Menu ×

On Windrush, Citizenship and its Others

Nisha Kapoor

First published on Verso blog on 1st May 2018.

When Empire Windrush docked on the shores of Tilbury in June 1948 it brought workers, British colonial subjects, from the Caribbean who would fill labour shortages in the aftermath of the second world war, a war for which many of the arrivals and their kin had offered their service to. The political establishment sought, in turn, to limit their stay, considered the possibility of sending Jamaicans to East Africa so that their labour might be put to use in other workschemes across the empire, and then later put policy measures in place to make settlement less hospitable in the hope of discouraging others from migrating to the metropole.

For all the nostalgia that has subsequently come to be attached to this moment, and the revisionist history that has worked to romanticise the Windrush generation as a national treasure, we ought not to overlook the significance of attempts to construct this episode as the initiation of race in Britain. To the contrary of the Windrush reimagining which has operated effectively to divorce black presence in Britain from the broader project of colonialism and empire, the salient point to note is that Windrush was simply empire come home.

Around this time the 1948 Nationality Act, which officially granted citizenship to citizens and subjects of empire, including the Windrush generation, was passed with the intention of both warding off growing calls for colonial independence and maintaining an imperial connection with dominions such as Canada who had formulated their own national citizenships. The piece of legislation which formalised the citizenship rights of the Windrush generation offered a way of conceptualising citizenship at the break of empire when the political class were anxious to keep the British empire intact.

I flag this connection, not merely to reiterate the historical connections, and the rights and entitlements of the Windrush generation and their descendants to British citizenship, but to emphasise that the making, unmaking and framing of citizenship is deeply entrenched within an imperialist project. The parameters of British citizenship, which relies on race and class markers to determine the borders of inclusion/exclusion, have always been conceptualised in reference to a global political project that seeks to manage the consequences of imperialist agendas, whether that be in terms of exploiting colonial labour forces, refusing immigrants and asylum seekers displaced as a result of Western military assaults, or criminalising racially othered populations in the name of counterterrorism to both help justify and augment popular support for imperialist interventions and to quash political dissent against such interventions.

The significance of the Windrush moment, however, is that it comes to symbolise the initiation of an artificial separation between the politics of race and nation, on the one hand, and the broader politics of empire, on the other, marking the instigation of a project concerned with reimagining the British national identity. Thanks to the efforts of the political class, not least the decisive contribution of Enoch Powell, Britishness came to be defined in terms of an innate sense of unchanging Englishness, and citizenship more strongly defined according to ideas of blood and soil.

The state response to the resistance against the racism of nationalism helped to cement this artificial distinction further. On the one hand, the violence of immigration restrictions advanced through the 1960s, culminating in the Immigration Act 1971 which introduced the racially coded concept of patriality and meant that only those who could prove their grandparents had been born in Britain would qualify for automatic right of abode, effectively reclassifying ‘New Commonwealth’ citizens into ‘immigrants’. At the same time, race equality legislation was passed to pacify the resistance of postcolonial subjects settled in Britain, symbolizing some commitment at the institutional level, even if an uncommitted one, to a more inclusive citizenship. The problem with this divide is that it has also come to inform how we think and do anti-racism.

So with the ongoing attempts and achieved deportations of the Windrush generation we are indeed witnessing the realisation of the repatriation scheme that has remained a bubbling undercurrent of the British nationalist project in the postcolonial era. Stories of British black Caribbean women and men who have lived in Britain for 50 years plus now sent back in retirement bring anger at the hypocrisy of the refusal to recognise individuals who arrived in Britain as subjects of empire, and deep despair in their exposure of the full reach of the broken, visceral, racist politics that have become so normalised and entrenched. A depressing expression of the Britain we currently inhabit.

But the assault now on this generation cannot simply be conceived of as the endpoint of a process that has been 70 years in planning and preparation; or in a way that positions this cohort as being at the vanguard of the assault. To think in such terms is to further reify and accept as normative the proposition that British citizenship, and its provisos, is derived simply from an insular imagining of the nation-state. The racism that denies recognition and renders black and brown British citizens in a perpetual state of precarity operates in dialogue with the racism that comes to be more legitimately sanctioned against those named as ‘illegal immigrants’, ‘foreign criminals’ and ‘terrorism suspects’. In this sense, the denial, refusal and withdrawal of citizenship exposed in the treatment of the Windrush generation reflects the materialisation of a reconfigured politics around citizenship spearheaded by contemporary imperialist politics. Namely the War against Terror and the intensified deportation regime, which have seen to the cultivation of the most drastic legislative measures for citizenship deprivation in British history alongside the development of a sophisticated infrastructure for mass deportation.

The state violence that is currently being exposed is thus one that has been in germination for some time, mobilised against Muslims criminalised as terrorism suspects and immigrants frequently fleeing war, violence and poverty often with established post/colonial ties to Britain. If the backlash against the deportation of the Windrush generation is to point out that they are in fact citizens, the broader sentiment and state powers that permits citizenship deprivation is already well established. Again, the centrality of imperialist politics for defining the terms of exclusion is illuminated. The expanded powers for permitting citizenship deprivation, which were granted to the Home Secretary under the Nationality Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, allowed for removal of citizenship to include any person (including birthright citizens) who ‘has done anything seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the United Kingdom or a British overseas territory’. This power, informally known as the Hamza amendment because it was in Abu Hamza’s name that the law was passed, was enhanced again in 2006 so that deprivation could be ordered simply if it was ‘deemed conducive to the public good’. Incidentally it was also in the context of fighting terrorism that the rights to appeal against deprivation orders before they came into effect were retracted. The ‘deport now, appeal later’ policy of the hostile environment had already been ably rehearsed in this other ‘counter-terrorism’ context.

The same law that helped to legislate for the hostile environment, the Immigration Act 2014, also incorporated the most drastic power for depriving citizenship thus far, permitting statelessness again in the name of fighting terrorism. Its stated purpose was to allow for deprivation in ‘the most serious cases – such as those involving national security, terrorism, espionage or taking up arms against British or Allied forces … without regard to whether or not it will render them stateless’. Though the intent around the use of this power is specific, deprivation of citizenship has been used more widely against individuals who have fallen on the wrong side of the law, and the power has worked to lower the threshold of a broader politics of precarious citizenship that now brazenly declares citizenship to be a ‘privilege not a right’. In the name of fighting terrorism significant numbers of Muslims, who have not been charged or prosecuted through the criminal justice system, have been deprived of their citizenship or had their British passports cancelled, in a number of cases for travelling on aid convoys to Syria or for refusing to act as informants for the security services.

At the same time over the course of the 2000s the practice of mass deportation, through the use of charter flights, has become a mainstay of border policing. Private security companies are tasked with removing mass loads of asylum seekers, immigrants and long-term British residents to countries from which they have fled or have no attachment to, where Britain is often involved militarily, and to where the foreign office typically advices (white) British citizens against travel. Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Kosovo/Albania, Nigeria, Ghana, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sri Lanka have been principal destinations since 2001. Jamaica features regularly too. Partnership between the British Government and the destination states help to realize the possibility. It is no coincidence for example that ‘the first in the new wave of charters to Pakistan took place in November 2011, not long after a visit by David Cameron to negotiate a new “Enhanced Strategic Dialogue”, which included an objective of increasing bilateral trade to £2.5 billion per year as well as a £650 million “education aid” programme’. When charter flights are booked there is a need to fill them and evidence indicates that Immigration Control and Enforcement teams are instructed to round up people of the destination nationality in the weeks leading up to the flight date. Long term residents/citizens from Africa, the Caribbean and South Asia with little proof of nationality are being incorporated into this system.

So now British citizens, not recognised as such, are also being sent to join immigrants and asylum seekers in Yarlswood and the multiple other detention centres around the country where the outcast and most marginalised are criminalised for merely existing. The ‘hostile environment’ policy that has facilitated and augmented this process is part of an arsenal of measures aimed at curtailing immigration, facilitating deportation, and maintaining hierarchies of status for those who are resident. The reason most frequently deployed by the Home Office for denying British citizenship currently is that applicants are ‘not of good character’, a sufficiently amorphous notion that has seen to refusal of citizenship for activities as mundane as speeding fines and incorrectly completing immigration paperwork.

Analysis of these data indicate individuals from Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Jamaica, Kosovo, Somalia, Vietnam, Democratic Republic of Congo appear to be disproportionately impacted by this trend.

It is this failure to recognise the connections between the racism at home and imperialism overseas that mean MPs such as David Lammy can express visceral anger at the treatment of the Windrush generation whilst also being supportive of the invasion of Iraq, and that Jacob Rees-Mogg, of all suspects, can hold forth indignantly against the deportation of Windrush generation citizens. But this false and short-sighted separation will also be the ultimate obstacle to the consolidation of a more progressive anti-racist politics that moves beyond frameworks of the ‘innocent’ and ‘legal’ citizen, and mobilises instead against the violence of the state – period.