How Britain Built Diversity

The Windrush Generation as the central myth of the Progressive establishment

Until recently the UK’s population was still over 99% British. Even as late as the 1991 census, “White British” accounted for almost 95%. But by 2016, the native-born share of the population had fallen to less than 80%, and the current figure is likely to be lower still.

In short, in twenty years, the UK has transformed from an almost ethnically homogeneous country to one in which around a quarter of the population is either an immigrant or the descendant of immigrants. And yet most have only the vaguest notion of when these new arrivals came, and why they came. What they have instead are myths.

Of special significance is the myth of the Windrush Generation, which over the last decade has become the dominant narrative of the arrival of the bulk of Britain’s Afro-Caribbean population. Like every good myth, the story is disarmingly simple. So simple, in fact, that we can summarize it as follows:

Following the Second World War, shattered by the Blitz and bereft of laborers, Britain invited its West Indian colonial subjects to the imperial motherland to help the country rebuild. The first group arrived in England from Jamaica aboard HMT Empire Windrush in 1948, and have been making invaluable contributions ever since, despite confronting constant racism and discrimination since their arrival.

Versions of this story have been reiterated at every level of society, from Channel 4 and BBC documentaries, by King Charles III when he was still the Prince of Wales, and by the late Queen Elizabeth II. But it is entirely untrue. 

None of the postwar Caribbean immigrants were invited to come to Britain, least of all those aboard the Empire Windrush, a troop transport ship en route from Australia to Britain via Jamaica. Because she was expected to leave Kingston under capacity, her operator advertised heavily in the three weeks before her arrival that they would offer private passage to the United Kingdom for £28 10s – around half the usual price. The novelty of several hundred Jamaicans voyaging across the Atlantic was so great that a Pathé newsreel crew arrived to film the passengers disembarking in Britain– a detail which explains a significant part of the event’s later prominence.

Nobody at the time was particularly happy with the news. The British government was completely unaware of the imminent arrivals until it was too late to stop them. In a debate in Parliament it was noted that there would be no guarantee the Windrush’s passengers would be able to find work, and Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee suggested redirecting the Windrush to East Africa.

Civil servants from the Colonial Office were dispatched to the Caribbean to orchestrate campaigns explaining that jobs in the UK were scarce, conditions were poor (rationing remained in place until 1954 for food, furniture, fuel, and clothing), and immigrants could not be guaranteed employment or housing (of which there was a chronic shortage).

Nevertheless, neither the British nor colonial governments had any power to prevent Commonwealth migration after the British Nationality Act (1948) formalized the right of all colonial subjects to settle in Britain. The framers intended this as a symbolic gesture against decolonization; they did not expect it to lead to mass migration.

At the heart of the Windrush myth is the claim of a postwar labor shortage. In fact, postwar Britain was a country with a pronounced labor surplus. Accordingly, between 1946 and 1960, 1.5 to 2 million people – 3.2-4.3% of the population – left the country, mostly for the Dominions and the USA. Despite Winston Churchill’s remonstrations – he described emigrants as “rats leaving a sinking ship” and pleaded “we cannot spare you!” – statements often repeated today as evidence of a labor shortage, this emigration was encouraged by both the Conservatives and Labour and fares were heavily subsidized. In the case of Australia, passage was available for just £10, a third of what passengers on the Empire Windrush had paid.

This policy undermines the story of a country needing workers. Between 1946-1970, despite huge net population outflows, unemployment rates remained stable. 

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Mass Caribbean immigration to Britain didn’t take place until almost a decade after the war. According to Home Office statistics, between 1948 and 1955, net immigration to the UK from the West Indies amounted to 16,000 people. Between 1955 and 1958, a further 80,000 arrived, and between 1960 and 1962, 151,000. From 1962 to 1968, another 60,000 arrived, after which large-scale immigration ceased until the 1990s.

The origin of the myth of a post-war labor shortage seems to be the conflation of two actual events. The first of these was a very real labor shortage during the war, caused by manpower allocation problems. These were partly addressed by the movement of a small number of colonial volunteers into Britain. Several thousand volunteer colonial servicemen also served in the UK. This has come to be conflated with postwar economic migration.

The second is a series of limited “direct recruitment” schemes undertaken by various public sector organizations long after the war had ended. In 1955, the government of Barbados created a scheme in which the London Transport Executive and later the British Transport Commission, the British Hotels and Restaurants Association, and the Regional Hospital Boards, could recruit workers directly from the island to help alleviate widespread unemployment and social unrest. Jamaica and Trinidad soon joined the scheme. At the same time, the NHS made provision for young women from the Commonwealth to train in the UK as nurses.

Both initiatives accounted for only a small proportion of total Caribbean immigration. Between 1956 and 1960, the Barbados sponsorship scheme recruited 3,680 people – less than 5% of over 86,000 to arrive in Britain in this period. A 1961 commons speech notes that there were a total of 6,365 immigrant student nurses in the NHS out of a total of 55,000. Even if we presume they were all from the West Indies, they would account for less than 10% of total net migration from the region in that year alone, or 4.7% of that in the preceding five-year period.

The third plank of the Windrush myth concerns the racism and hostility faced by the migrants. This element is undoubtedly true to some extent, but must be put into context. It’s clear from direct testimonials that many West Indians had an extremely distorted view of Britain and British culture, largely informed by their experiences with middle-class colonial administrators. It’s also likely that many had also been sold a bill of goods by shipping companies.

The hostility which many Caribbeans encountered was the hostility of tight-knit communities in the face of any outsiders, and particularly those competing with them for a living. This attitude was heightened by an apparent apathy from the government towards the economic reality of the issue despite persistent agreement at all levels that uncontrolled immigration was an issue that needed to be addressed.

The reluctance of multiple governments to do so lies partly in the structures of the British class system. Unless he had been a soldier stationed abroad, an ordinary Briton from the mid-20th century would have been highly unlikely to have ever encountered a foreigner of any kind, and would have been as mistrustful of a Frenchman as a neighbor as he would a Jamaican. But among the upper-middle-class there existed a much more cosmopolitan attitude. “Color prejudice” was seen to be a base and unsophisticated opinion as early as the late 19th century.

This ambiguity is illustrated perfectly by the case of Enoch Powell, the only “serious” politician to ever substantively address popular concerns over immigration. Powell was a man with a history of placing matters of principle over political expedience. His speech to the Commons after the Hola Massacre in Kenya had a major role in forcing the British government to act to restrain the excess of colonial forces confronting the Mau Mau Rebellion. The speech articulates a sentiment which still stands as the ideal for acceptable British society on such matters, if not always the reality:

“We cannot say, ‘We will have African standards in Africa, Asian standards in Asia and perhaps British standards here at home.’ We have not that choice to make. We must be consistent with ourselves everywhere.”

In his infamous April 1968 speech to the Birmingham Conservative Association, Powell restates these principles while acknowledging that immigration was a major concern for ordinary people, whether politicians wanted to admit it or not. Powell also emphasized the importance of avoiding discrimination against or in favor of any group. Nonetheless, within 24 hours, he had been sacked from the Shadow Cabinet, repudiated by his colleagues, and vilified in the Times as “evil.” Hardly the reaction of a society committed to racism. 

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The Windrush myth is now taken for granted at every level of British society. Where did it come from? The earliest popular depictions of the Caribbean migrant experience make almost no reference to the Windrush, despite having been retroactively imagined as the work of “Windrush artists.”

In fact, the story’s sudden prominence coincides with the coming of age of the children of the “Windrush Generation” in the 1980s, in the aftermath of a series of riots, chiefly in 1981 in Brixton. 

The political climate following these riots (and official responses such as the Scarman Report, which called for increased integration) created a demand for a narrative of Afro-Caribbean immigration that could help to justify the existence of Britain’s black population, which would have still seemed highly out of place even at this time.

For many Britons, including the vast majority of the black British population itself, Windrush first emerged through a series of BBC2 documentaries created to mark its 50th anniversary in 1998. The New Labour government enthusiastically adopted the arrival of the ship as a cultural watershed moment as part of its effort to redefine Britain as a diverse and inclusive “post-national” country.

Following the 1999 MacPherson Enquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, as various public institutions scrambled to find ways to demonstrate commitment to newly imposed “equality” mandates, the story took on its ‘standard’ form and began to be promoted by a network of nonprofits, activists, and government agencies, before being sacralized in Isles of Wonder, the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics – a spectacle that still stands as the perfect representation of what the modern British middle-class now believes (and is supposed to believe) about their country’s history.

But its position as a marked event on the official British ecclesiastical calendar wasn’t cemented until the “Windrush Scandal” emerged in 2018 to serve as a ballast for the narrative of widespread “systemic racism” in British institutions, despite being caused almost entirely by Home Office incompetence and a historic refusal to collect accurate data on incoming migrants (which had been a subject of parliamentary record for decades). 

In the aftermath, the Conservative government declared that July 22nd would forever be celebrated as Windrush Day.

Today, for the descendants of the Afro-Caribbean immigrants of the 1950s and 60s, the Windrush story has become a kind of etiological narrative: a story that helps to explain who they are, where they came from, and where they are now. It provides them with an important role in the country’s story.

For the modern Blairite establishment, Windrush represents a definitive break with tradition: the point at which traditional, ethnically homogeneous, monocultural “imperial” Britain ended, and the new multiethnic and multicultural Britain began to take shape, and is almost always deployed in “official” capacities to act as the sine qua non-exemplar of why modern Britain owes its existence to “diversity”.

As for the rest of us, any opposition to this narrative can be explained away with reference to the obsolete prejudices of ungrateful racists who turned their backs on a group of people whom their country had begged for help.

Lin Manuel Rwanda is a writer from the U.K.


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