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On 1 May 2018, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Race and Community, for which Runnymede provides the Secretariat, hosted an event on the treatment of the Windrush generation, chaired by David Lammy MP. The High Commissioner for Barbados to the UK, who has been working tirelessly on this issue for many months, placed the Windrush tragedy in a wider context that many in Britain have forgotten. Runnymede is honoured to publish this speech and hope it spurs more reflection on the ongoing effects of Britain's past in this 70th anniversary year of the arrival of HMT Empire Windrush.
Statement by HE Mr Guy Hewitt, High Commissioner for Barbados to the UK, to the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Race and Community, Westminster, 01 May 2018.
Mr Chairman, members of the APPG, ladies and gentlemen,
On behalf of Barbados and the wider Commonwealth Caribbean, I want to thank the Chair, and others gather here specifically: Lord Ouseley, Amelia Gentleman, those brave West Indians who became the face of the crisis including Sylvester Marshall, the Runnymede Trust, JCWI, and my fellow high commissioner from St Kitts and Nevis, Dr Kevin Isaac, for giving voice to this crisis. Without you, and the support of the British public, the media and other parliamentarians and high commissioners I do not believe that we would be here.
However, this catastrophe, this Windrush Generation tragedy, needs to be put in context lest we forget that this is not the first time West Indians have suffered.
I start approximately 375 years ago with that unholy trinity of colonisation, sugar, and slavery in the West Indies. It was the plantation economies, producing sugar then called ‘white gold’ that financed the Industrial Revolution in England and expanded capitalism worldwide.
The University College London concluded that as many as one-fifth of wealthy Victorian Britons derived all or part of their fortunes from the slave economy. The compensation paid to them at emancipation, representing 40 per cent of the Treasury's annual budget (equating to around £16.5bn in today’s terms) was so large that it wasn’t paid off until 2015. Regrettably, the call by the Caribbean for reparations for the deprivation caused by colonisation has seemingly fallen on deaf ears in the UK and across Europe.
Fast forward 100 years ago to the World Wars. Without coercion, West Indian men volunteered, fought and died for King and Country. When Winston Churchill said “Never was so much owed by so many to so few” referring to the RAF in the Battle of Britain, that included Barbadian and Jamaica pilots. Indeed in 1938, the first prime minister of Barbados, Errol Walton Barrow, at 18 years instead of going off to university, enlisted in the RAF as part of Bomber Command.
In the Great War, a British West Indies Regiment was formed of Caribbean volunteers but such was their treatment that when they were to be demobilised at Taranto, Italy they mutinied. Although the mutiny was crushed, during it the West Indian NCOs held a meeting to discuss the question of black rights, self-determination and closer union in the West Indies. An organisation called the Caribbean League was formed.
A secret colonial memo from 1919, uncovered by researchers for a Channel 4 programme on the Taranto mutiny, showed that the British Government realised that everything had changed, too: “Nothing we can do will alter the fact that the black man has begun to think and feel himself as good as the white."
We now skip to 70 years ago and the post-WWII call from Britain to her then colonies for workers to migrate here to address the critical labour shortages. Many West Indians heeded the call from the ‘Mother Country’ and between 1948 and 1973 approximately 550,000 West Indians (nearly 15 per cent of the population) migrated.
However, this journey was not without its peril. Many of these migrants from the Caribbean and the wider Commonwealth faced hostility. Some still recall the infamous Teddy Boys and Notting Hill race riots, and the signs which read, “No Irish, No blacks, No dogs”. Nonetheless, they persevered and with toil, sweat and tears played a pivotal role in helping to build a modern Global Britain.
Some of the many outstanding individuals who would leave the West Indies and subsequently call the United Kingdom home include nursing pioneer, Mary Seacole (of an earlier vintage); broadcasters: Sir Trevor McDonald and Moira Stuart OBE; bishop: The Rt Revd Dr Wilfred Wood, KA; composer: Errollyn Wallen; footballers: the late Cyrille Regis MBE and John Barnes MBE; train guard: Asquith Xavier; academic: Professor Stuart Hall; athlete: Linford Christie OBE; actors: the late Norman Beaton, Carmen Munroe OBE and Rudolph Walker OBE; racehorse trainer: Sir Michael Stoute and the late author, Samuel "Sam" Selvon.
Sam Selvon The Lonely Londoners (1956) “And you know the hurtful part of it? The Pole who have that restaurant, he ain’t have no more right in this country than we. In fact, we is British subjects and he is only a foreigner, we have more right than any people from the damn continent to live and work in this country, and enjoy what this country have, because is we who bleed to make this country prosperous”.
It is against this backdrop that today many of these immigrants, some here since childhood, despair as they were confronted by a new wave of hostility. This time, it is predicated on their “irregular status” with some situations having resulted in destitution and detention, along with the actual separation from their family through removal from this their adopted home back to the Caribbean, which for many is but a fond memory.
But on 26 April 2018, two weeks to the day of the CARICOM High Commissioners press briefing, commencing our engagement strategy on the Windrush Generation the matter, we believe, is largely resolved. We can see the Promised Land and are optimistic that soon those elderly West Indians migrants who lived in fear, will be soon able to proclaim, “we have overcome.”
This assertion is made notwithstanding the need, as requested recently by the High Commissioner for St Kitts and Nevis to the Home Secretary, for the details to ensure, following the apology by Prime Minister May, that what has been promised to the Windrush Generation: the guarantees of full UK citizenship and compensation, will be delivered.
I need to just add one more matter. The Home Office was asked by the St Kitts and Nevis and Barbados high commissioners to research whether the Windrush Generation are in fact already British Citizens, that is, whether the British Nationality Act 1948, having defined “Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies" (CUKC) as people born or naturalised in either the United Kingdom or one of its Colonies, afforded the right, up to 1973, for Caribbean-born persons, as citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies, to journey to the UK in an act of internal migration, equivalent to the movement of the English, Scots, Welsh and Northern Irelanders within the UK borders. We await a response.
However, there is a wider issue; which is that fifty years to the day of Enoch Powell’s odious “Rivers of Blood” speech, 25 years on from the murder of Stephen Lawrence, and weeks away from the 70th anniversary of the arrival the HMS Empire Windrush(22 June), the incontrovertible truth is that, as underscored by the recent Brexit vote and a growing anti-Semitism, Britain appears xenophobic and ill-at-ease with matters of race and migration.
Perhaps a celebration next month of the arrival of the Windrush at Tilbury, which has come to symbolise the dawning of a new age of post-war migration to Britain, could provide the opportunity to bring this multicultural society together and begin the process of having a truly United Kingdom. As Barbados’ first London-born high commissioner and a product of the Commonwealth, of Indian and Barbadian migrants to the UK, I wish this country and her people God’s continued blessing and a happy International Workers' Day, or Labour Day, which is celebrated in many countries today. I thank you.
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