Brexit Britain, the Windrush Scandal and the Power of Pro-Test

The drama that is the spectacular rise and fall of UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party, aired its series finale in British local elections in May of this year. The sensational death throes of the UKIP leadership grabbed newspaper headlines, as the demise of the party finally became known in results that showed a heamorrhaging of popular support.

Compared to 2014, and 2016, when the former leader, Nigel Farage, had caused a series of political earthquakes, first leading UKIP to victory in the European Elections, and then succeeding in the UKIP-inspired campaign to Leave the European Union, the failure of the party to win more than three council seats in this year’s local elections appeared to be evidence of an embarrassingly quick decline and fall.

However, rather than rushing to celebrate this turn of events, and breathe yet another sigh of relief about dogged determination in the UK to resist and defeat each and every reconfiguration of right-wing anti-immigrant, anti-multi-cultural nationalist politics whether in the form of the National Front, the British National Party, UKIP, or Britain First, I felt deeply concerned. I knew that despite UKIP having achieved its central mission of triggering the removal of Britain from the European Union and, therefore, having no reason to justify its own existence anymore, there was more to this loss of support for UKIP than met the eye. I knew that this series finale was not the end of the story.

Series 2: The Sleeper Bomb

In 2017, when the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, called a snap General Election - to try to increase her majority in parliament and, therefore, gain greater authority at Westminster to influence Brexit negotiations – the signs of a loss of support for UKIP appeared to be good news, but there was no reason for celebration. This was because the Conservative Party strategy, of unashamedly adopting for itself the rhetoric and policies of UKIP, had been intensified in the desperate attempt to win more votes. A calculated gamble had clearly been taken in the Conservative Party to legitimize and make more mainstream a right-wing political position. By making palatable again what had long been unspeakable in mainstream British politics - an anti-immigrant, anti-multicultural British nationalism (built on an English version of ethnic exclusivity and cultural parochialism)  - the UK now showed itself on the international stage with the USA and other countries in Europe, as also being complicit in the dangerous game of right-wing racist populism.

Controversial as this political development is, the success of the strategy (despite growing resistance from Jeremy’s Corbyn’s increasingly credible and popular Momentum movement for a re-visioning of the left-wing of British politics), has now been demonstrated in the final dramatic decline of support for UKIP and the transfer to the Conservative Party of the majority of those 123 council seats lost by UKIP in the local elections this year. It is not surprising then that rather than lamenting their decline and fall, UKIP leaders are now celebrating what appears to be their ultimate success; not only have they cleverly and subversively contributed to the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union, they have, with their own demise, planted a sleeper bomb at the heart of the British political establishment.

This sleeper bomb, dormant at the point of its attachment, has gathered in power as it has held fast to its host in the Home Office and only now – in the form of the Windrush Scandal explained below - is it beginning to show the force of its destructive power. No wonder that rather than commiserating himself on the catastrophic results of the local elections, the UKIP General Secretary recently described the political upheaval caused by the party in positive terms, as a kind of medieval scourge, or Black Death that clears the ground for new growth.

The Empire Windrush

Empire Windrush is the name of the ship that provided transport to Britain, in 1948, to 1027 passengers, 802 of whom gave their last place of residence as a country in the Caribbean. When the ship docked in Kingston it was en route from Australia to England and had stopped in Jamaica to pick up servicemen who were on leave (10,000 men from the West Indies fought for Britain in WWII). The British Nationality Act of 1948 had just been passed by the Labour government, which granted citizenship and British passports to all British subjects of the United Kingdom and Colonies. This meant that these citizens could now settle indefinitely in the UK without immigration restrictions and travel on British passports.

Responding to the opportunity provided by the new immigration act, the chance was taken by the British government to try to fill the empty spaces on the Empire Windrush. An advertisement was placed in Jamaica offering cheap transport to anyone who wanted to travel to the UK to try to find work.  As a result, demand for tickets soon exceeded supply. This was the beginning of an enthusiastic response in the Caribbean to the invitation from Britain, after the devastation of World War II, to provide labour to rebuild the country and staff its public services including the new National Health Service. By 1971, half a million British citizens from the Caribbean had responded to the invitation of government to join the workforce in the ‘motherland’ and these people became known as the Windrush Generation. 

Even though the Empire Windrush also contained migrants from other parts of the world (including Polish men, women and children who had been living in exile in Mexico after having escaped Siberian labour camps during the Second World War) the ship became famous as a symbol of the first large-scale migration of Black Caribbean British citizens to the UK. Many iconic photographs captured the hopeful moment of disembarkation at Tilbury Docks and later, the testimonies of those migrants who travelled to the UK told tales of extraordinary resilience in the face of what turned out to be a harsh and unwelcoming environment in Britain. In a country whose history of empire had taught its residents to be racist and xenophobic, migrants from the Caribbean, and their children, faced decades of heroic struggle as they settled in the UK, staked their claim as British citizens to their right to belong, and persevered to make an invaluable contribution to the economic prosperity and cultural life of Britain.

 In 1971, in a move that was interpreted as evidence of increasingly racist immigration policies, the Conservative government in the UK gave preferential treatment to white migrants from the Commonwealth countries of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, but stopped the permanent migration of workers from other countries of the Commonwealth including the Caribbean. At the same time, the rights of the Windrush Generation and other long-standing migrants from the Commonwealth residing in Britain were clarified and protected before the UK entered the European Union in 1973. The new immigration act afforded important legal protections to the Windrush Generation and their fellow British citizens of the Commonwealth in the form of indefinite leave to remain in the UK. However, the Home Office did not issue these citizens with any paperwork and nor did the government keep a record of those who had decided to stay. This did not become a problem until over forty years later, in 2012, when Theresa May, the current Prime Minister of Britain, who was then Conservative Home Secretary, set about creating an aggressively xenophobic set of immigration policy measures called the Hostile Environment.

In the context of the emerging threat to the Conservative Party of UKIP - the right-wing, anti-Europe, anti-multicultural, anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party – Theresa May’s policy strategy was to quickly prove that it was the Conservative government that was tough on illegal immigration and no need, therefore, for people to vote for UKIP. New legislation and regulation meant that migrants now did not just face interrogation and the need to provide proof of their status at the border of Britain, but within the nation too their eligibility to be in Britain was questioned. Measures were implemented in the Immigration Act of 2014 that meant that employers, landlords, banks, healthcare providers, universities, pension providers etc. were for the first time forced to become the watchdogs of the state. The aim was to prove that the Conservative Party could tackle illegal immigration, reduce immigration figures overall and thereby, neutralise the growing popularity of UKIP. Controversially, targets were set for reducing immigration that created a culture of ‘deport first and appeal later’ and a system of bonuses that rewarded civil servants in the home office, and their private sub-contractors, for detentions and deportations of suspected illegal migrants. Worst of all, the embarkation records of Windrush citizens were destroyed by the Home Office and vans, with the message “Go Home” written on them, were driven through areas of London to spread fear among migrant populations.

For the Windrush Generation and their fellow long-standing Commonwealth citizens of Britain, the consequences of the new immigration measures have been catastrophic. The way in which the disgrace of the scandalous treatment of these people, (many of whom are now, of course, elderly and frail), has emerged has been insidious. Rather than resting secure in the knowledge of the legal protections that previous immigration acts afforded to them, members of the Windrush Generation and their children suddenly found that they were being denied their rights to housing, employment, travel, healthcare, banking, pensions etc. that they had enjoyed as their legal right in previous decades. The reason for this is that when the 2014 Immigration Act passed into law the paragraph that provided legal protection to Commonwealth citizens who had arrived in Britain before 1973 had been removed without consultation. This affront to democracy – the secret removal of critical wording in the legislation – lies at the very heart of the Windrush scandal. Unaware of the omission, or its impending consequence, opposition politicians, and the media, were shocked to discover that little by little, one family at a time, a terrible miscarriage of justice had been unfolding. 

The Hostile Environment meant that without any warning British citizens who had in some cases been in the UK for five decades, paying taxes, contributing to society, and exercising their legal right to belong to Britain suddenly had to prove their right to enjoy the benefits of British citizenship. And of course, because the Immigration Act of 1971 had not required there to be either any form of government record of these long-standing citizens of the Commonwealth, or for these citizens to hold paperwork as proof of their citizenship, it was not going to be a simple matter for this proof to now be provided. Part of the problem was that the burden of proof was placed on those who had long enjoyed respected status and who were now suffering the humiliation of being accused of being illegal immigrants in their own country. In addition, the cost to each family member of having to provide documentary proof of their status, lodge an application with the Home Office, and seek legal advice, ran into thousands of pounds, which for many families was completely out of reach. The prohibitive cost, combined with the difficulty of accessing paperwork as proof of every year they had been in the UK, meant the most vulnerable of these citizens found themselves evicted from housing, unable to continue to work in Britain, unable to access their pension and denied healthcare on the NHS. For some, detention and deportation followed.

Ironically, this year – June 2018 - marks the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush to Britain and, in April, when the Windrush story broke in the media, largely thanks to the dedicated work of journalists such as The Guardian’s Amelia Gentleman, the country was supposed to be gearing up for a cascade of national celebrations. Instead, the scale of the Windrush Scandal was beginning to emerge, casting a terrible shadow over preparations for Windrush festivities and this eventually led to the dramatic resignation of the Home Secretary – Amber Rudd MP.

The Resistance Movement

On the 16th April, David Lammy – Labour Member of Parliament for the London Borough of Tottenham - was compelled to hold the Conservative government to account for the national shame of its disgraceful treatment of the Windrush Generation. Barely able to contain his rage, David Lammy directly addressed the Conservative Home Secretary - Amber Rudd MP - and single-handedly, he gave her a lesson in the inseparable history of Black people in Britain dating back to the 16th Century. He then demolished the inadequate response of the Home Office to the emerging details of the inhumane and cruel harassment/deportations/detainments of thousands of British-Caribbean citizens.

The video of David Lammy’s speech went viral on social media and touched a nerve in the nation. What has followed is an outpouring of support as he continues to spearhead the fight to hold the government to account. Demanding a proper apology from the Home Office, David Lammy clarified in no uncertain terms the ways in which the government had embarrassed itself by its treatment of the Windrush Generation and its underestimation of the outrage this would generate in the nation among fellow citizens whose lives have been enriched by the invaluable contribution Caribbean migrants have made to British society.

Humiliated by David Lammy, and forced to take the fall for Prime Minister, Theresa May, who had been the architect of the Hostile Environment at the Home Office, Amber Rudd was forced to publically apologise for what she described as the unintended consequences of the 2014 Immigration Act and she announced a special Windrush Task Force to make good on the devastation caused to Caribbean-British lives. Two weeks later, after having denied that she knew about illegal immigration targets, and could not, therefore, be held personally to blame, the Home Secretary was forced to resign after leaked documents showed that she had in fact written to the Prime Minister promising a 10% increase in deportations.

Creeping Fascism

In David Lammy’s speech, as he lambasted Amber Rudd and the role of the government in the Windrush Scandal, he declared furiously: “Let us call it as it is, if you lie down with dogs you get fleas and that is what has happened with this far right rhetoric in this country.” Bringing public and political attention to the flirtation of the British government with the politics of the far-right, David Lammy made an indirect, but important connection between the Windrush Scandal and the wholesale adoption by the government of the UKIP agenda.

My own concern, as I reacted not with surprise, but with an urgent sense of outrage, to breaking news about the Windrush Scandal was that finally, here was the evidence of creeping fascism at the heart of the British political establishment. Before this, it could easily have been said that it was obvious that the Conservative Government was shifting to the right, or that there was evidence of growing support for the far right among British voters, but to describe the Windrush Scandal as an example of creeping fascism was another matter.

In articles published in 2017 and 2012, and a book in 2006, I attempted to explain to public and academic audiences the transformations of strategy at the heart of the reconfiguration of a politics of the far-right in Britain. I explained Brexit as the result, in part, of the Labour Party having abandoned its traditional working class supporters in the post-industrial urban heartlands of Britain and I showed how the political vacuum created by this abandonment made space for the growth in popularity first of the fascist British National Party and then the populist far-right UK Independence Party (UKIP).

What has to be brought to public attention now, not just in the UK, but also across Europe and in the USA, is the danger of fascism in our midst. To be clear, this does not mean being able to say that certain nation states are now definitively fascist, even though places like Hungary are not far away from this. Rather, it is about calling out and protesting against the gradual erosion of democracy that increasingly xenophobic, authoritarian, and, therefore potentially fascist, governments imply. In Hungary, for example, the Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, has boasted of his country’s ‘Illiberal democracy’. The Hungarian parliament has this month passed legislation that makes it impossible for refugees to seek asylum, and it has become a criminal offence to help migrants and refugees. George Soros, the famous Hungarian billionaire is withdrawing his charitable foundation from Budapest, because of a ‘repressive political and legal environment’ and the Central European University, which is the source of a strong critical voice in Hungary, may similarly be driven out of the country by repressive measures. Journalists who critique the government are also facing similar pressures. Most shocking is that all this has happened at the same time as Hungary has enjoyed the freedoms of membership of the European Union. UKIP too, built its popularity – paradoxically - as an anti-European party on the back of success in the European elections.

Other European nations are beginning to call for Hungary to be expelled from the European Union, because of human rights abuses in its treatment of refugees. The assault on the independence of the judiciary and the restrictions of free speech have also been the reason for the expression of similar and growing causes of concern. However, the European Union appears to be impotent in the face of growing concerns about authoritarian compromises to fundamental principles of social democracy. Meanwhile, fascism creeps through gradual political tests of what the people will tolerate in terms of a reconfiguration of democratic freedoms, increasing xenophobia and other repressive conservative measures such as the regulation of religion and sexuality.  

The President of the United States, Donald Trump, in the latest version of his attempt to fuel patriotic nationalism by closing down the border to foreign migrants, recently escalated the American version of the Hostile Environment by separating migrant children, at the border with Mexico, from their parents and placing the children in camps, or centres for the concentration of ‘undesirable others’, from where the children are then distributed around the country. The outrage of the majority of the American people about this scandalous and inhumane treatment of migrant families has taught Donald Trump an important lesson and forced him to think again. The lesson is that if authoritarian politicians go too far, the people will exercise their freedom to resist and the steady creep of the assault on democracy then has to be pulled back. It is a dangerous dance. No wonder that Madeleine Albright, former Home Secretary, 2001-2007 under Bill Clinton’s presidency, has just published a best-selling book entitled Fascism: a warning.

Similarly, in the UK, the government has learned an important lesson. It has tried to see what it could get away with, gambling on an increase in its authority by creating a hostile environment for migrants to satisfy the desire of its new-found right-wing supporters who crave a patriotic cultural nationalism based on the exclusion of anyone who might be forced to feel that they are not fully British and should ‘go back to their own country’. But a significant proportion of people in Britain have made clear to the British government that an illegal, cruel, inhumane and creeping assault on democratic principles will not be tolerated. This is why it is vitally important that the power of free speech, the power of a free media and an independent judiciary are fully exercised as critical acts of dissent. And that is why when the Windrush Scandal came to light and my 24-year-old daughter was deeply moved and compelled to action by David Lammy’s speech in parliament, she turned to me and said, “… but what can we do?” And I replied without hesitation: “we must resist.”


Often, my undergraduate students feel dispirited, because they are overwhelmed by what they learn in anthropology about the depth and scale of social injustice in the world. Repeatedly, they express their sense of helplessness as individuals, saying, “what can I do, I am just one person?” This, I have recently come to understand, is part of the problem of youthful political inertia – the mistaken idea that individuals act alone and that action can only be taken if there is certainty about the outcome.

Instead, a spirit of experimentation and productive uncertainty is to be encouraged that reframes acts of dissent as a test of what is possible - a try-out – or process of shared enquiry that examines and reveals the cultural politics of the contemporary moment through the social struggle to argue for and make real an alternative vision of the current state of affairs. This reframing of political involvement as a process of social experimentation might best be described as PRO-TEST. A case in point is the #WeAreAllWindrush t-shirt campaign.

instagram: @weareallwindrush

twitter: @allwindrush

Organised as a social media movement, the #WeAreAllWindrush campaign is the brainchild and heartfelt expression of outrage of my daughter – the actress Fola Evans-Akingbola - and I as an immediate response to the Windrush Scandal. The experiment was to see how quickly and effectively protest art might be mobilised to counteract racist government immigration policy with a symbolic gesture of solidarity that argues for and reinforces the idea of Britain as a racially diverse, inclusive and democratic society that honours and respects all who are part of it.

We first came up with a hashtag - #WeAreAllWindrush – that expresses an optimistic defiance of the government’s attempt to separate the Windrush Generation from their honoured place at the heart of British society. My daughter then approached an artist, Cressida Djambov, who replied at once to accept the challenge of the brief, and within a week she had designed the most beautiful protest art in the form of a brilliant subversion of the royal postage stamp. Where the Queen of England’s head would have been, the face of either a Windrush man, or a Windrush woman had now been drawn. The result was beautifully disruptive of national symbolism and, at the same time, the stamp commemorated the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush to Britain.

Fola then went on to find an online print-on-demand t-shirt company that supports charitable and protest clothing movements, and the idea was born that if we could produce good quality t-shirts and encourage people to wear them in solidarity with the Windrush Generation, we could raise awareness about the scandal, and use fashion to raise funds to pay the legal fees of those affected by the scandal. By resisting the Hostile Environment, we are commemorating the legacy of the invaluable contribution of Caribbean and Commonwealth migrants to Britain.

Momentum for the campaign was generated first at the protest outside 10 Downing Street and the march on the Home Office mobilised by anti-racist organisations on the 4th May 2018. Fola spent the week making her first political placards and her dedication paid off: as soon as we arrived, proudly bearing our messages of protest, we were surrounded by photographers and put front and centre of the gathering and at the head of the march. The press photographs of the placards became symbolic of the day of dissent and featured in international news media. It was a take off moment, and gave us the initial visual material to start our campaign on instagram with the promise of campaign t-shirts to follow. Within a few days Fola had designed the t-shirt website and ordered a sample in every design and colour. When the tees arrived we could not have been more excited and Fola proudly posted the first photo of herself wearing the t-shirt on instagram, twitter and facebook.

This was just the beginning of what has now become a gathering multi-racial social movement. Hundreds of people have now ordered t-shirts and posted pictures of themselves wearing their tees on their social media pages. British celebrities of stage and screen, award-winning entrepreneurs, and other public figures very quickly got on board with the campaign and have lent their popularity and social connections to the movement. Activists in the USA are also now starting to support the campaign and collaborate in gathering support from across the Atlantic. Every day, as new posts come in, it is heartening to see and feel the sense of solidarity and to read messages of support and stories about what Windrush means to people either because someone has an intimate family connection, and shares heritage with a person from the Windrush Generation, or because people feel passionately that the government’s actions have disgraced everything that we hold dear about our proudly multicultural nation.

The campaign has created an opportunity for people to protest against injustice and, in a very short period of time, the second fund-raising target of £2000 has been met. All profits made from the sale of t-shirts go to the Windrush Justice Fund (organised by Patrick Vernon, the tireless campaigner for recognition of the Windrush Generation), which is collaborating with the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants to provide free legal advice and support to those families whose lives have been turned upside down by the Windrush Scandal. This matters, because the free legal advice that would have been available to these families is no longer readily available as a result of increasing cuts to legal aid and barristers have recently called for strike action to protest against the diminished rights of people living in poverty to access legal advice. Thus, the Windrush Scandal is beginning to stand for more than itself; it is becoming a potent symbol of the growing threat to social justice in our nation – a threat we must resist.

How to Support the Campaign

  • Buy a t-shirt – post a picture of yourself on social media wearing your tee, and make sure you @weareallwindrush on instragram or @allwindrush on twitter, so that we can repost and keep building momentum for the campaign – add a note about why the #weareallwindrush campaign matters to you.
  • Encourage friends and family to get their tees too.
  • All profits raised from sales of t-shirts go to the Windrush Justice Fund, which is providing legal advice to members of the Windrush Generation who would not otherwise be able to afford legal advice
  • Write, or send an email to your MP – you might want to use the template below for your letter to ask some or all of the following questions
  • If you aren’t sure who your Member of Parliament is, use this link to find out: and you can then use a google search to find your MP and their email and twitter addresses
  • Use twitter to send any one of the questions below to your MP to maintain a public conversation about the Windrush scandal - be sure to include @allwindrush and use #weareallwindrush
  • Include the t-shirt link in your letter and tweets to your MP to bring awareness to the campaign

Dear X

I am concerned about human rights abuses at the heart of government affecting the #WindrushGeneration and would like answers to the following questions:

  • When will the government announce a hardship fund for the families whose lives have been turned upside down by the Windrush scandal?
  • When will the government report on the whereabouts and welfare of those Windrush individuals who have been wrongfully deported or detained?
  • When will the legal protections afforded to longstanding migrants from the Commonwealth be reinstated after they were removed in the 2014 immigration Act?
  • Why is the Home Office refusing to release the paperwork for public scrutiny that would allow a full enquiry into who Is responsible for this scandal and who exactly has been affected by it and with what outcome?
  • Will the government publicise the amounts paid and the names of all those people to whom financial bonuses have been given for meeting detention and deportation targets illegally applied to the Windrush Generation?
  • When will the government find the courage to show the world the kind of Britain we believe in - diverse, inclusive, democratic and honouring of all those who are part of it?
  • When will the hostile environment be dismantled?