Wednesday, June 24, 2020

The Unwanted: The Secret Windrush Files (David Olusoga, 2019)

Historian David Olusoga looks at the background to the 2014 Windrush Scandal, whereby hundreds of people from the Caribbean who had lived in the UK for decades suddenly had their citizenship called into question. In some cases, 50 years’ worth of continuous documentation was demanded as proof of the right to stay. In The Unwanted: The Secret Windrush Files (Monday, 9pm, BBC2), Olusoga uncovers a story of racial prejudice at the highest levels of government, dating from the moment the Empire Windrush docked. 

It all began with the 1948 British Nationality Act, designed to permit the free movement of citizens of the newly constituted British Commonwealth. Olusoga argues that it was always intended for the benefit of those countries with large white populations, such as Canada and Australia. The influx of immigrants from Jamaica, described as an “incursion” by Clement Attlee, was a wholly unintended consequence of the Act. Olusoga shows how the arrival of the Windrush immediately caused a flurry of anxious interdepartmental documents. It was feared black immigration could damage the “harmony, strength and cohesion” of the nation. “One boat! One boat! It’s not a flotilla,” scoffs historian Dr Denise Noble. 

Arrival documents show that the men on the Windrush were plumbers, machinists, carpenters and electricians, trades desperately needed in Britain after the war. The most shocking revelation contrasts the treatment of the Windrush and subsequent Caribbean arrivals with that of the white European Volunteer Workers, displaced persons from the Balkans and Germany, including prisoners of war. Being white, EVWs were welcomed, even though some were former members of Waffen-SS regiments. Olusoga contends that it was government policy to give preference to men who had fought against Britain over men who were veterans of British forces, “and all because those veterans were black”. 

Former soldiers returning to “the mother country”, such as Allan Wilmot, who can still remember his RAF number, talk about the abrupt change in attitude. He slept in Tube trains, at depots and washed dishes at the Cumberland Hotel. Nevertheless, Olusoga’s interviewees remain a cheery bunch, with many even laughing over their treatment at the hands of the system. But indignation bursts through. One woman recalls a stranger spitting in her face. Another protests: “I’ve paid my taxes and I’ve paid my National Insurance — then I was British, wasn’t I?” 

Olusoga traces the rapidly proliferating legislation that led to the so-called “hostile environment” rules to trap illegal immigrants. He demonstrates that the belief at the highest level that “Britishness was fundamentally a racial identity” existed long before Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech. Churchill, for example, warned the Postmaster General that employing too many “coloured people” could cause social friction. The programme has a bittersweet finale as some of the interviewees gain the citizenship they didn’t know they lacked. Their resilience is admirable; it’s a tragedy it needed testing. --FT