The unfolding scandal of the denial of health and social care to the now-aged children of the Windrush is a warning sign.
It shows the sharp end of government racism, and the immense store of racist malice that the British ruling class is capable of unleashing on any group of foreign-born people it chooses. It is the fruit of years of right wing demagogy, in the press and in government, against migrants.
However, it is only the tip of the iceberg — and unless the left and the labour movement rally to defeat the Tory government and Brexit, more is to come.
It was in 2012 when then-Home Secretary Theresa May made her bid in the ongoing auction of racism, playing to the gallery of the right wing press and man-at-the-bar bigotry, declaring that “The aim is to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants.”
The June 2016 Brexit referendum raised the stakes in that particular auction, dramatically. The success of the long-running ultra-reactionary campaign of Brexit demagogy saw the Tories playing catch-up with their own base. And in October 2017, the Home Office released new guidelines for the NHS and the patchwork of social services and schemes relying on NHS money: they would be legally required to check every patient’s immigration status to see whether they should pay for their care. If the patient was an undocumented migrant, they would have to pay in full before receiving any treatment.
In recent months, it has come to light that an unknown number of Commonwealth citizens, resident for decades in the UK, have been denied life-saving treatment and social care, because their decades of national insurance contributions weren’t considered adequate proof by the Home Office of their right to live in the UK.
After the Guardian newspaper broke the scandal, Home Secretary Amber Rudd apologised, and announced an expanded Home Office team would look to resolve such cases.
Rudd said that the “Home Office has become too concerned with policy and strategy and sometimes loses sight of the individual. This is about individuals…”
But it is not about worthy individuals who have been the victim of individual administrative errors. It is about racism in British society. The “policy and strategy” is precisely the issue, and racism has been the policy and the strategy of the British ruling class since the Second World War. Black and apparently-foreign patients are guilty until proven innocent; they are obliged to prove a negative or face crippling up-front costs for care. And for what are they being put through such misery? So the government can put on a good show of “toughness” on migrants and those who “look foreign” (i.e. who are not white or western European), hatred of whom they have worked so hard to stoke up.
The Windrush generation is a particularly shocking case, but it is not special case: the wrong done to them is a part of the same wrong which is being done to other black people and migrants. That wrong — racist demonisation, removal of rights, denial of care — has to be fought across the board.
Talk of more or less “deserving” cases, more or less “welcome” or “integrated” migrants undermines the fight against racism, which is either universal or meaningless.
The travellers on the Windrush have been described as migrants invited to Britain. In fact they needed no invitation. They enjoyed freedom of movement to the UK as “Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies” under the 1948 British Nationality Act.
Those citizenship rights and that right to free movement were wiped out in the 1981 British Nationality Act, which came after years of racist agitation against migrants from former colonies, led by such forebears of the Brexit brigade as Enoch Powell.
It was the revocation of citizenship rights and the closing-down of the borders that opened the way to the inhuman attacks on these black people’s right to healthcare and social care. And the attack on black people’s free movement was a government attempt to cash in on, to catch up with, the racism of Enoch Powell and the most degraded elements of British white society.
The Thatcher government did not need, any more than the Tories today need, to repeat the vile racist rhetoric of Powell or of the National Front, of the BNP, or of Katie Hopkins. Actions speak louder than words: and everyone understands the meaning of both Thatcher’s 1981 Nationality Act and Rudd’s 2017 guidance to NHS services.
But the attack on NHS users doesn’t only affect the Windrush generation. Healthcare charity Doctors of the World write: “At our clinics across London, we treat vulnerable patients including asylum seekers, undocumented migrants, victims of trafficking and homeless people. Almost nine in 10 of our patients live in poverty. We have no doubt that the new rules will deter many of the people we help from accessing services they need, and we’re particularly concerned about the impact on mental health services.”
Compare Powell’s speeches with the Daily Mail headlines about criminal floods of Eastern Europeans and the Tory-UKIP Brexit campaign rhetoric — or indeed, compare the slogans of the dockers who marched to support Powell with the arguments now made by segments of the trade union bureaucracy against freedom of movement.
Racism, attacks on freedom of movement, murderous denial of basic services and rights, from the 1948 generation to today, all form a rotten whole.
Every generation of arrivals to the UK is as deserving as the last, because all people of all backgrounds are as deserving as each other.
Labour should commit to removing all NHS and social care charges. A Labour government should treat all migrants — whether they are economic migrants, asylum seekers, documented or undocumented migrants — exactly the same as people with UK citizenship when accessing public services. And Labour should come out clearly against Brexit.
To strike at the root of the outrage perpetrated by Rudd against Windrush passengers, the labour movement, the left and all friends of humanity and civilisation need to fight back against all racism and xenophobia, both its left and right wing variants; against all attacks on freedom of movement and rights for foreign-born people, be those attacks motivated by right wing or “left wing” politics.
We defend freedom of movement and decent public services for all.