By Tom White
When Amber Rudd finally resigned as Home Secretary during the Windrush scandal, Theresa May was quick to maintain that she had gone not because of the “hostile environment” policy itself, but because she had misled parliament regarding the use of targets for the removal of illegal immigrants. May’s attempt to isolate Rudd’s resignation, to confine it to an issue of ministerial incompetence rather than a ramification of a deeply cruel and racist policy, was predictable enough. The public distaste for the “hostile environment” was clear, or at least for its application to a group whose history has become an important part of the British postcolonial self-mythology. As quickly became apparent, the issue was not that Rudd had lost control of her department and that the Home Office had erred or blundered, but that it had functioned precisely as intended.
The stories of those who have suffered egregiously at the hands of the British state over the past few years are an object lesson in bureaucratic violence. The proliferation of internal borders legislated in the Immigration Acts of 2014 and 2016 is at the centre of this injustice, though it is important to note that members of the “Windrush generation” had already been suffering for many years before then, as Hubert Howard’s experiences attest. British citizens who had lived in the UK for over forty years were faced with the demand that they prove their immigration status when they tried to access non-urgent NHS services, apply for benefits or a passport, or find a new job or home. Those who couldn’t were threatened with deportation; the 2014 Act had removed a clause from the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act protecting Commonwealth and long-term residents from enforced removal. That year, Dianne Abbott asked May in the House of Commons how the new immigration act might impact those who are “British nationals but appear as if they might be immigrants.” The answer to Abbott’s question is now clear. People lost their jobs, pensions and homes, others missed funerals and weddings of family and friends; all lived in a constant state of uncertainty and fear. The government admitted this week that 63 members of the “Windrush generation” “could” have been wrongly deported or removed since 2002 (a number that is likely to increase over the coming weeks) and that it currently did not have an exact number for how many have been detained.
As Luke de Noronha has written, “the fact that the Windrush generation were turned into ‘illegal immigrants’ is precisely how immigration control works.” Now that the government are being held to account for their treatment, the same documents once deemed insufficient as evidence have been granted a new explanatory status. May’s attempts to quarantine the scandal and to block the public release of documents, in favour of an inquiry lead by the very department that caused it, are a good indicator of how deep it runs. Sonia Sodha has written of how current Home Office policies are likely to produce “a whole new generation of Windrushers”: people who have lived in Britain for most or all of their lives, but who do not possess the right paperwork, largely as a result of the extortionate fees charged by the Home Office. It currently costs over £1000 to register a child’s legal entitlement to citizenship if they were born in Britain to parents not settled here. For young adults who were not born in Britain but have lived here most of their lives, the fee for an application for limited leave to remain of two and a half years is over £2000. An application for indefinite leave to remain can only be made after ten years, by which time they will have forked out at least £8000.
The proposed inquiry into the Windrush scandal will be overseen by Sajid Javid, Rudd’s successor as home secretary. Javid’s appointment suggests that little will change in the Home Office; he has consistently voted for stricter immigration and asylum laws, for mass surveillance of communication, and for the reduction of benefits for the poor and disabled. The day after his appointment, Javid stated that the phrase “hostile environment” will be replaced by “compliant environment.” The issue, Javid implied via a familiar trope of modern political discourse, is not the policy, but simply the way it was framed and communicated. May’s and Javid’s attempts to reinscribe the distinction between “good,” “hardworking” migrants like the “Windrush generation” (primarily figured in the press as nurses, bus drivers and other public employees) and “illegal immigrants” has laid bare, once again, how hegemonic the scapegoating of migrants for society’s failings has become in British politics.
Javid also tweeted that his “first priority is to make sure the Home Office does all it can to keep British people safe.” The spectre of the “illegal,” the threatening, potentially criminal non-citizen, remains squarely at the forefront of the political messaging. Yet as migrants’ rights groups have long pointed out, those who fall victim to the “hostile environment” do so for a wide range of reasons. Many will have arrived legally but stayed after their visa expired. Others, like the “new generation of Windrushers,” will not have formalised their status due to the heavy financial costs involved. Many will simply be unsure of their status, hardly surprising given the number of changes since 2010 to the UK’s already labyrinthine immigration rules. Earlier this month, a detainee at Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre wrote a post for the Detained Voices blog that celebrated the resistance of the “Windrush generation,” while also drawing attention to the endurance of the legal/illegal distinction and the violence and callousness that it underwrites. “As a person detained for over 5 months now,” she wrote, “I have known for a long time that the home office’s ‘modus operandi’ is that of unmitigated cruelty.”
For the Tories, this is clearly no moment to think anew about how citizenship itself is constituted, or about how, in Stuart Hall’s words, the “full force of the history of colonialism keeps slipping out of the collective memory of the metropole.” The outpouring of support and admiration for the “Windrush generation” from the British press has rarely touched on the racism and violence they suffered when they arrived to build new lives after 1948, and of how that history continues to unravel in British politics and society. They arrived as citizens, but the idea that they had arrived to stay was one many white Brits did not want to accept. David Lammy wrote powerfully of how his “father arrived in this country as a Windrush citizen to be met by ‘No Irish, no blacks, no dogs’ signs.” The race riots in Nottingham and Notting Hill in the summer of 1958 were driven by Oswald Mosely’s fascist Union Movement and the White Defence League’s call to “keep Britain white.” In May of the following year, an Antiguan man named Kelso Cochrane was brutally knifed to death in Notting Hill by a gang of white youths. In the chapter on the “Windrush generation” in his memoir Familiar Stranger, Hall reflects on how “racism and racial injustice still prevail, although maybe not in the unapologetic forms I encountered when I first arrived,” and on how “repatriation continues to offer to some on the ‘respectable’ populist Right a covert fantasy solution to all our troubles.” Hall’s comments are prescient – May and her Tory government would clearly have been perfectly happy to carry on with the deportation of members of the “Windrush generation” had the story not become a political scandal. The charter flights deporting people who are just as rightfully British citizens continue unabated; a large number of Jamaican nationals who have spent most of their lives in Britain, many of whom have British children of their own, have recently been deported in secretive and often brutal conditions.
The “hostile environment” is Theresa May’s policy, largely devised in response to David Cameron’s arbitrary and unrealisable pledge in 2010 to reduce net migration to less than 100,000 a year (at the time net migration was around 250,000 a year and by 2015 had reached 300,000, at which point Cameron downgraded his pledge to an “ambition”). The reckless “deport first, appeal later” directive was at its heart, not just as a way of trying to bring down the figures quickly, but also as a symbolic marker of increasing “toughness.” May’s policies would not have been possible without the groundwork laid by New Labour, though. It was under Blair’s government that what Hall calls “the ambiguous ‘target’ and ‘control’ cultures” came into full effect, with their perverse tendency towards the incentivisation of cruelty. It was also under Blair that immigration detention centres were built (many of them as PFI projects) and asylum seekers were first given vouchers rather than cash to buy food and other necessities. This latter measure was soon withdrawn after protests from various groups and a number of MPs, but it had already served its purpose as a way for New Labour to demonstrate its nativist credentials when it came to immigration and non-citizens’ recourse to public funds.
Looking further back, the Immigration Act of 1971 and the Commonwealth Immigration Acts of 1968 and 1962 underpin the anti-migrant logic so deeply embedded in Cameron’s pledge: the pernicious idea that migration is self-evidently a “problem,” self-evidently something that should be reduced. They also attest, each in their own way, to Britain’s inability to come to terms with the end of empire in the years after the Second World War. Looking further back still, the outlines of the present moment can also be seen in the Aliens Act of 1905, which formalised immigration controls for the first time and also granted power over them to the Home Secretary. The 1905 act was in large part a response to Jewish migrants arriving from Eastern Europe in the last decades of the nineteenth century, most of whom settled in London’s East End. Anti-Semitic abuse from the press and politicians was rife; discussions of Jewish migration drew on various eugenicist tropes gaining increasing currency in Britain and the United States at that time, as well as on a dehumanising vocabulary of “swarms” of “scuttling” migrants. Of course, in recent years these terms echoed once again between the right-wing press and the far right, though now in reference to predominantly Muslim refugees fleeing countries in the Middle East.
The British Brothers’ League was formed in 1902 and campaigned for immigration restriction with the slogan “England for the English.” Conservative MP and former military diplomat in India Major Sir William Eden Evans Gordon was closely aligned with the League and played an integral role in the passing of the 1905 act. The League declined in the following years, but it had laid the foundations for a tradition of fascist and nativist groups that runs through the White Defence League and National Front up to the present day and the Islamophobia of the English Defence League and its affiliated groups. British imperialism, immigration law, popular racism and the media have long been complexly interwoven in the demonisation of migrants and in reactionary anti-migrant politics.
All of which brings us back to the current moment. In Europe’s Fault Lines: Racism and the Rise of the Right (Verso 2018), Liz Fekete traces the convergence between the far right and centre right across Europe since the early 1990s. This is a convergence not just between “the ideologies of political parties,” Fekete argues, but also “between transnational capital, the military-security-industrial complex, media barons and the powerful law-and-order lobbies.” On Friday 4th May, with the results of the local elections and the imminent bank holiday heatwave briefly overtaking coverage of the Windrush scandal, the government quietly announced that outsourcing firm G4S had been awarded a new contract to continue running the Brook House immigration detention centre. The centre was the focus of an undercover investigation by BBC Panorama last summer, during which the abuse of detainees by poorly-trained staff was highlighted. Coming so soon after the initial stages of the Windrush scandal, the announcement well exemplified the imbrication of authoritarianism, nativism and neoliberalism in contemporary politics of the right.
Labour have rightfully decided that this is the moment to formalise a series of combative policies and to repudiate the party’s previous craven submission to anti-migrant politics. In a speech delivered at the Institute for Public Policy Research, Diane Abbott announced that Labour would end the “hostile environment,” limit detention to 28 days and close Yarl’s Wood and Brook House. The money currently paid to Serco and G4S would be used “to fund support services for women who have experienced domestic violence, human trafficking, and modern slavery.” The opposition to these policies will be fierce, and not just from the powerful corporations that stand to have their lucrative contracts torn up. The accumulated influence of what Fekete calls the “cultural revolution from the right” over the last thirty years is significant. Austerity has dovetailed with this cultural revolution since its initiation in Britain in 2010, functioning “as a means to an end:” the erosion of “solidarity across race and class.”
Yet as Fekete also writes in Europe’s Fault Lines, “humanitarian, anti-fascist and socialist values are far more deeply rooted in European culture than is authoritarianism.’” Labour’s proposed reversal of many of the current government’s policies is a good and necessary start. Alongside these reversals, it remains for those on the left to continue to discuss how citizenship and borders are constituted and about how the anti-migrant rhetoric so deeply embedded in social and political life can be challenged effectively. It seems possible, maybe even probable, that the next general election will result in a “progressive coalition” taking power, with Labour and the SNP as its main players. Building a new immigration system will be one of its most significant tasks.