BEFORE Commonwealth countries were granted their independence by Westminster, Commonwealth citizens were British citizens subject to the queen. An assurance that Commonwealth citizens would be entitled to free movement within the Commonwealth formed part of the backdrop to independence. But that free movement ended in 1971 and under terms which, as we clearly see today, failed to protect the interests of people who were legally within the UK.
It is in this context that the apologies of British Prime Minister Theresa May and the British Home Secretary Amber Rudd must be understood. Their words of regret for “any anxiety caused” do not go far enough to recompense what has been, effectively, a betrayal of the moral terms and conditions of independence as well as the values of the Commonwealth.
This is unfortunate given the contribution made by members of the Windrush generation to Britain.
The labour shortage after World War II meant thousands of people from the Caribbean travelled to the UK. They filled vital gaps, often taking up jobs that British people were unwilling to take. Some found good positions, but most faced discrimination. A generation of Caribbean writers, including Samuel Selvon, George Lamming, VS Naipaul, Roy Heath, Andrew Salkey, Roger Mais, Michael Anthony, and Wilson Harris embodied and wrote about the experience, helping to change the face of English letters.
Indeed, it was the Windrush generation that triggered the beginning of a multiracial and multicultural Britain, and a consequent reshaping of British identity that today sees a member of the Royal family set to wed a woman who is half-black.
“The Windrush generation helped to build the country that we are today,” said May yesterday. Her acknowledgement and her apology are welcome first steps in righting a terrible wrong.
For when efforts were being made to legislatively preserve the status of Caribbean people caught up in the implementation of the UK’s 1971 Immigration Act, the UK government had a duty to ensure that such people would be able to demonstrate their status thereafter and, therefore, be free from the threat of deportation.
Not only must the task force announced by Rudd adopt a reasonable approach, but a better job must be done of clarifying the UK’s byzantine immigration laws in relation to this issue.
The apology from the UK prime minister notwithstanding, all of this serves to underline how the world is becoming increasingly insular. The sad thing about the Windrush generation however is the fact that it is tied to the legacy of slavery, a nefarious practice for which no compensation has ever been paid and upon which much of the wealth of Europe was built.