by Deidan Williams.
There have been many column inches dedicated to the so called “Windrush scandal”. And with them came a tendency to frame it as a bureaucratic fiasco, an anachronism that conscientious people would now set right. Nobody intended to “send home” loyal citizens, stereotyped as the affable Porkpie from Desmonds, the 1990s sit com set in a Peckham barber shop. You know the type: funny, kindly, essentially harmless, comic West Indians. The danger in this narrative is that it misses entirely the coldly premeditated nature of what happened. These people were not an accident, they were the low hanging fruit of Theresa May and the Home Office’s net migration targets. This scandal has historic roots and it touched my family back in 1982.
My parents were born before WW2 in Caribbean and West African states that were part of the British Empire. Bureaucratically, they were known as “CUKC”, which was not a high street retail shop nor Chuka Umunna’s new party, but “Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies”. My father moved to the UK in the early ‘50s and served for several years in the British army; my mother was a nurse who arrived in the early 60s on personal invitation of Health minister Enoch Powell, who wrote her a letter appealing to her patriotism and duty to come and rebuild the “Mother Country”. But suddenly, after years of service, whispers started going around the community: things were changing. You had to “apply”. Get a new passport, sort out your papers. It was the early 80s, the climate of racism both institutional and street level had become toxic. There were riots in Brixton and Handsworth. Immigration was a hot button topic. The British Nationality Act had been passed, creating for the first time the concept of “British Citizen”, and my parents didn’t qualify. They were asked to pay £100 each – a fortune for a working class family – to “upgrade” from CUKC status to UK citizen. My dad was furious. An ex-serviceman and a Labour party activist, a black cab driver with a Cockney accent, he felt demeaned at being asked to apply for something he had taken for granted all his life. But he did. Simply because he didn’t trust those who administered the system. “If their lips are moving, son, they’re lying”, he always said. Deep in his heart he felt we would never be fully accepted as English. Many of his friends didn’t bother. It was expensive, there was a lot of form filling involved, and they worked in the NHS for god’s sake, for British rail, it was inconceivable they could be sent back, the place would collapse without them. And for many years, they were right. Nobody came for them. But in 2010, a new Tory government got voted in. Looking to make good on their net migration targets, they saw sick and elderly pensioners with an unclear status as an easy mark. The rest is sadly, history.
Today, Tory ministers rush to radio and TV studios to tell European citizens worried about their status, people who came here with the right to work, live and build lives, that downloading an app will make it alright. My advice to them is to heed the words of an elderly West African man: “If their lips are moving, they’re lying.”
*Deidan Williams is a writer and playwright. His play “Manhattan Out To Sea” was shortlisted for the 2015 Alfred Fagon Award. His short play “Shh is time to listen” was produced as part of “The words are coming now” by Theatre 503 in 2018. He’s also a workshop leader at LegalAliens Theatre.