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Drawbridge Britain – Where Did the Hostile Environment Against Immigrants Come From?

Russell Hargrave

In March 2018, the Guardian published a story about a man whom they called Albert Thompson. No one knew it at the time but, amid the grind of news about Brexit and the impact of austerity, the paper was about to expose one of the greatest failures in public policy of modern times. They were about to break the Windrush scandal.

Thompson’s story was tragic and baffling. Here was a British citizen, born in Jamaica, who had arrived in London in the 1970s to join his mum, who was already working here as a nurse. He lived in a council house, worked in Britain for decades, paid his taxes, and then retired. But one day in 2017, Thompson was asked for a British passport to prove he was entitled to stay in his house. He didn’t have a passport because he had never applied for one. So he was evicted, and ended up homeless, sleeping in doorways. Then he found he had cancer – and was told that in the absence of a passport he would also be charged for his NHS treatment: £54,000. “I don’t have 54 pence,” Thompson told the paper, “let alone £54,000.” This was the first in a flood of stories about British citizens from that generation and their families who, having come here from former colonies in the West Indies, were suddenly being punished by draconian new rules. The government, in a bid to get tough on illegal immigration, had passed laws demanding that people produce more and more documents before they could access homes and healthcare and jobs. The rationale was that this would make it easier to identify people who shouldn’t be in Britain. In reality, it meant that Thompson’s decision not to get himself a British passport resulted in him being cast out on the streets. Hundreds of other Caribbean-born Brits lost their jobs and their homes, too, trapped by officials as they trawled people’s paperwork for any discrepancies. At least sixty people were locked up in detention centres. Some were kicked out of the country they had lived in all their lives, others were trapped overseas unable to come back into Britain. Ministers called the policies the ‘hostile environment.’ It left shattered lives in its wake. But as shocking as these ideas were, they weren’t new. Hostile policy towards immigrants, cooked up in Whitehall to discomfort and demonise newcomers to these shores, has its own long, shameful history.

No sooner had HMS Windrush arrived in Tilbury docks in 1948, heralding the start of large-scale migration from the Caribbean to modern Britain, than government hostility to migrants followed. It mattered little, apparently, that the government, faced with crippling labour shortages, had actively invited in British citizens from the former colonies. Or that a parliamentary act in 1948 explicitly restated Britain’s commitment to free movement across the whole empire. Nervously eyeing public scepticism about immigration, just four years after the Windrush docked Prime Minister Winston Churchill tried to block-off that route. He summoned officials across Whitehall and demanded evidence of problems caused by Caribbean immigrants, so that he had justification for policies which barred them from travelling. The racist undertones here were hard to miss: migration from the so-called ‘white dominions’ – white-majority countries like New Zealand and Australia – attracted no such panic. Churchill’s plans hit a snag, though. The officials sent away to uncover proof of all the problems caused by Caribbean migrants reported back that no evidence could be found.

Future governments had fewer qualms, though. The drawbridge into Britain, down when the country needed economic help after a world war, was slowly cranked up again. New laws were passed to restrict the numbers of British citizens who could travel here: to bar entry unless for family members or someone with a voucher for a job (1962); to block Asian British citizens trying to flee upheaval in Kenya (1968); to allow in only citizens whose grandparents had been born in Britain (1971). This last law was especially blatant about race. The door was left open to families which had been born in Britain and then left for the colonies (the overwhelming majority of whom would be white), but was closed firmly in the faces of black British citizens born overseas. “Of course they are more likely to be white,” said Home Secretary Reginald Maudling when asked who would benefit from the new law. And that was that.
Zip forward to the end of the decade, and Margaret Thatcher stood on the brink of power. The Labour government under James Callaghan was exhausted. It was 1978: Britain was a year out from a general election. Thatcher, the first woman to lead her party, was within touching distance of becoming the first woman to lead the whole country.
But she needed to get over the line. It was time for some hard-nosed politics. In this spirit, Thatcher agreed to an interview on ITV’s flagship current affairs programme World in Action. This allowed her to speak directly with 23 million viewers (a staggering reach: by comparison today, around two million people tune into Andrew Marr on a Sunday morning). Social media was decades away: if a politician wanted to make their case before a mass audience, this was how to do it. And so she sat down to talk about the economy, the ailing state of our high streets – and to mislead everyone about immigration. The interview became famous for the language Thatcher chose, as she warned that newcomers were “swamping” some parts of Britain. (This sort of language has always proved irresistible to some political leaders: David Cameron would come under fire thirty-five years later for describing a “swarm” of migrants at the British border). But in many ways it is more notable for something else she said.

Immigration was too high, Thatcher contended, ignoring the fact that for several years more people had been leaving Britain than arriving here. In front of her audience of millions, she proposed her solution: “Either you go on taking in forty or fifty thousand [immigrants] a year, which is far too many,” Thatcher said, “or you say we must hold out the prospect of a clear end to immigration, and that is the view we have taken.” It couldn’t be much clearer. There were “far too many” migrants arriving each year, Thatcher said, and she wanted to reduce the number to zero. Within a year, she was in Number 10. And what happened? Immigration didn’t drop to zero. Commonwealth migration to Britain continued at about forty thousand people a year, exactly the rate Thatcher had warned about. She had whipped up a storm around immigration for political purposes, but nothing then changed. Voters may have felt like they’d been taken for a ride, but the real victims were immigrants themselves. The new Prime Minister had publicly declared that newcomers were “swamping” the country and that their numbers should be controlled. It was hostile rhetoric which wasn’t then matched by policy. The effect was to stoke public fear of migrants an extra notch, whose lives were made that little bit more miserable as a result.

Immigration policy chugged along for another decade with few changes. By the 1990s, it was the Conservative government’s turn to look exhausted. John Major may have upset the odds and hung on at the 1992 General Election, but in 1997 he was swiped to one side by a landslide New Labour victory. It was a big enough win for Labour to set about changing the country radically and quickly. Immigration was one such area. Plenty has been written about Labour policy in the last years of the ‘90s and the first of the millennium, but through a combination of opening European borders and relaxing visa rules outside Europe, the government added an estimated 2.5 million foreign-born workers to the British population in a little over a decade. The change was substantial.
But even here, ministers hurried to cook-up hostile policies, nearly all focused on asylum seekers, who fast became the scapegoats for all manner of social ills. There were a lot of asylum claims in the early 2000s (more than 100,000 people and their families applied to be refugees here in 2004 alone, a staggering number which almost crippled the Home Office bureaucracy). But the New Labour government, in keeping with administrations which had gone before, responded not by fixing that bureaucracy but with a flurry of hostile legislation.

Across four separate immigration acts – in 1999, 2002, 2004 and 2006 – Labour introduced tighter and tighter rules against asylum seekers. They were stripped of mainstream benefits and banned from working to support themselves, and instead given vouchers which were only accepted in certain supermarkets (“a humiliating procedure which more or less branded the recipients as imposters,” wrote the historian Robert Winder). Asylum seekers were dispatched all over the country with no right over where they ended up living; families with friends and family in Bristol could be shipped off to Glasgow at a moment’s notice. Then a list of safe countries was drawn up, to which asylum seekers could be returned more readily. Bafflingly, and horrifyingly, this included Albania, the centre of European trafficking networks, so that victims of modern slavery faced being sent right back to their abusers. By 2004, the government threatened to withhold even basic financial support for people who had been refused asylum. Ministers said they should just return home, but many asylum seekers wouldn’t have been allowed back into countries ravaged by ongoing civil war, places like Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo. So people remained here instead, destitute and stuck. All of this was rolled-out alongside an aggressive media strategy which saw repeated pledges to “clamp down” on asylum seekers, who were openly assumed by many officials and even ministers to be economic migrants in disguise. By the dying days of New Labour in 2010, its politicians had themselves started using the phrase ‘hostile environment,’ even if this mindset wasn’t yet at the strategic heart of government immigration policy. Soon enough, it was.

We have already seen that ministers in a panic about immigration rush to legislate. Theresa May was no different. First as Home Secretary in 2014, and then as a Prime Minister unshackled from coalition partners in 2016, she introduced her own bills to make the hostile environment into reality. This is what trapped Albert Thompson and so many of his peers. The new laws moved immigration control away from the borders and into private life. Now landlords were required to scrutinise identity documents before letting out homes; employers had to run more background checks, as did banks; immigration officers got more powers equivalent to those given to the police; and the government started a huge data sharing exercise so that the Home Office could see information about who needed NHS care and where kids went to school. A lot of this work took place below the radar of public attention, but the now famous Go Home vans – trucks driven around the most multi-cultural parts of London in 2015, carrying hoardings showing the number of people arrested locally for immigration offences – were its public face. Thompson, a man who was British by birth and had lived and worked here for four decades, was undone by policies which swept across the private lives of citizens. By the time his case was uncovered, those policies had caused chaos to thousands of lives. Thompson’s case got proper scrutiny, eventually, and only after the Guardian had blown the lid off the Windrush scandal. He got the cancer treatment he needed. Other victims are in a queue for compensation for the damage done to their lives. They are the latest list of people on the receiving end of Britain’s historic hostility towards immigrants. But it is a long list, going back almost as far as modern immigration itself. And they are unlikely to be the last. Very unlikely indeed.

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