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We must reflect on the legacy of the Windrush pioneers who helped rebuild Britain

HMS Empire Windrush arrived to the UK from Jamaica in 1948 (Alamy)

8 min read

The 75th anniversary of the arrival of HMT Empire Windrush is a chance to reflect on the pioneers who helped rebuild Britain, and explore the impact of ‘toxic’ government policies on the community.

The word “Windrush” may soon enter the Oxford English Dictionary, but what will the definition be? More importantly, will it truly define the West Indian pioneers who responded to the British government’s clarion call to help rebuild the “mother country”? 

Today the Caribbean community of the United Kingdom is the second worst performing in education, employment, health and justice, according to the government’s Inclusive Britain report that responded to the now iconic Sewell Commission, to which I was co-opted. Only the Gypsy, Roma, Irish Traveller community are said to fare worse. With West Indians making up a significant proportion of the UK’s Black community, the spine-chilling statistic of Black boys being four times more likely to be murdered than their white counterparts, with 75 per cent of those committing the crime being from their own community, poses an existential risk.

To add insult to all-too-often self-inflicted injury, we have had to contend with the Windrush scandal. This toxic mix of government policies was derived from parties of every political hue since 1948. It ultimately resulted in perfectly innocent, predominantly elderly, people being denied access to housing, the NHS, employment and even the use of their driving licences, rendering many destitute. A Conservative government administered the final blow that allegedly resulted in dozens of untimely deaths in the UK and some 164 wrongful deportations. This generated a mea culpa of a magnitude not experienced in respect of the Caribbean community since the abolition of slavery.  

Today the realisation that Black lives do, indeed, matter manifests itself, in part, in the Windrush compensation scheme that has now remitted more than £61m in compensation with a further £11m awaiting acceptance or pending review. Unlike that paid to the plantocracy upon the death knell of slavery, these payments have found their way into the hands of the true victims.

This I know well as the CEO of the West India Committee whose membership in the early 1800s included more than 40 MPs who successfully lobbied to compensate the planters for abolition, incurring a national debt of £20m that was only finally paid off as recently as 2015. The committee then swiftly addressed its heinous past, becoming one of our most effective charities and an example that people from all walks of life now seek to emulate.  

Today the charity continues to play its part, sitting on the Windrush Cross-Government Working Group during the past five years where it introduced the concept of interim payments. These unlocked the flow of compensation and has now set the bar for the victims of the contaminated blood debacle.  

“The wheels of government conventionally turn at a pace that has inevitably prolonged the agony of many”

But the interim payments have not proved to be the panacea we had hoped, as the wheels of government conventionally turn at a pace that has inevitably prolonged the agony of many, and angered far more. This has exposed my community to the role of a political football yet again, as we edge ever closer towards a general election.  

Other gestures have been made to demonstrate contrition: a statue at Waterloo station; Windrush Day introduced by Theresa May – who presided over the “hostile environment” policy that was to prove the straw that broke the camel’s back – and annual grants to enable communities to celebrate their pioneering forebears. 

But where does that really leave Britain’s Caribbean community? Perhaps as mere pin-ups of the equity (or is it equality?), diversity and inclusion policies that have swept across the country like wildfire, catapulting members of the community into roles hitherto out of reach? While, if genuine, this is most welcome, like so many public initiatives it may yet prove to be a short-lived fad, begging the question: what more must be done if genuine, sincere and sustainable equality, equity, diversity and inclusion is to be achieved in the UK? Countless millions have been spent over the years on attempts to bridge the divide between the Caribbean community and mainstream society.  

However for us at the West India Committee, with almost 300 years of experience under our belts as both poacher and gamekeeper, we propose a positive step-change at this pivotal moment, founded on mutual understanding and respect, creating a foundation on which lasting opportunity may be firmly built.  

The Caribbean communities of the United States and Canada comprise their highest performing Black communities, outstripping Black Americans and Africans alike in their educational and professional attainments. Perhaps that is why they did not suffer a Windrush scandal of their own, as they are valued members of society and are represented at every level, thereby ensuring their voices are heard. 

The success of this peer group illustrates the untapped potential of Britain’s Caribbean diaspora. That is why the West India Committee has devised the West India Key initiative that comprises two elements. First, improving our knowledge and understanding of Caribbean identity that links this extensively stereotyped community to roots that are common to so many others in the UK and range far beyond African slaves alone.  

The diverse origins of the Caribbean community are long forgotten and seldom taught – and as such the fascinating, multifaceted, nature of Caribbean identity is little known among the community itself, let alone in general. West Indians are the descendants of a third of Ireland’s population who, as prisoners of war, were deposited in the Caribbean by Oliver Cromwell as indentured slaves – and whose numbers were, ironically, augmented by the military veterans he could not afford to bring home.  

The ancestors of many West Indians are members of the oldest Jewish community in the Western hemisphere, together with the numerous Indians, Africans and Chinese economic migrants that gravitated towards the Caribbean after abolition.  

Moreover many originate from the indigenous tribes, such as the Garifuna, who still walk the Earth, including the streets of the UK, fully equipped with their own unique language and culture.  

Given the continued ignorance of these social connections, a cultural hub based at one of the UK’s leading museums that will incorporate the West India Committee’s Unesco-inscribed library, archive and collection (recognised by the United Nations as one of the world’s leading resources on Caribbean heritage) is intended. This will provide a constructive, living monument to the Windrush generation, capable of engendering a better understanding of the mutual heritage shared with much of the UK’s population. 

Secondly, a generation of Windrush scholarships is also intended, for which government and other support is now sought in earnest, to raise the level of West Indian inclusion in the professions and public life. These two West India Committee initiatives will prove invaluable in addressing the void so many West Indians experience in their identity. A void that is all too often filled with cultures that lead our young astray, to the detriment of society as a whole. As Aristotle said: “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” 

Meanwhile let’s do all we can to help and not hinder the Windrush compensation scheme – and its seldom-mentioned twin, the Windrush scheme that resolves the immigration status of the Windrush victims who extend across the Commonwealth. In practice the Home Office is moving at an ever-increasing pace, with 63 per cent of claims now having received final decisions to date, while many are now in receipt of interim compensation. As with all things, there will always be room for improvement and we should maintain a watching brief to ensure these are made when necessary.

However it would be far too disruptive to the victims to switch horses so late in the day, particularly where there is no alternative in place and given the advanced years of many victims. Instead let’s ensure new immigration policies do not inadvertently affect them once again, and seize this historic moment to step forward together. As our Jamaican brethren say, we may now form “out of many, one people” – the people of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in fulfilment of the hopes and dreams of the hardworking, dedicated Windrush generation who, like their ancestors, helped to build this country. As such they are worthy of nothing less than the admiration of us all.  

Blondel Cluff CBE is CEO of the West Indies Committee and Subgroup Chair of the Windrush Cross-Government Working Group.

To learn how you may support the much-needed work of the West India Committee, contact ceo@westindiacommittee.org

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