Windrush – one chapter in a longer story

In the beginning was the Windrush. That is how the story is usually told – a tale of arrival, of racism and rejection, yet ultimately transformation, the ‘irresistible rise of multiracial Britain’, as the subtitle of the 50th anniversary book by Mike Phillips and Trevor Phillips put it, alongside their well-received BBC television series. That paved the way for the papier maché boat of newspaper headlines in Danny Boyle’s 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, a landmark moment in our island story.

It was an important story to tell in 1998. The average age of the 492 West Indian passengers on the boat in 1948 had been 24. Half a century on, as the Windrush generation entered their seventies, it mattered that the black British presence was not confined to a ‘black season’ of minority interest, but a mainstream prime-time exploration. It was not just about the politics of race and immigration, or the rising tide of contributions to sport, culture and literature, but how three or four generations of family life told the everyday story of social change in our country.

Twenty years on, in a different era, it may be time to rethink what Windrush means today for the Britain of 2018.

Windrush was not the beginning, rather a new chapter in a longer story.

‘Welcome Home’ was the headline on the Evening Standard’s report of the arrival of the Windrush in Tilbury Dock. Though we talk about Windrush as a story of arrival, one-third of those on board were RAF servicemen, who were coming back to Britain.

That enormous pre-Windrush, Commonwealth contribution, not just to the Second World War but to the First World War too, will also be marked in this year of anniversaries. But it will surprise many people, during November’s 2018 centenary of the First World War armistice, to realise that the armies that fought a century ago – fully three decades before Windrush – look more like the Britain of 2018 than the Britain of 1918 in their ethnic and multi-faith composition. The roots of our shared history go further back than we think.


What made the Windrush a new chapter in the longer history of British migration was that it was an act of large-scale voluntary migration, while previous waves of migrants had come for sanctuary more than opportunity.

Though the boat was initially been sent to Jamaica to bring RAF men back, an entrepreneurial decision was taken to try to fill otherwise empty berths, advertised in the Jamaican Gleaner newspaper as a half-price bargain at £28.  Yet how many people know that there were also sixty Polish refugees on the Windrush too? These

displaced people had travelled from Siberia, via India, Australia and Mexico before joining the boat in Jamaica, capturing the great upheavals of the post-war era.

Though the million Poles in Britain today are usually found at the end of a long list of those who have come to Britain throughout our history – from the Huguenots and the Jews, through the Afro-Caribbean and Asian communities – the Windrush presence reminds us that the Polish contribution to Britain long predates Polish entry into the European Union after 2004.

There is a curious parallel in the story of Commonwealth and European migration. The Windrush arrived in the year that the British Nationality Act created the status of ‘Citizen of the United Kingdom and its colonies,’ giving the right to live and work in the UK to hundreds of millions. It was celebrated on both sides of the House of Commons. But was this a very British invitation – ‘you really must visit sometime’ – never quite expecting it to be taken up.

Restrictions were placed on Commonwealth migration in 1962, 1971 and 1981, though the end of Commonwealth free movement did not end migration to Britain. Brexit may likewise end European free movement, but it will not end migration from Europe. The story of migration to Britain is partly one of our society coming to accept the Irish, the West Indians, the Indians and the Poles, though it sometimes seems as if we achieve that only by transferring the anxiety onto the next group to arrive.

“How do people become us?” is probably the biggest question raised by immigration. Windrush tells us an important story about identity and integration – and why it must be a two-way street.

The Windrush passengers believed that their Britishness was non-negotiable. So it was an important moment of disenchantment, to find that the idea of Britain inculcated in Kingston’s classrooms was far from universally acknowledged on London’s streets.  In her novel Small Island Andrea Levy, whose father came on the Windrush, gives her fictional ex-RAF man Gilbert Joseph the plaintive cry, “How come England did not know me?”.

Integration does depend on the desire to belong – but also the willingness to accept those who want to belong too. That was too often denied to the Windrush generation.

Like other migrants, many thought they might only be here temporarily, yet had families and put down roots just as, ironically, Britain was still debating the ‘send them back’ slogans of the Enoch Powell era. Their children and grandchildren were to successfully renegotiate and expand the idea of what it meant to be British.

So the positive legacy of Windrush is that most people today will respect the diversity of our multi-ethnic and multi-faith society, while wanting to focus too on what can bring us together. Yet the idea of integration also demands that the promise of equal opportunity is kept – with fair chances for all and no discrimination against anybody.

Seventy years on from Windrush, nobody would claim we have yet arrived at the end of that journey. In an era of polarisation, perhaps the legacy of Windrush is that the history of how we got here can help us to find that common ground, a vision of the future that we do want to share.

Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future, an independent thinktank on immigration and integration. He was general secretary of the Fabian Society thinktank from 2003 to 2011, and was previously a leader writer and internet editor at the Observer. He is the proud father of four children, Zarina, Jay, Sonny and Indira. He was brought up in Cheshire and Essex but was born in Doncaster, Yorkshire, to parents who came to Britain from India and Ireland, to work for the NHS.