In reaction to recent claims that Britain is a racist and unfair society, I argued in this column last week that it was inaccurate to say that the nation was dominated by bigotry and race hatred, as has been maintained by some people. It cannot be plausibly denied, however, that discrimination against minorities exists in one form or another in parts of society, with ethnic minorities affected by economic and social inequality - though claims of systemic institutionalised racism are often unwarranted.
Against this background, celebration of National Windrush Day on June 22 was a reminder of a major political scandal in the UK in 2018 bearing that name. This involved large numbers of immigrants from the West Indies who complained of unfair treatment by the British government. The case was sufficiently serious to force the-then Home Secretary to resign - and, in the current debate about racial discrimination, it might be interesting to look at it again.
After the Second World War, Britain invited people from the West Indies to come to help rebuild the nation. Seventy-two years ago - on June 22, 1948 - the ship the Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury Docks in London carrying some 500 people from Jamaica to settle in the country and to help fill local jobs. The British Nationality Act of 1948 had just been passed, giving citizenship of the ‘United Kingdom and Colonies’ to all British subjects connected to the UK or a British Colony- and Jamaica had been a British Colony for the last 300 hundred years. Reportedly, the effect of this legislation was that citizens of Commonwealth countries were more or less free to enter and stay in the country as they pleased, and because of this official records of the numbers were often not maintained.
Subsequently, the influx of migrants grew to such an extent that there were doubts about Britain’s capacity to absorb them. This resulted in passage of the Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1962 which ended the traditional right to Commonwealth citizens of free entry. Those who were born in the Caribbean and settled in Britain between 1948 and 1971 are known as the Windrush generation, an estimated 500,000 of whom are now living in the UK. The adults were granted indefinite leave to remain but children travelled on their parents’ passports and did not have their own documentation.
Fast forward to changes in UK immigration law in 2012 when many without adequate documents were asked to provide evidence to enable them to continue to work, access services or even to remain in the country. The result was that thousands of legal residents were misclassified as illegal immigrants and some were detained, denied legal rights and threatened with deportation. After living and working legally in the UK for decades and with children born there, the Windrush migrants and their families were suddenly told incorrectly that they did not have the right to be in Britain and were subjected to deportation orders as illegal immigrants - they also faced the injustice and humiliation of being deemed to be such after living somewhere they called home for 50 years.
After this issue came to a head in 2018, an independent Review was set up and published its report earlier this year. This criticised the Home Office for displaying ‘ignorance and institutional thoughtlessness’ on the subject of race and demanded that its policies should be based on ‘fairness, openness, diversity and inclusion’ and that its staff should be better versed about Britain’s colonial history.
For its part, the British government has accepted all 30 of the Review’s recommendations and has said it is determined to right the wrongs and injustices suffered by the Windrush generation and arrange compensation for all concerned. Moreover, as a country Britain has now paid tribute to that generation’s outstanding contribution, with Prince Charles delivering a video message that ‘the nation owes a debt of gratitude’ to the Windrush generation for accepting an invitation to come to Britain and for making an immeasurable difference to so many aspects of public life.
All well and good at last, one might think. But for many it remains to be seen whether the fine words will be turned into reality, not least how the Windrush Compensation Scheme - established in 2019 - will be operated. The government has set up a cross-party working group to ‘right the wrongs’ suffered by the Windrush generation and to address the wider challenges that disproportionately affect the BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) group. In addition, the Mayor of London has called for an end to the ‘hostile environment’ faced by immigrants.
For a commentator without access to all the facts, it is presumptuous to reach firm conclusions. But, having worked over the years with other departments inside the British government - as a career diplomat while on a home posting - I do not doubt the integrity and competence of colleagues in dealing with issues. Nonetheless, the treatment of the Windrush generation looks at the very least to have been shoddy and uncaring and what happened could have been foreseen and avoided.
No doubt, some will seek to attribute such failings to institutional racism. Be that as it may, one good outcome of this unpleasant saga is that close scrutiny by the cross-party working group of the needs of BAME should help to identify racial discrimination - insofar as it exists within government - and to bring it to an end. To the extent that the group succeeds in doing this, all concerned will benefit accordingly.
We did well but, for many, it was far from Boris’ finest hour
By common consent, the past few months of the coronavirus lockdown have been the worst prolonged period of discomfort, anxiety, misery and economic disaster in Britain’s recent history. The pandemic has had a devastating impact on the whole country and the effects will surely be long lasting. The same can perhaps be said for us in The Bahamas, though I happen to believe that overall the situation here has been managed rather better by the leaders concerned.
As the lockdown has been gradually lifted in the UK, Boris Johnson says his country’s long hibernation is coming to an end. But, amid widespread relief, there are also warning signs of another wave of the virus - with a spike in the infection rate in certain areas that has led policy-makers to consider a limited return to lockdown conditions. This seems to be partly because members of the public have failed to respect the social distancing rules.
Here at home, I wonder how many people are now giving much deserved credit to the Prime Minister and his colleagues for what can now be judged to be their effective handling of the crisis. The strict lockdown and curfew arrangements - not least closing the airport at an early stage - seem to have been justified because the figures for infections have been kept extremely low, even taking account of the country’s small population. In common with others, I have queried, along the way, some of the government’s decisions about the lockdown and have wondered about the methodology it employed which was never really explained to the public. But it is the outcome that counts – successful containment of the virus and proper treatment of those affected - and most will doubtless now be prepared to acknowledge that overall Dr Minnis and his advisers managed the crisis very well.
What has also been impressive, I believe, is the public’s self-discipline and compliance with the lockdown restrictions - including orderly lines outside, for example, supermarkets, banks and pharmacies - and with wearing masks as a matter of course, even now when most restrictions have been lifted and it would be all too easy to ease up and become carelessly complacent.
I am reluctant to compare all this with my own country. But, sadly, it has to be said the picture is rather different in Britain. Inevitably, there have been more varied and difficult problems in a much larger country with a population of some 66 million that has the third highest number of recorded coronavirus deaths in the world. There has been widespread criticism of UK political leaders who are deemed to be mishandling the crisis - for example, leaving it too late to order a lockdown and close airports; a shortage of equipment to protect medical staff; the scandal of returning hospitalised patients to care homes; the botched reopening of schools; dithering over the two-metre rule; failure of the tracking and tracing app and an idiotic travel quarantine scheme that now, with so many exceptions, is withering on the vine.
The Prime Minister himself has been under fire. He has been accused of a lack of leadership that has induced a feeling among the public that there is no captain on the bridge steering the ship of state. In particular, there have been complaints that he and his ministers were afraid to question the scientific advice in the early days of the crisis. Mr Johnson’s supporters point out, however, that he has been recovering from his near-death experience with COVID-19 in April and that he is now in full control of the government again. There is little doubt that he needs to get back to his old, charismatic, confident and optimistic self and display real leadership in reenergising the economy and, indeed, the whole nation if it is to make a proper recovery.
So, all is not lost as the country faces at the same time the challenge and demands of Black Lives Matter which is already presenting him with what may turn out to be an even sterner test.
Remembering my dear friend, Peter Graham
I should like to take the opportunity of this column to add my voice to the many tributes to Peter Graham. The news of his sudden passing last week was deeply saddening for my wife and me and it felt like a hammer blow for we had been in regular touch with him - both officially and socially - for more than 20 years and we both treasure many warm and fond memories of times spent together.
He was, of course, a giant of a figure in The Bahamas - politically as the Member of Parliament for Long Island for many years and a government minister as well as being a member of the official delegation at the independence negotiations at Lancaster House in London, but also as a leading lawyer and founder of the influential law firm, Graham Thompson.
I should also record that for many years he was legal adviser to successive British High Commissioners and I know how much his sound and wise counsel was always valued and appreciated by the British government - not only a legal opinion on a particular matter but also guidance on more general issues as well. His calm and unruffled demeanour, together with his obvious depth and range of knowledge, was reassuring and inspired confidence that one was receiving excellent advice.
On a personal level, it was always enjoyable to be in his company, whether on the tennis court where we played together for a number of years in a men’s four at the Nassau Lawn Tennis Club or over dinner from time to time including, I recall, a notably pleasant evening at my club in London some years ago.
Peter Graham was a legendary individual who clearly made a tremendous contribution to so many aspects of life in The Bahamas over many years. His passing is a huge loss not only for his family and friends but also for the country as a whole. He was a truly wonderful person of the highest integrity - distinguished, clever and decent, and kind and generous almost to a fault - who was loved by so many. Words are never adequate at such a time, but my wife and I would like to offer our deepest sympathy and heartfelt condolences to Irene and the family