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Troubles faced by the Windrush Generation: Paper by CARJ

The Windrush Generation –

A Historical Footnote

Prior to the 18th Century, the modern concept of nationality did not exist.  During the long years of Empire and Commonwealth the status of ‘British subject’ was held by people of different races and cultures, living in different parts of the world and speaking different languages –  all owing a common allegiance to the King.

The British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act 1914 became the basis of British nationality legislation until 1948.  There were two concepts underlying the Act – that British nationality throughout the Commonwealth and Empire should be based on the same rules and that the national status conferred by naturalisation should be the same whether created by the action of the UK government or by the government of one of the dominions.   Gradually, however, this common code and status broke down, which led to the British Nationality act 1948.

The British Nationality Act 1948 provided a formula for allowing each independent Commonwealth country to enact its own citizenship laws while retaining a common status of ‘British Subject / Commonwealth Citizen’.  Under the 1948 Act the common status of ‘British Subject / Commonwealth Citizen’ was not a second class citizenship.  In Britain all the rights enjoyed by a citizen of the UK and Colonies were also to be enjoyed by all Commonwealth Citizens.   These included the right of entry, the right to vote, to hold public office, to work in the public sector and to own a British ship, as well as the entitlement to registration.

During the 1960s and early 1970s a series of immigration laws began to change the scheme set up by the 1948 Act.  The 1971 Immigration Act radically altered the foundations of the law by dividing both British Subject / Commonwealth Citizens and UK and Colonies Citizens into two categories – patrial and non-patrial.  Patrials had a right of entry.  Non-Patrials, once here, had all the other rights.  Thus over a period of years the right of entry which was associated with the status of ‘British Subject / Commonwealth Citizen’ was removed from many people who did not have a direct link of blood descent to the UK (including almost all the black population of the Commonwealth).

Finally, in 1973 Britain joined the EEC and thereby opened its borders to the nationals of member countries throughout Europe.

In April 1977 the Labour Government published a Green Paper entitled ‘British Nationality Law: A Discussion of Possible Changes’.  Following the General Election in May 1979, the new Conservative Government began preparation for legislation on Nationality.  The Conservative Government’s proposals for a new Nationality Act were largely consistent with those trailed in the former Labour Government’s Green Paper.  Critics of the proposals saw them as narrow and weighted against black people.

As preparation was being made for the new Nationality Act, the Catholic Bishops of England & Wales issued a lengthy statement of principle – Concerning the Revision of British Nationality Law – which was taken up by the other churches and gained considerable publicity.   An introductory paragraph from that Statement has often been quoted:

Britain has traditionally been a multi-cultural society made up of diverse national cultures – English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish, etc. Our history of Empire and Commonwealth has accentuated this characteristic by bringing people of many races and backgrounds to these islands. We accepted into our society other communities who sought refuge from persecution. All have been changed in coming here and we have been changed in welcoming them. Through a long and constant process, therefore, Britain has become irreversibly a multi-racial, multi-cultural society. Any new nationality law should state as a matter of principle that our national identity is multi-racial, thereby avoiding any potentially racialist conception of national identity which could lead to racial discrimination in the law or its interpretation.

This was an important statement of principle.  However, even more relevant to the troubles currently being encountered by the Windrush generation are some of the other points raised in the Bishops’ Statement – for instance paras 4 and 9 (below):

4   The consequences of historical ties and membership of the Commonwealth should be recognised. There will be Commonwealth citizens – British subjects – already living here who for one reason or another will not have become British citizens under the new law. Our obligations to the past demand that their present entitlements be preserved: residence, registration as British citizens and all the rights and civic privileges that they presently enjoy. Settled immigrants, free of conditions on their stay, who have not yet acquired British nationality should have the same rights to freedom of movement in the European Community as British citizens.  ….

 9   At a time of legislative change which seriously affects the lives of people of different cultures who are still adapting to life in Britain and who may often not understand either their rights or obligations, the Government has the obligation to inform these people fully and to assist them to understand the implications of these changes. 

The discussion of public policy regarding immigration and nationality has a long and tortured history, which dates back to the centuries of Empire and Commonwealth.  The slogan – ‘we are here because you were there’ – is relevant, and it might be helpful in  the midst of Brexit, that we keep in mind this long history.  The Bishops of England and Wales in 1979 produced a careful Statement of principle that might help us to form our consciences even today.*


*Those who would like a copy of the Bishops’ 1979 Statement, please contact CARJ, 9 Henry Rd, London N4 2LH.  020 8802 8080.  Those interested in the backstory to the current troubles experienced by the Windrush generation may also wish to consult the 28 April 2018 issue of The Tablet, which includes a leader, an article by Sarah Teather and a news item quoting Bishop Paul McAleenan who criticised the treatment of the Windrush generation as extraordinary and unacceptable.


3 May 2018


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