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Thoughts on the Windrush

johnnygrahamThe recent hoo-haa in the media and Parliament over the appalling treatment of the Windrush migrants has reminded me of two events in my life when I have had brushes with the 1948 British Nationality Act, the predecessor to the 1971 Act that was at the root of the Windrush affair. The 1948 Act was passed following the independence of India to regulate the position of the many Brits who had relations with India by reason of birth and followed a decision taken at a Commonwealth meeting, no doubt among other things to enable the British Government to handle the possible influx of Indians into the UK following independence.

The first brush was very personal. I was one of those directly affected by the Act, having been born in Calcutta where my father was working for the family business, having himself been born in Calcutta. Under the Act, I was no longer regarded as a British citizen but I was able to remedy this by completing the necessary form (cost sixpence including tuppence purchase tax) and become a British citizen by registration, with a number and a rather scruffy bit of paper to prove it. As I understand it, this solution was available to the Windrush migrants but many did not take it up, for whatever reason.

Three or four years later I was Acting Assistant Political Agent in Kuwait, where HM Government exercised jurisdiction in accordance with the various treaties that were still valid in the Persian Gulf. One day a distinguished retired member of the Indian Political Service who in his day had been Political Agent in Kuwait and had settled there in his retirement, brought in his passport for renewal. He had been born in Damascus, his father, a member of the old consular service, in Tunis, or the other way round – I forget. Doing my best to interpret the law I went to my boss, an old hand from the Mandatory Government of Palestine and told him that I did not think that under the 1948 Act my applicant was entitled to a British passport.
“Well are you going to tell him,” asked my boss,”because I’m not. Give him a passport”.

So we did, tempering legal interpretation with humanitarian discretion, or, to put it more honestly, with cowardly avoidance of a row.
I don’t know enough of the rights and wrongs of the Windrush affair to pass judgement, though it seems clear that something went badly wrong; but I have some sympathy for the lowly civil servants whose job it was to apply the law, knowing that on the one hand they risked being blamed by the media and MPs for applying the law strictly and on the other for failing to use their common sense despite what the law said.

Johnny Graham

August – September 2018