The Windrush Generation Legacy

Windrush Docking

The transformation of post war Britain started on 21 June 1948 with the first major wave of migration, the docking of MV Empire Windrush at Tilbury with 492 men and women from Jamaica and Trinidad. Although there has been a black presence in Britain since Roman times and at one stage 10,000 black people lived in London during the 17th Century.

The impact of the Windrush Generation, and other Commonwealth nationals from Africa, India and Pakistan arriving during this period, played a significant role in shaping and creating modern Britain.

In many ways they helped to put the ‘Great’ into Great Britain by contributing to one of the most successful post war economies in Europe and also making us one of the most vibrant and tolerant multi cultural societies in the world.

Despite the colour bar and the infamous slogan ‘No Blacks, Dogs or Irish’, the Caribbean community embraced Britain in the belief learned from their colonial education that the ‘Mother Country’ cared and valued all its subjects. This was highlighted earlier when over 10,000 Caribbean men and women volunteered during World War II along with 140,00 from Africa.

Their hopes and aspirations were never fully realised as they were treated as second class citizens in terms of access to education, employment, housing and treatment by the police. They had to endure hardship and make sacrifices which they suffered in silence and kept hidden from their families. In addition, there was violence and hostility leading to race riots, uprisings and the growth of fascism on the streets in Britain where black and other ethnic minority communities lived in a fearful and unstable environment.

This was because politicians failed to tell the British public at the time that people from the Commonwealth were coming here to work in partnership to make Britain a better place for every one. Like the working class in Britain, people from the Commonwealth also had to deal with poverty and inequality aggravated by the Second World War. The seeds of poverty were in the 1930s with the working class taking action with the Jarrow March in Britain and major strike action and unrest in the Caribbean. In 1938 a Royal Commission was established called the Moyne Report which reported on the poverty and social inequality across the whole Caribbean. The report was also a project to test out the suitability of black people for self government. The recommendations were subsequently buried and not released till after World War II. Thus whether you came from whether Lancashire or Yorkshire, the Midlands, Jamaica, Barbados, Nigeria, Ghana, India or Sri Lanka, the working class internationally were in the same boat.

One of the key contributions of the Windrush Generation is making White Britain more civilised based on the shared acknowledgment of social injustice and the values of hard work, tolerance and respect. The long history and campaigns for racial equality and against the colour bar from the 1950s to the 1970s was the British equivalent of the civil rights movement. Race relations and subsequent human rights legislation on gender, disability and sexual orientation have made Britain more human and socially aware.

This was reinforced by cultural dialogue on musical taste, food and life style, and relationships by which Black, White, Asian and other communities created the multicultural nature, ethos and lifestyle which are now an accepted part of mainstream thinking and society.

The Windrush Generation is now disappearing as many of these pioneers are passing away or suffering from long term health conditions or languishing in residential and nursing homes, although a number emigrated back to the Caribbean. We need to acknowledge and preserve the legacy of these individuals and families that came during WW2 and after 1948 as part of the collective and symbolic generation called the Windrush Generation who laid the foundation and back bone of Black Britons and shaped the dynamics of social, cultural and political life over the last 60 years.

Despite the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, Human rights legislation and equalities impact assessment, racial inequalities are getting wider. The Caribbean, African diaspora communities are now forging a Black British identity no longer seeing the Labour Party as their natural home as the Tories tap into this frustration by selecting more black candidates in winnable seats as well as wooing active members of the Labour party at local level to switch allegiances running up to the general election in 2010. However, we know in the Labour movement that there is no genuine commitment to equality by the Tories or other political parties at Westminster. All is not lost as Labour Party still has time to engage with second and third generation of Black Britons to show that Labour still cares, values their contribution and is the party for social justice for the democratic left.

One of the most fitting tributes we can make as a nation is to consider having a national holiday to remind everyone of how today’s Britain came about as a result of the Windrush Generation and to promote the on-going discussion about migrant workers and refugee communities who are now at the bottom of the pile just like those who arrived on the MV Empire Windrush ship in 1948.

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