The Windrush fiasco is now being portrayed as a slip-up in the delivery if an otherwise good policy. It is much worse than that. The flaw lies in the policy itself – the deliberate cultivation of a "really hostile environment" for anyone in the country illegally.
Having persuaded itself that illegal immigrants were a major problem – or, to be cynical, having decided that giving that impression would attract voters to the Tory flag – the Government decided to make life almost impossible for anyone who could not prove their right to be in the United Kingdom. They had to produce the correct papers to rent or buy property, to take a job or to receive medical treatment.
So whether they liked it or not – and most of them definitely did not – estate agents, employers, GPs and hospital staff became enforcers of the Government's "hostile environment" immigration policy. If they failed to do so they faced a stiff fine. Almost overnight, anyone with a black or brown face became a suspect as an illegal immigrant unless they could prove otherwise. Proving otherwise, of course, was often virtually impossible.
What the Government wilfully refused to acknowledge were two aspects of this bizarre and barbaric policy: that it was extremely harmful to community relations; and that a significant number of people would be caught in the dragnet who were not illegal at all. Many of them came to Britain as children in the years between 1945 and 1975, travelling on the passport of parents who were citizens of the British colonies in what were then termed the West Indies.
Many of these parents, indeed, came as a result of British recruitment drives, to fill staffing gaps in public transport and the health service. The first ship to reach Britain with an organised group of West Indians on board was called the Windrush – hence they became known as the Windrush Generation. Nobody knows how many there are, and estimates range from 50,000 to ten times that number.
They have worked, lived, married, raised families, paid taxes, and contributed to society over those many years. They have gradually discovered the cruel truth – that their right to be in Britain at all can be open to doubt. Some have lost their homes and jobs, some have been refused medical treatment unless they can pay the full cost in advance. Some have been financially ruined, and some may even have been forcibly deported back to the Caribbean. It is an appalling outcome of an appalling policy. Exposing all this to public gaze was the major achievement of one journalist in particular – Amelia Gentleman of The Guardian.
Rather than a "hostile environment" for undocumented immigrants, legal as well as illegal, what Britain needs is a proper amnesty, a pathway by which they can all be fully registered as British citizens. It has been talked about for years. Even Boris Johnson, when he was Mayor of London, supported the idea.
There is no way the British government is ever going to identify all the undocumented migrants living in Britain, let alone deport them to somewhere else. An amnesty is the only reasonable and civilised policy. The "hostile environment" approach is not. It is on the fringe of being overtly racist. It has made Britain a less tolerant society. It has caused immense suffering and hardship. And I am sorry to say that the one politician more than any other whose fingerprints are all over it is none other than the British Prime Minister and former Home Secretary, Theresa May herself. It is a very dark shadow over her reputation.
Pic: File photo 22/06/1948 of Jamaican immigrants welcomed by RAF officials from the Colonial Office after the ex-troopship HMT 'Empire Windrush' landed them at Tilbury. Credit: PA/PA Wire