary jobs caring for everyone here have been torn from their homes and families.
This isn’t an error in our systems, it’s the new politics of the right in their purest form.