Author- Satbir Singh, Omar khan
“Good race relations require tough immigration policies” is a crude but apt summary of the post-war political consensus on race and immigration in Britain.
Theresa May’s time in office, first as home secretary and then prime minister, has seen this consensus tested to its very limits. For almost a decade, her often-repeated commitment to address the “burning injustice” of racial discrimination has sat awkwardly alongside her unfiltered hostility towards migrants and their families.
As May prepares to leaves office, it’s time to also retire the belief that there can ever be such a tidy distinction between tackling racism and building fair and just policies on race, migration and citizenship.
The outgoing prime minister’s legacy is found in the enduring images of “Go Home” vans and in the Windrush scandal that saw black Britons being sent to the Caribbean in chains, as a consequence of the May-designed hostile environment.
However, it’s worth remembering that the belief that good race relations require hostility to new arrivals has had cross-party support for decades. Just two days after the Empire Windrush landed in June 1948, 11 Labour MPs wrote to Prime Minister Attlee, calling for a halt to the “influx of coloured people”, arguing that it threatened “the harmony, strength, cohesion of our public and social life”.
Over time we have seen this view defended by politicians of all stripes, from the Conservative Rab Butler during the debate on the 1962 Immigration Bill, to Labour’s James Callaghan commenting on the 1968 Race Relations Act.
In 1978 Margaret Thatcher, then leader of the opposition, called for “an end to immigration”, fearing that without an end to the arrival of people of colour “we shall not have good race relations”. In 2002, Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett went as far as arguing that “migration can be perceived as a threat to community stability and good race relations”.
The durability of this consensus is explained by the sleight of hand employed by politicians who promptly call out and condemn public expressions of racism, prejudice and xenophobia against migrants and minorities, while hiding from the public the brutality and racial discrimination built into the very systems they have designed to “control” migration.
These leaders knowingly incite fear and division by scapegoating migrants for problems of poverty, inequality and austerity, while blaming “public opinion” and the public’s “legitimate concerns” for elite policy choices.
But for much of the British public, particularly for people of colour, the Windrush scandal exposed not only the injustices inherent in our immigration system, but the threat posed to even long-settled British minority communities by a policy of open hostility.
British citizens who had lived in the country for decades, some for generations, were denied access to jobs, education, healthcare and housing. Many were detained and forcibly removed to the Caribbean. All were identified, targeted and brutalised based on a single indicator: their race.
The palpable anger in our communities about such widespread institutional violence must surely put to bed, once and for all, the idea that unbridled hostility towards migrants can sit alongside a commitment to eliminate racial inequality. Put bluntly: the game is up.
And for many, the scandal was an overdue reminder that the experiences and contributions of generations of migrants are an integral part of Britain’s history and heritage and are inseparable from any conversation about race, identity and equality.
If we are to properly learn from the injustices experienced by the Windrush generation and their descendants, we must be more ambitious and seek instead to change decades of policy consensus on race and immigration.
More than half of Britain’s BME population was born overseas. People of colour have, and always will be, the worst affected by the political project of using migrants and minorities as a scapegoat for problems of inequality, poverty and austerity.
From the “Good Character tests” used to deny citizenship, to the requirement that those who don’t look British enough must show their papers in order to rent a home or access healthcare, all the way through the injustices of immigration detention, mass deportation and family separation, people of colour are the first and last victims of the policy choices made by the politics of division.
The story of our minority communities is the story of migration. Fighting racial discrimination and racial inequality must go hand-in-hand with a fair and just migration policy. A good place for the next government to start would be to dismantle the Hostile Environment for good and to end the politics of scapegoating, division and fear.
There could be no more fitting tribute to Theresa May’s time in office, and to the thousands of people whose misery was authored under her watch.
Dr Omar Khan is director of The Runnymede Trust and Satbir Singh is chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare Immigrants, two organisations founded over 50 years ago to fight for the rights of migrants and against all forms of racial discrimination