Inclusive histories | Reflections on Windrush 75th Anniversary
A brief review of the history of our national Windrush Day shows how its origins were from within the community, not from the government.
Sam King, Second World War veteran and a passenger on the HMT Empire Windrush ship itself, had the idea of Windrush Day as an opportunity to bring together fellow passengers to share their successes and experiences, particularly for those living in south London and the Brixton area.
Numerous events were organised in partnership with Arthur Torrington, co-founder of the Windrush Foundation in the 80s and 90s, leading to a reception on the 50th anniversary at Buckingham Palace in 1998.
Eric and Jessica Huntley also organised Windrush Day events and invited Sam King as a guest speaker. At the same time, various church services were also taking place in the midlands and north of England to acknowledge Windrush Day on 22 June.
I got involved much later on, after making my film A Charmed Life in 2009, and we started to mobilise to campaign for a national day. From 2013 to 2018, working in partnership with the Windrush Foundation, British Future, the Baptist Church and a range of faith leaders and organisations, we organised annual events in Windrush Square in Brixton.
These commemorated Windrush Day and the contribution of men and women from the Caribbean that served in the First and Second World War, recognising the wider African and Caribbean contribution to Britain, including to the NHS, and also acknowledging the achievements of the Windrush generation and their legacy.
However, it took the Windrush scandal in 2018 for Theresa May to apologise and for the government to adopt Windrush Day, which took effect from 2019.
Thus, leading up to the 75th anniversary of Windrush, it was felt that it was important that the community and key stakeholders from civil society should strategically drive and navigate how we should commemorate the 75th anniversary.
As a result of the Windrush scandal (or ‘Home Office scandal’) and particularly the issues around the compensation scheme, it was felt that the government was still failing the community. The issues of the scandal were still ongoing and more cases were surfacing of people’s mistreatment by the Home Office.
The government has adopted a national Windrush Day and formed a Windrush Advisory Committee, which has now merged into the Cross Governmental Committee dealing with Windrush compensation and the implementation of the Lessons Learnt review report by Wendy Williams.
But it displays little vision, ambition or inclination to mark Windrush Day in a significant way, other than through grants from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Even these have often have been delayed and their allocation has sometimes caused division between different projects.
So we formed a network – the Windrush 75 Network – and an advisory group to help us bring together a disparate, diverse range of stakeholders: including people from the Windrush community, particularly those still involved in campaigning around justice for Windrush; museums, galleries and arts organisations; faith leaders; archives; corporates; concerned individuals, and educationalists who wanted to do something to mark the 75th anniversary.
The Windrush 75 Network has been a real success for a number of reasons. Firstly, we created the open space and dialogue for organisations to share their concerns and frustrations about how they felt that the government was not seriously supporting their work or recognising the contribution of the Windrush generation.
Secondly, it was an opportunity to bring together stakeholders and organisations across the UK who would not necessarily have come together in a very strategic fashion to share, to communicate, and to contribute to thinking around the Windrush 75 anniversary.
To a larger extent, this exemplifies the power of major anniversaries to build momentum and impetus to engage with inclusive histories, and to tap into a heightened public interest for learning about our shared past.
People wanted to have resources to support their work, particularly access to funders, and also some tools around marketing and promotion and branding to support their work as well.
Where some organisations were engaging with the history of Britain’s diversity for the first time, the network also offered ‘safety in numbers’ so organisations could learn from the good practice of others and engage in the anniversary without fear of being singled out in polarised ‘culture war’ skirmishes.
And finally, and more importantly, it was an opportunity to build synergy, to work out the commonalities and to look at the lived experiences, recognising that the Windrush concept, the Windrush generation, is still one which has different interpretations. Some see it purely as a Caribbean experience; others as a Caribbean and African experience; while some see it as part of the wider context of migration from across the Commonwealth and the rise and development of multicultural Britain.
The impact of this work has meant that we’ve had over 500 organisations become part of the Windrush Network. Many have organised events, activities and programmes up and down the country.
We’ve been able to partner successfully with national institutions like the Royal Albert Hall by providing free and discounted tickets for the Windrush concert hosted by Trevor Nelson.
Working with Bush Theatre, where Lenny Henry was very keen to ensure that his one man show, August in England, could reach members of the Windrush generation themselves, we partnered with a number of organisations to bring coach loads of Windrush generation elders to experience the play.
We’ve worked with the Imperial War Museum, who hosted a significant conference called From War to Windrush 75, with a range of commentators and TV personalities. And we’ve supported the Windrush flag, developed by Nigel Guy from Bradford, which has been flown at over 200 flag ceremonial events throughout June and July to commemorate Windrush.
Most importantly, we’ve been able to help manage the narrative around the commemorations while navigating the ongoing issues of the scandal. The expression which I particularly use, repeated by the media throughout the commemoration year, has been ‘bittersweet’.
Bitter, reflecting the ongoing injustices, not only around the scandal itself but historical issues like the impact and legacy of the colour bar and racism in Britain. But also sweet, in terms of recognising how Britain has changed over the last 75 years and how the Windrush generation have contributed to Britain, making ours one of the most tolerant and multicultural societies in Europe.
This was reflected, too, in our surveys of public opinion, which have revealed the broad enthusiasm to find out more about the stories of the Windrush contribution. Indeed, the anniversary is a clear example of the extent to which narrativising Britain’s history of diversity does not always lead to divisive or polarising ‘culture war’ clashes.
Before the anniversary, a majority – 61% of the public – felt that the 75th anniversary of the Windrush arriving in Britain was an important moment for the country, rising to 71% of ethnic minority Britons and 84% of Black Caribbeans. Just over half of the public (53%) – and two-thirds (64%) of people from an ethnic minority background – wanted to learn more about it.
This broad reach, from the grassroots to the mainstream, comes in part from the engagement of many partners, including some who might be thought of as ‘unusual allies’ – from the NHS and the Port of Tilbury to the FA and English cricket board. King Charles commissioned 10 portraits of Windrush Pioneers, while the Royal Mint announced a Windrush coin and the Royal Mail produced Windrush stamps.
All these have helped to give a sense of shared pride and recognition to the Windrush generation and those who have played a key role in recognising this contribution. Throughout the rest of 2023 there will be more events and more activities to come.
I believe that the success of Windrush 75 has created a platform for a serious conversation about Windrush. How can this momentum be harnessed to co-ordinate future activity on Windrush Days? And how can we shape discussions around our past to consider tackling the present-day legacies of racism, to envisage a fairer and more equal society when we approach the 100th anniversary in 2048?
There are different views on what direction that conversation should take. Some people feel that the celebratory Windrush story is distorted and misleading, and those points are valid for those campaigners. But I think, for the wider discourse, it provides an opportunity for further exploration.
Looking ahead, the Windrush 75 Network will now consider what we want its future legacy to be – and how we build on the successes of Windrush 75, and the opportunities to work together created by the network itself, as we mark Windrush Day in the years to come.
Narrating our shared past in polarised times
This commentary is an extract from a new report by British Future – ‘Inclusive Histories: Narrating our shared past in polarised times’.