Windrush: The Hard Border Already Exists

Theresa May held a reception at Downing Street to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Windrush. London, June 2018.

Despite Lexiters stating Brexit opens a unique political space to redesign the immigration system in an equitable way, there has been little to no imagination about what this would look like.

While the consent has been lost for freedom of movement, neither FBPE nor Lexit proponents have attempted to regain the consent for a less punitive immigration system.

There is some evidence of anxieties about immigration falling after the Brexit vote, with 57% saying immigration is good for the UK – up from 40% in 2011 according to Hope Not Hate. It makes the bloodless proposals on immigration since 2016 all the more confusing.

After Grenfell and Windrush, when public and political empathy for those without documentation was at its highest, there was no serious attempt to argue for an amnesty for undocumented people.

While this currently has little support in the UK, it surely represents a form of civic death to take a stance to the right of Hillary Clinton. Though it should be said no FBPE proponent has taken this up either.

While Corbyn was condemned for saying he was “7.5 out of 10” about the EU, leading Remainers took it upon themselves to challenge free movement in the week before the referendum.

Since then, Chuka Umunna, Anna Soubry, Tony Blair have all demanded measures that discipline migrants in order to maintain EU membership. This is the ultimate 7.5/10 analysis of the EU.

Moreover, it looks little different from the government’s disciplinary salary requirements. These proposals would exclude 90% of working-class Europeans in the British hospitality and transport industries, but leave most Europeans in the City untouched.

There is an understandable thinking in the Labour Party for an armistice on Brexit. This would formally end freedom of movement to gain support for other progressive measures and recode the vote for border control as one for a break with globalisation.

But what other forms of politics are foreclosed by vague Keynesian inflation of border agency and police funding? Can it imagine or coax a broad anti-racist movement against immigration raids into existence?

Failing to challenge the conceit that borders can raise wages and remove precarity from the workplace is in its own way limiting, and stunts any possibility of transforming British politics.

Individual battles could reduce the scale of the hostile environment, and the militarisation of the UK’s borders. Windrush revealed that the public leans towards “control” but are squeamish about the realities of immigration enforcement.

Ash Sarkar has begun to articulate the “non-reformist reforms” which would unpick at the carceral logic of the immigration system. This includes closing detention centres to paying asylum seekers the minimum wage.

Permanent residency rights for Commonwealth citizens not tied to employers on the lines Guy Aitchison proposes, or full voting rights for non-British residents, could be part of this.

Addressing the geographic antagonisms in the UK requires dealing with both deskilling in Darlington and black unemployment in Tottenham. It has to reject the cynical politics of Mr Umunna’s new outfit or Blair demanding more passport checks.

But it also has to recognise that “the white working class” is a meaningless term which centres being working class as an innate identity, rather than formed and shaped by institutions.

The working class is entwined with migration, whether the Windrush generation that arrived in the UK or the Auf Wiedersehen, Pet generation of British builders who went to Europe.

Despite the strong Remain vote in black and Asian working class communities, the white working class cannot be neatly politically cleaved away. As Clive Lewis has argued, Lexit supporters cannot regard BAME voters as pawns either used to subvert or bolster a white working class coalition.

But until Remain or Labour politicians make the case for free movement, there will be little movement over Brexit in public opinion.

For pro-Lexit or Lexit-adjacent supporters, the economic case for Brexit was always undermined by triangulation on immigration. For the more Remain adjacent, the inability to make a pro-immigration case since 2016 – and during the referendum – has meant that the stalemate on Brexit has continued.

Photograph courtesy of Number 10. Published under a Creative Commons license.