Sir Vince Cable on the Windrush scandal: Politicians have underestimated the public on race

Posted On: 
29th April 2018

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable argues in the wake of the Windrush scandal that the electorate is more colour-blind than Westminster gives it credit for. 

Lib Dem leader Vince Cable
Credit: 
PA Images

There has long been a conceit in the political class in Westminster: that we are all a pretty tolerant lot; but Joe Public, out there, is a bigot.  The outcome is agreement not to be too courageous on matters of race and immigration.

The conceit has now been exploded.  The Prime Minister has presided over policies at the Home Office which, through a combination of incompetence and inhumanity, that have wrecked the lives of hundreds of black, British, people.  These were hardworking, taxpaying, legal immigrants who fell foul of bureaucratic box ticking; rules designed to create a hostile environment for people like themselves.  Theresa May clearly believed that this ‘toughness’ was exactly what the British public wanted to see.  But she may have underestimated the fundamental decency of many of the British public who have been outraged by the inhumanity as well as the incompetence.

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There is such a thing as progress.  And race relations is one area where it has happened, albeit that there is still a fair amount of prejudice and discrimination.  I was struck during the week by the TV pictures of the crowd at the Liverpool versus Roma match.  The fans’ hero, Mo Salah, is an Egyptian.  Mo is shorthand for Mohamed.  This Mohamed spent much of the game running rings round a player called Jesus.  The Liverpudlian crowd didn’t hide behind the abbreviation.  Numerous scarves proclaimed a faith in Mohammed.  And this in a country sometimes accused of Islamophobia.

The culture of football reflects that of the nation and in particular that of white males who make up most of the fan base (I am one).  The banana-throwing, racist, element who disfigured the spirit in the past have been almost entirely driven out.  Racially mixed teams are the norm.

I have seen the improvement in race relations on a personal level.  In 1968 I worked and lived in Kenya when the expulsion of British Asians created an immigration crisis in the UK.  A panicking Labour Government introduced emergency immigration controls designed to keep the Asians out.  The public mood had been stirred by Mr Enoch Powell’s infamous “rivers of blood” speech, whose 50th anniversary occurred last week.

I returned to the UK in the summer of 1968 with my (late) wife Olympia who happened to be a Kenyan Asian.  We walked into the storm of racial hatred generated by Powell and his sympathisers in politics and the press.  There were times when Olympia had to stay at home for fear of abuse on the streets (and this was in Glasgow, far from the epicentre of the ethnic earthquake).  And prejudice extended to our families who disowned us for embarking on a mixed marriage.

With the hindsight and perspective of half a century, I no longer recognise the dystopian, pessimistic, race-obsessed world of Enoch Powell.  My family grew up and flourished, as did most of the Kenyan Asians who made it here.  There have been bad episodes and prejudice still exits but today’s Britain especially among the young is a far more tolerant, inclusive country and better for it.

That extends to politics.  One important milestone was the London mayoral election in 2014 when the Conservative campaign sought to whip up hostility to a Muslim Asian candidate; the tactic backfired and Sadiq Khan was comfortably elected.  Credit is also due to David Cameron who ensured that black and Asian candidates were chosen in a dozen or so safe Conservative seats.  The electorate proved to be colour-blind.  Of course, we all have more to do to make British politics genuinely diverse, not least in my own party.

Immigration, however, remains an altogether toxic matter where it involves the prospect of large numbers of people arriving, especially if they have black or brown faces.  Theresa May built on and extended an established consensus that the only way to close the issue down is to close the borders, and act tough.

But as Windrush has demonstrated, being ‘tough’ so easily degenerates into gross injustice.  People with every justification to stay in the UK are treated as ‘illegal’ if they don’t have documents to prove who they are or where they were living decades ago; or if the Home Office has lost their papers; or if they make understandable mistakes with paperwork.  One of my constituents faced deportation because she missed the deadline for submitting a document when she was caring for a critically ill child.

Piled on top of a war on illegals is the obsession with number of immigrants and targets for deportations.  It has led to people being deported in life or death situations to help the Home Office meet a quota.  Moreover, the ridiculous immigration target set by David Cameron and slavishly implemented by Theresa May include large groups like overseas students who are not immigrants at all and provided the pretext for numerous, petty arbitrary decisions to exclude or deport individuals.

And while we celebrate Harry and Meghan’s wedding we should remember that there are many Meghans who weren’t lucky enough to fall in love with a Prince.  Many are denied visas, often split from their partners, because of Home Office suspicions – sometimes valid; often not – that they are ‘bogus’.

Moreover, visitors who are not immigrants now face a costly and unpredictable application process with no appeal against rejection, however unreasonable.  One of my constituents dying of a particularly unpleasant disease is being refused a visit and temporary caring from a partner in the Caribbean because he might overstay, though he has been a law-abiding visitor before.  Multiply that thousands of times and you have Britain’s current immigration control system (at least, for now, for non-Europeans).

To be sure, a large slice of the public, still seek reassurance that borders are controlled and immigration is managed.  The Brexit referendum tapped into those concerns.  But Theresa May’s obsessive pursuit of firmness over fairness may have misjudged Joe Public, who wants to see fairness as well.