Windrush is a chance to end British intolerance dating from slavery | Guy Hewitt

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Lest we forget, 1 August marks the 184th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the British empire, and the end to the greatest scourge of modern life. However, even in the Caribbean, where Emancipation Day is a public holiday, there is a lack of appreciation for what transpired in an institution Lord Mansfield held to be “so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it”.

It is important to note that not all slavery was eradicated. Regrettably, like so many plagues, it has mutated and modern-day slavery exists: women forced into prostitution, men forced to labour, children forced into sweatshops or girls forced to marry older men. The systematic dehumanisation of horrendously exploited individuals continues.

Based on the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, it is estimated that between 1525 and 1866, 12.5 million enslaved Africans were shipped to the Caribbean and North and South America. This figure becomes even more revealing when you consider that in 1800, the population in Britain was 10.4 million, in the US 5.3 million, and 430,000 in the British Caribbean.

So how did slavery happen then and how does it continue today in its modern forms? John F Kennedy said: “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Incongruously, most slaveholders would have not defined themselves as evil. In fact, George Washington and many of the abolitionists had interests in slavery. The recent University College London study on the legacies of British slave ownership concluded that as many as one-fifth of wealthy Victorian Britons derived all, or part of, their fortunes from the slave economy.

So how did slavery happen? The Bible (Matthew 6:24) makes a strong point: “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” This atrocity was fuelled simply by greed, often under the guise of carrying out a civilising mission, and purported to be divinely ordained.

But what is almost unfathomable is that less than a century after emancipation, while still facing many injustices, black West Indian men volunteered to fight and die in the Great War and second world war for king and country that enslaved them. What amazing grace and love.

We now skip to 70 years ago and the post-second-world-war invitation from Britain to her then colonies for workers to migrate here to address the critical labour shortages. West Indians again heeded the call from the “mother country” and, between 1948 and 1973, approximately 550,000 migrated.

But this journey was not without peril, and migrants faced outright racism. Some recall the infamous teddy boys and Notting Hill race riots, and the signs which read: “No Irish, no blacks, no dogs.” Nonetheless, they persevered and, with toil, sweat and tears, played a pivotal role in helping to build a modern global Britain.

It is against this backdrop that many of these migrants recently despaired when confronted with a new wave of hostility. This time, it was predicated on their “irregular status” in a “hostile immigration environment”, which resulted in the denial of their right to work, denial of benefits, denial of healthcare and also, for some, detention and deportation.

April this year for me could only be described as a modern-day miracle. In less than a week, the Windrush scandal that was for too long begging for attention became front-page news. In the process, it won the hearts of a nation and engaged the minds of the UK government, which apologised and offered full British citizenship, with compensation for those who suffered.

What is the Windrush deportation crisis?

Who are the Windrush generation?

They are people who arrived in the UK after the second world war from Caribbean countries at the invitation of the British government. The first group arrived on the ship MV Empire Windrush in June 1948.

What happened to them?

An estimated 50,000 people faced the risk of deportation if they had never formalised their residency status and did not have the required documentation to prove it.

Why now?

It stems from a policy, set out by Theresa May when she was home secretary, to make the UK ‘a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants’. It requires employers, NHS staff, private landlords and other bodies to demand evidence of people’s citizenship or immigration status.

Why do they not have the correct paperwork and status?

Some children, often travelling on their parents’ passports, were never formally naturalised and many moved to the UK before the countries in which they were born became independent, so they assumed they were British. In some cases, they did not apply for passports. The Home Office did not keep a record of people entering the country and granted leave to remain, which was conferred on anyone living continuously in the country since before 1 January 1973.

What is the government doing to resolve the problem?

A new Home Office team was set up to ensure Commonwealth-born long-term UK residents would no longer find themselves classified as being in the UK illegally. But a month after one minister promised the cases would be resolved within two weeks, many remain destitute.

Photograph: Douglas Miller/Hulton Archive
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I endorse the commitments made on Windrush by Theresa May and on her first day as prime minister, when she stated: “I want to see this country working for everyone – a country where, regardless of where you live or what your parents do for a living, you have a fair chance to build a life for yourself and your family.” Notwithstanding the sentiment, the reality, based on the summary findings from the ethnicity facts and figures by the Cabinet Office race disparity audit, is that the situation among black people in Britain is grim.

Asian and black households are more likely to be poor and to be in persistent poverty. Attainment for black Caribbean pupils in education is very low. Around one in 10 adults from a black, Pakistani, Bangladeshi or mixed background are unemployed, compared with one in 25 white. British black men are almost three and a half times more likely to be arrested than white men. Black adults are more likely than adults in other ethnic groups to have been sectioned under the Mental Health Act.

I raise this as a concern not only for the Caribbean diaspora, or for black, Asian and other minority ethnic groups in the UK, but for the entire nation. For, as Martin Luther King Jr held: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

There is an urgent need to bring a sense of unity in the kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland; and there is no better time to start that now. In 2018, on the 70th anniversary of the arrival the Empire Windrush, on the 50th anniversary to the day of Enoch Powell’s odious “rivers of blood” speech, on the 25th anniversary of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, the incontrovertible truth is that Britain appears ill at ease with matters of race and migration.

Perhaps the lessons to be learned from Windrush will help give effect to the reality that (in the words of Lyndon Johnson) “until justice is blind to colour, until education is unaware of race, until opportunity is unconcerned with the colour of men’s skins, emancipation will be a proclamation but not a fact”.

Perhaps Windrush will provide the opportunity to finally bring this multicultural society together and eliminate the boundaries of intolerance, discrimination and cultural denigration that constitute the legacy of that horrific past, and in the process give birth to a truly united kingdom.

Guy Hewitt is the high commissioner of Barbados in London. This article is an extract from a speech given by him at the inaugural Emancipation Day service for the Caribbean diaspora in the UK