This terrible scandal shows us that racism is driven primarily from the top of society, not the bottom, argues Kevin Ovenden
Defence and immigration are meant to be areas which benefit the Tories and which Labour must avoid or triangulate over. That’s the conventional wisdom.
But like so much conventional wisdom over the last two years, it came crashing down this week. It started with the widespread and continuing public opposition to the Syria bombing. By mid-week the huge “Windrush scandal” of the deportation and hounding of African-Caribbean people who either came themselves or are the children of those who did, perfectly legally, and of the generations that built the NHS and fuelled the British economy in the post-war boom years.
And focusing popular anger over both is the hapless figure of Theresa May. On Monday she struggled in parliament to come up with a single reason why she joined the bombing of Syria without even a parliamentary vote. It left the most obvious explanation: that Donald Trump told her to. The image of “Trump’s poodle” was across even parts of the Tory press the following day and looks like it will sink deeper into the public mind as anti-war activities grow.
As the full viciousness of what has been done to Black British people in the Windrush scandal broke, May dodged and then apologised – but has only inflamed popular feeling. At Prime Minister’s Questions, the Tory benches cheered as she apparently deflected Jeremy Corbyn’s questions going right to the heart of her role and that of home secretary Amber Rudd.
But within minutes her claims were unravelling. She said that the decision to destroy the landing card documents proving people’s legal status had been taken by a Labour home secretary in 2009. An hour later, the civil service press operation revealed that not to be true. And two whistle-blowers went on to reconfirm that May had also been wrong to claim that the documents were not that important in any case.
She told MPs that London man Albert Thompson, who has been denied cancer treatment despite living in the country legally for 44 years, had now been told that he was to receive NHS treatment. But it was news to him, and to his lawyers. They had not been told. It looked like May making it up as she went along – adding insult to injury as a cancer patient found out from the Commons dispatch box, not from his doctors, whether his life might be saved or not.
And with no shred of decency, she refused to say whether those who have been deported or driven to immense distress by the scandal will be compensated or even allowed to return to the country they made their own and have contributed to all their adult lives.
Suddenly, a lot of people for the first time are getting a glimpse of the Kafkaesque nightmare of Britain’s racist anti-immigration home office and state structures. Only this time it is not directed at so-called “bogus asylum-seekers” or “benefits scroungers” or “NHS tourists” as both the Tories and the media smear so many.
It is – or could be – the Jamaican lady next door, who has worked in the NHS all her life. It is the Trinidadian guy whose dad drove a London bus all his life. It is a generation of Black people who, thanks to their own struggles, decades of anti-racist activities, and their involvement above all in the labour movement, are not what people mean when they talk of “immigration being a problem”.
And that means we are at a very significant moment. For much liberal and even some Tory tabloid opinion, it is a moment to admit to “a mistake” in order then to re-establish some distinction between “good immigrants” and bad or “illegal” ones.
But, as the 50th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s notorious Rivers of Blood speech this Friday reminds us, the victims of the Windrush scandal today, or their parents, were back in the late 1960s and in the 1970s the “bad immigrants” of yesterday in the propaganda of racists and of the Tory party.
Powell’s speech summoned up another image alongside “rivers of blood” arising from a “race war”. It is of “the black man holding the whip hand” – a shocking reversal in the mind of the British colonialist, imperialist and racist of what ought to be the order of things: the Black person on the receiving end of the whip.
Few beyond the fringe far right would openly endorse today Powell’s ravings of 50 years ago (though the BBC sees fit to broadcast his speech in full as if it were merely an historical curio). In fact, the Tory party will say that it distanced itself from Powell, who gave his address to a Tory association in Birmingham.
But the brigading of issues around immigration with outright racism has continued over these last 50 years. It is exactly what the Tory government and its Coalition predecessor have done – with Theresa May being in the cockpit, either at the Home Office or then as prime minister, throughout.
Corbyn, Diane Abbott and others made the point in parliament and many have driven it home outside. It was May’s policy of making Britain a “hostile place” for supposedly illegal immigrants that led directly to the injustices heaped upon people who are “legal” but Black.
Abbott made the point in parliament speaking against the 2014 legislation that drove on the abuse of the “Windrush generation”. She said that it would have exactly this impact. Corbyn in also voting against it – one of only a handful – said it dangerously gave the government the power to make people resident in Britain stateless. It is that power that has been used to deport people who have worked in Britain all their lives.
This is why this cannot be a moment to restrict the argument only to the injustice faced by African-Caribbean people at the hands of this Tory government. It runs deeper. Indeed, it was the hardline anti-asylum-seeker policies of Home Secretaries under New Labour and their accommodation to racist immigration restrictions that gave May a temporary reprieve on Wednesday. When she said that the blame lay with New Labour home secretaries Jacqui Smith and Alan Johnson it could appear plausible, such were their draconian policies.
As it turns out, the clear responsibility lies with May and her home secretary: both for the scandal itself and for the wider policy out of which it flowed.
This is a moment to widen the argument, not restrict it to “special cases” of monstrous injustice. If the home office is deporting people who just about everyone accepts is a British citizen contributing to the well-being of the country, do you think those locked up in Yarl’s Wood detention centre on account of being “illegal” are being treated fairly?
If documents of people from the Caribbean are destroyed by state officials, do you think that Muslim people from Pakistan or Bangladesh are properly treated by similar state officials – or EU migrants, or cleaners from Colombia on less than a living wage tidying up the casino offices of the City of London?
To widen the argument and to focus it. Much establishment effort has gone into trying to prevent what is a strong basic anti-racist sentiment in Britain having a political focus in recent years.
Virtually every politician claims to be against racism. And – pointing to horrible bigotry in parts of society or on social media – they have tried to elevate themselves as somehow above all that.
A particularly cynical aspect of that manoeuvring has been the Tory campaign, playing fast and loose with genuine instances of anti-Jewish prejudice, to claim falsely that “Labour has an anti-semitism problem”.
Well, one thing the Windrush scandal shows is this. It is not some random reactionary who deported Black people from Britain who had been here all their lives. It is not some ignorant racist thug who denied an African-Caribbean man cancer treatment.
That was done by the be-suited and respectable British state. It was done by a home secretary, now prime minister, from a very proper Home Counties vicarage and with a degree from Oxford University to boot: Theresa May.
We have been reminded this week of just how political the question of racism is, and how central it is to the British establishment and its party: the Tories.
That is the important understanding unfolding for very many people this week. That the fight against racism leads directly to the political battle to oust this rotten government.
Racism goes beyond that and is embedded in the capitalist system and in its techniques of divide and rule. But the principal problem is not among any of us at the bottom but with those at the top.
But striking a blow now against the Tories – on each front, from war through racism to ending austerity and hitting them at the ballot box on the 3rd May – will be a major advance.
It is time to deport Theresa May from office.
Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.
More articles from this author
- Witchfinder Starmer must be stopped: this is a fight for all the left
- The struggles are fusing: Greece protests rage against authoritarianism
- Starmer's flag fetish: win the middle ground, don’t chase it
- Vaccine nationalism: a plague on all our houses
- Impeachment will not defeat Trumpism
- We need to learn from the mistakes of Brexit past
- Keir Starmer's Brexit opportunism