Lord Hannan of Kingsclere was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Institute for Free Trade.
Immigration involves a certain optimism bias. To be prepared to leave friends and family behind and start from the bottom in a new land requires shrewdness, courage, and enterprise. By and large, people with these attributes are people you want.
That is why, although it is not a popular opinion in any age or nation, I generally support controlled immigration. And it is why I am happy to celebrate the arrival of our Commonwealth fellow-subjects from 1948 onwards.
Tomorrow is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the arrival of the Windrush. The date is being marked by all manner of official celebrations, and the issuing of a 50p coin. The theme of all these commemorations is uplifting, moralising – and misleading.
For it is evidently not enough to present the settlers as hard workers who wanted a better future. No, they have to be painted as people who came to help rebuild post-war Britain, like so many gap-year poverty tourists.
I don’t question the patriotism of the Caribbean migrants. On the contrary, most of the men on the Windrush had served in uniform in the recent war, largely in the RAF. But that is not why they were relocating their families half way across the world. They were coming, quite properly and honourably, for better-paid jobs.
It is odd that we find it awkward to admit this. Wanting to get on through honest work is a decent and meritorious motive. Yet the tone of the week’s celebrations was set by the 2017 poem “You called….and we came,” which portrays the migrations as a kind of social work:
Driven by a wish, a call to save, to rebuild
and support efforts to establish ‘health for all’
in the aftermath of war.
There is a certain snobbery in refusing to admit that prices influence human behaviour. I don’t say this to devalue the pioneers’ motives. Quite the opposite, the fact that they were ambitious and hungry for work is to their credit.
Nor is it entirely true that Britain “called”. Yes, there were job vacancies and, yes, British subjects in overseas colonies were entitled to take them up.
But the idea that the Attlee Government was scouring the Commonwealth asking for settlers is not accurate. Eleven Labour MPs wrote to the Prime Minister, worried that an influx would be “likely to impair the harmony, strength and cohesion of our public and social life”.
Both parties recognised that British overseas citizens, including veterans of the recent war, could hardly be turned away. They resolved to make the best of the situation and to encourage good community relations. But that is not quite the same thing as saying that they positively looked for more inward migration.
It is, in short, more than a little wistful to claim, as the poem does:
Remember… you called.
Remember… you called
Remember, it was us, who came.
Which brings us to a bigger misunderstanding. Although the Windrush settlers had left their homes behind, they were not technically immigrants. They were moving from one British territory to another. That, indeed, is why the whole scandal about their documentation was to arise 70 years later.
This matters partly because it makes a nonsense of parallels with contemporary immigration debates; there is a world of difference between a British passport holder arriving legally and an undocumented migrant paying to be smuggled across the Channel.
It matters, too, because it challenges our modern platitudes. Most of our public debate begins from two assumptions: that the British Empire was unutterably evil, and that a multi-racial society is incomparably good.
Understandably, perhaps, commentators don’t like to dwell on the fact that the first directly engendered the second.
The reason that many immigrants from the Caribbean (as well as the Indian subcontinent and, later Africa) chose to come to Britain was not just that they had British passports. It is also that they felt an identity with the rest of the British world, a sense of shared loyalty heightened during the recent war, which had seen huge numbers of men and women volunteer across the Empire and Commonwealth.
The patriotism of those volunteers was reciprocated. British people during the war had drawn comfort from the thought that they were not alone. Most of us can quote the “we shall fight on the beaches” part of Winston Churchill’s speech after Dunkirk, but we sometimes miss the next sentence:
“And even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”
That is not to say that the settlers were uniformly welcomed. Many of them encountered prejudice and discrimination.
But it is worth stressing, for those brought up with our contemporary assumptions about colonialism, that those most hostile to immigration tended also to repudiate the Empire. They were, in the correct sense, Little Englanders, wanting nothing to do with overseas colonies or, more widely, with the Commonwealth. They were later to find their champion in Enoch Powell.
So odd does this alignment seem from our present perspective that we have deliberately forgotten half of the Windrush’s name. Look at any photograph of her and you’ll see it painted on her hull in large letters. She was the Empire Windrush.
But that is too much for the BBC and the rest, who can’t get past their “Empire bad, immigration good” paradigm.
In fact, a shared pride in what Britain had achieved meant that immigration was more successful here than in any other European country. The violence that so many had predicted failed to materialise. Britain was remarkably good at defining nationality in civil rather than ethnic terms – the very thing that today’s wokies and identitarians so dislike.
So, yes, let’s celebrate the Empire Windrush. Not as a children’s fable about kindly Jamaicans answering the call of a war-ravaged Britain, but as the actual story of brave, enterprising people who felt British enough to make that long ocean voyage.
And let’s work to retain the shared sense of identity, the common patriotism, that lets a multi-ethnic society flourish.