Over the past two years, it’s been all too easy to blame every national failing on the vote to leave the European Union. And of course there have been legitimate reasons to do so. Our reputation abroad has taken a hit, public respect for the media is in free-fall, neither political party inspires much trust and the very idea of a ‘United’ Kingdom now seems laughable.
The scandal surrounding the so-called Windrush generation cannot be blamed on Brexit, however. The appalling treatment by the Home Office of those who arrived in this country between the 1940s and 1970s, in what was one of the first waves of Commonwealth immigration, has a cause that has nothing to do with ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’. Long before the referendum it was Theresa May, then head of the Home Office, who sought to meet the Conservative-led coalition’s impossible goal to reduce net immigration to below 100,000. In her effort to achieve this, she exhausted every possible avenue, at one stage even hoping to put the children of illegal immigrants at the bottom of the list for school places until there was a Cabinet backlash. May’s policies, fuelled by increasingly aggressive Government rhetoric (‘When we find you, and we will find you, we’ll make sure you are sent back to the country you came from’), became increasingly draconian until those who were here legally found their status under threat as well. A 2013 pamphlet even told deportees to ‘try to be “Jamaican”, use local accents and dialect’, adding that ‘overseas accents attract unwanted attention’. One hesitates before making extreme historical comparisons, but it was enlightening to hear from Lord Kerslake, the former head of the civil service, that some coalition ministers believed May’s crackdown was ‘reminiscent of Nazi Germany.’
This week, it was revealed that Inga Lockington, a Liberal Democrat councillor of nearly 20 years’ standing and a resident of this country for almost 40 years, was denied UK citizenship. She will not be deported, having been granted indefinite leave to remain when she first moved here from Denmark in 1979, but nevertheless the rejection of her application, which cost over £1,000 to submit, is insulting. This case, and Windrush––and there are countless other examples that have not yet made the news––are indicative of the shambles that is our immigration set-up, Brexit or no Brexit. One might also mention the attempt to restrict student visas in 2016, and the comments made by Kingsley Manning, head of NHS Digital, who said the Home Office ‘put him under immense pressure’ to share patient data in an attempt to track down immigration offenders in 2017.
From policy to legislation and implementation, our immigration system needs to be sorted out. The hangover from David Cameron’s over-ambitious immigration pledge, and Theresa May’s increasingly authoritarian efforts to carry it out, has manifested in the intimidation and dehumanisation of British citizens by the government at a time when foreign-born Britons are already, tragically, feeling uncomfortable. But what should we expect from a government that deliberately created a ‘hostile environment’ in the ridiculous hope that people would ‘self-deport’? We must never forget how such a policy led to the under-reporting of crime against undocumented people due to fear and arrest, and we must not forget how difficult this cruel policy made life even for those here legally.
It wasn’t long ago that the BBC chose to air Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, in which he likened immigration to ‘watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre’. Thankfully, in the decades since, Britain has on the whole grown vastly more tolerant, but there are shades of the kind of xenophobia Powell was exhibiting in the treatment of immigrants in recent years. There are stories of children living without one of their parents due to a clampdown on spousal visas, and landlords refusing to rent to people with foreign accents or names for fear of fudging the paperwork. These are not the rotten fruits of a small-c conservative policy or even of a reactionary policy. Instead, they represent attempts to drag the UK, kicking and screaming, backwards into a past that never in fact existed.