Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit.
Although the Windrush scandal has sparked a debate about immigration, the people involved are not, in the main, immigrants. Most of the those who set sail from the West Indies in the 1950s were British subjects. They were relocating within British territory, bringing with them their status as Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies.
It’s easily done, this backdating of current concepts. In the musical Hamilton, for example, the eponymous hero is referred to throughout as an “immigrant”. In fact, when he left the the Caribbean island of Nevis for New York in 1772, he was moving from one British colony to another. The author of that brilliant show, Lin-Manuel Miranda, is making deft use of dramatic licence, using the word “immigrant” to elicit audience sympathy. Some commentators are trying to do the same thing over the Windrush affair, using the injustice suffered by long-standing and legally settled citizens to make a wider point about sans-papiers in Britain.
But the Windrush children were never in the same category as the several hundred thousand people who are in Britain illegally. They did not enter clandestinely via Calais. They did not overstay tourist or student visas. They did not seek to hide their status from the authorities. It was always an anomaly that those who came legally from Commonwealth territories did not have full citizenship, and it is a matter of national shame that it should have taken such a débâcle to close that loophole.
I wonder whether our understanding is distorted by the prejudices of our age. If you believe that the British Empire was the source of all evil, but that a multi-ethnic society is the supreme good, you don’t want to dwell on the fact that the first engendered the second. It becomes easier, perhaps, to forget that the Windrush generation came to Britain, not as immigrants, but as imperial subjects. Many of them – indeed, a majority on the Windrush herself – had defended the British Empire in uniform in the recent war.
So shrill and narrow are the sensibilities of the Rhodes-Must-Fall generation that we can too easily gloss over the British patriotism of those West Indian pioneers. We have excised from our collective memory half of the Windrush’s name: she was, as the photographs show, the Empire Windrush. The people at the time who bridled at the concept of a common imperial citizenship were not Labour ministers, but the Little Englanders who eventually found their champion in Enoch Powell. Anti-imperialism – or, rather, a rejection of the notion that the Empire had created mutual bonds of affection and obligation – was in those days the position of the fringe Right.
Ministers have responded correctly to the Windrush fiasco, offering British nationality to the people affected and compensation to those who suffered. The Home Office should now take steps to anticipate further breakdowns. There will surely be other Commonwealth citizens who came legally in the 1950s and 1960s, and who should be offered the same opportunity to adopt, in law, the nationality that they hold in practice.
The same is likely to be true of young EU nationals, who are growing up here today. Imagine, say, an Italian who came as a child in the 1990s, attended school in Britain and has English as a first language. It would be bizarre and immoral to put legal hurdles in the way of people in that situation who want UK citizenship. During the referendum campaign, every Leave spokesman promised to protect their status. That process should never have been dragged out as it has.
To repeat, people who came to Britain legally are not in the same position as those who arrived as stowaways or who disappeared on the expiry of their visas. The Home Office is right to try to prevent illegal immigrants from accessing housing, healthcare and benefits.
It’s extraordinary that this should need saying but, in the current climate, it probably does. We seem to have forgotten that the rules were tightened in response to identified abuses. For example, there were cases of NHS hospitals forbidding their staff to check whether people were entitled to treatment.
We don’t have closed borders. We don’t use ID cards. We know that the state lacks the institutional capacity to find and deport hundreds of thousands of people. In the circumstances, making it as hard as possible for illegal immigrants to access state services should be uncontroversial. The problem is not with that policy, but with its application to people who are here legally.
Every MP reading this column will have come across constituency cases where people trying to do the right thing have been caught up in aggressive and sometimes mulish Home Office bureaucracy. I certainly have. People wanting to study at British universities, for example, often run into what looks like deliberate obstruction. I have had difficulties organising conferences for MPs from overseas. Making life harder for people who have applied properly is not tackling the problem of illegal immigration. It is using a sledgehammer to miss a nut.
What we are dealing with here is an oversight: a tragic and unintended outcome that was, to her great credit, exposed by the Guardian’s Amelia Gentleman. Again, that should be an uncontroversial statement: even if you assume that all politicians are unprincipled, it’s hard to see how ministers could have wanted an outrage like this to blow up on their watch. And yet a lot of commentators are assuming – or at least affecting to assume – that there was a deliberate Conservative policy of selective deportation, a product of what Dawn Butler, the shadow minister for women and equalities, called “institutional racism”.
Does she really believe that? Very possibly, in the same way that a surprising number of people believe that the Grenfell tragedy was an act of premeditated Tory murder. Behavioural psychologists teach that we tend to infer malignity whenever we come across a problem. I wrote on this site a few years ago about why that fallacy tends to be stronger on the Left.
In this case, though, resignation demands and displays of outrage detract from what ought to be a straightforward policy solution. It should be possible to regularise the status of people who arrived legally in the UK while making it as hard as possible for illicit entrants to claim benefits. Which is precisely what the Government says it will do.