Author- Barry Didcock
These days everybody knows about the Empire Windrush, the ship which brought the first generation of Caribbean migrants to the UK in 1948, and most people know about the political scandal of 2018 in which thousands of members of the so-called “Windrush generation” were threatened with deportation if they couldn’t prove their right to remain. Few could, and around 80 were forcibly repatriated to countries they hadn’t seen for 50 years.
Historian-turned-TV presenter David Olusoga has presented several programmes on the Windrush generation. But in this fascinating and chastening documentary he employed skills honed by his day job to dig into government archives and reveal that the Conservativegovernment’s notorious “hostile environment” policy, the anti-immigration initiative which had swept up these long-term UK residents as part of a wider crack-down, was actually just the latest in a long line of racist policies aimed at curbing immigration.
Some of what he found was genuinely jaw-dropping. Wading through government archives and unearthing dog-eared folders he found documents such as a set of typewritten memos to and from Winston Churchill during his second stint as Prime Minister in the 1950s in which Churchill’s dim view of “coloureds”, as he called the black migrants, was made plenty clear.
Clement Attlee’s Labour government didn’t get off the hook either. Attlee himself tried to have the Empire Windrush diverted to East Africa so the passengers would be put to work harvesting peanuts and 11 Labour MPs wrote to him to protest about the ship’s subsequent arrival and the social problems it could cause. At the same time Attlee’s government was actively recruiting what were known as European Volunteer Workers (EVS) to help rebuild the country with the intention of absorbing them into the British population – this despite the fact that among them were former SS members wanted for war crimes. Black workers who were Commonwealth citizens and had fought against Germany were less welcome, however, and the notion that they could integrate and become British was never entertained. You didn’t have to join too many dots to understand why: at root was an unstated assertion that to be British you had to be white.
Inter-cutting the history were interviews with larger-than-life characters such as 93-year-old Alford Gardner, whose entertaining reminiscences had made him a news item in his own right in the run-up to transmission, and Anthony Bryan, one of those who faced deportation despite having lived in the UK for almost all his life. Their sobering testimony put a human face on a troubling story that reflects as much on the present as it does the past.