Listening to the Windrush generation about our past

Written by:
Lester Holloway
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‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past’. William Faulkner’s epistle is regularly cited both because of its universality – who among the living hasn’t been conflicted or inspired by the past? – and because of its particularity  – the continuing effects of racial injustice in the (southern) United States.

Fifty years on from Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, and in a week dominated by Britain’s unjust treatment of the #Windrushgeneration, we need to reflect harder on Britain’s own history with race. Our own past isn’t even an undead zombie, but still living – in the desultory tweets of Katie Hopkins or the Leave.EU campaign, and in Home Office policies towards Caribbean migrants who arrived even before Powell’s incendiary speech but whose deportation he would today applaud.

The violence and classicism of Powell’s speech are in fact a distraction from the interconnected ways that the Britain of 1968 and indeed earlier is still alive: that Britain hasn’t yet provided full freedom and equality for the people of colour living here, that the resistance and struggle for equal rights deserves greater national attention, and that we still haven’t figured out our place in the world, in part because we haven’t come to terms with our past.

Powell’s speech was delivered on 20 April in response to the 1968 Race Relations Bill. The first 1965 Race Relations Act was ultimately a weak piece of legislation, outlawing racial discrimination in ‘places of public resort’, but leaving it more or less intact in the labour market, housing and public services. It was the 1968 Bill’s proposal to outlaw racial discrimination in employment and housing – to finally make the ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ signs illegal – that aroused Powell to make his speech, but in our memory the positive actions made on the river Thames have been overtaken by the poetic aggression that never happened on the Tiber.

If Powell’s language was intemperate, a key part of his argument was more widely held and remains a minority view: that no matter how noxious it might seem, people should be ‘free to discriminate’ against others, on whatever basis they like. We recently heard this argument from those who said a baker should be ‘free to discriminate’ against a gay married couple, and some extend it further to suggest employers should be free to discriminate in favour of people more like them (though advocates are usually careful to avoid suggesting whether ‘like me’ means ‘of my ethnic group’).

In 1968, Powell’s argument was certainly more extreme and went far beyond the Cabinet position he was expected to share. But opposition to the bill on grounds of the right to discriminate wasn’t unique; the Conservative opposition whipped its MPs to vote against the act, and various speeches decrying the loss of liberty implied the proposed bill. In his intervention in the Commons on 23 April 1968 (three days after Powell’s speech), Reginald Maudling explained the Opposition’s view: “we believe that it definitely encroaches on individual freedom and individual liberty”. 

It’s hard for many of us to remember it now, but this argument had a long pedigree, interpreting Magna Carta as providing for English liberties, including the right to discriminate, and was most notoriously invoked by merchants to decry the Royal African Company’s monopoly on enslaving African people, arguments that bloomed just after the ‘Glorious Revolution’ (of rights for some) of 1689. Though it is claimed as a core British value now, equal rights have a much more recent pedigree, and we should probably elevate race relations and equality legislation from the 1960s and 1970s more than Magna Carta and the Glorious Revolution if we’re honest about the legal underpinning of much of what we call ‘British values’ today.

Further, the struggle of black people against racism, especially the Windrush Generation who arrived 70 years ago this June, is more consequential than a racist speech, however many classicist references it contains. The stories of Claudia Jones’s West Indian Gazette and the ‘Coloured People’s Progressive Association’ campaign following Kelso Cochrane’s murder in 1959, the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD), the ‘Bradford 12’, and Jayaben Desai leading a strike at Grunwick all deserve a wider hearing, and not just because their fascinating history.

These histories of resistance tell us more about who we were and who we are than any failed politician’s speech, no matter how ferocious and toxic. Reflecting back 50 or 60 years, we also realise just how ground-breaking these early migrants were, for establishing a more permanent black presence on this island and for resisting their unequal treatment in a reasoned, moral way, making it easier for later arrivals to Britain. This Windrush generation is also crucial for understanding why so much of multi-ethnic Britain is a success, providing a less bumpy path for current and future migrants towards inclusion in British society: with each generation we build on our history, but the Windrush generation, though very far from the first migrants or black people in Britain, lay the first most secure stone in an evolving postwar edifice of national identity.

It is, therefore, no exaggeration to say it's the Windrush generation and indeed later migrants from South Asian and Africa who have defeated Powell's arguments and vision. There is no inherent permanent conflict between people because of their race; the main violence we see is from those who vainly seek to rebuild Powell's addled vision of an England never touched by Empire or black and minority ethnic people.

So on this day, we should be celebrating the contribution of the Windrush generation, and the 'New Commonwealth' arrivals from South Asia and Africa, not just to our economic, social and cultural life, but for opening the door to a more grounded, forward-looking British identity. Perhaps if we'd listen to them more, instead of seeking to harass, detain and deport them, we'd have seen a better fulfilment of the British values of equal rights and a more self-confident Britain for the 21st century. It's not too late to listen to them now.

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