More specifically, what has happened to the Windrush victims, who – to spell it out - had a perfect legal right to reside permanently in Britain, has a direct relevance to the situation of EU nationals living in Britain will face post-Brexit when they, too, have that right. The, still provisional, guarantee of settled status (itself, by the way, a significant diminution of the rights of free movement, as discussed in a previous post) will require, precisely, that the British immigration authorities do not make the same kind of errors they have made in relation to Windrush.
And it is hardly as if these errors are an isolated event. They form part of a longstanding pattern of failure at the Home Office. Indeed, some EU nationals who have sought to clarify their status since the Brexit vote have already been caught in the vortex of incompetence and encultured, bureaucratised suspicion of the Home Office. For example, last August it emerged that the Home Office accidentally sent at least a hundred letters wrongly threatening EU nationals with deportation.
It’s important to understand that – as with the Windrush victims – when things like this happen it creates a life-wrecking situation. It isn’t just a matter of some onerous bureaucracy: people’s relationships, jobs and indeed their whole lives are in danger of being ripped up. Even if the situation is resolved, it leaves an ongoing trauma for the people affected, and this ripples out to those who might come to be affected.
With Brexit, EU nationals will become vulnerable not just in the immediate aftermath but for years to come. As Windrush shows, the dead hand of Home Office incompetence can reach out over the decades to knock on your door when you are old, or in need of healthcare. The already questionable proposition that EU citizens have nothing to fear from Brexit has taken a further, massive knock as a result of Windrush. Small wonder that the EU want independent oversight of the arrangements for their citizens’ rights. Windrush will cement the case for that, and probably for a longer period of ECJ oversight.
Moreover, at a less personal level, the scandal has pointed up very sharply issues around the fantasy of Global Britain and, especially, of the role that the Commonwealth might play in Britain’s post-Brexit trade relationships. As George Eaton, writing in the New Statesman, points out, the timing of the Windrush scandal breaking as the Commonwealth summit opens in London could hardly be less auspicious.
But in any case, the ‘Empire 2.0’ idea is misguided in every respect. Its first step is to exit the trade agreements that Britain as an EU member has or is currently negotiating with Commonwealth countries. These cover the vast majority of those countries, including those which are the major trading economies. Of particular note in the Windrush context are the agreements with Caribbean countries. So all those will have to be re-negotiated on a bi-lateral basis (the idea floated by some of a pan-Commonwealth trade agreement or even trade area is a fantasy within a fantasy: the Commonwealth is, avowedly, not a trade bloc or trade negotiating entity in its own right).
Beyond that, Empire 2.0 is apparently blind to the very particular political context of the Commonwealth. In brief, few if any of its members aspire to re-enact imperial preference in order to dig Britain out of its Brexit hole, and even if they did they have not stood still since 1973. They are part of their own regional trade agglomerations and neither economically nor culturally do they participate in some misty-eyed reverence for ‘the mother country’. And beyond that, whether Commonwealth countries or not, trade with places far away is never going to compensate for lost trade on the European doorstep.
And beyond even all that is the fact that any such trade deals will usually require preferential immigration treatment, as India has already spelt out. Indeed, it is British opposition to this which to a large extent explains why an EU-India trade deal has not yet been finalised. Which brings us full circle to the prevailing anti-immigration political culture in Britain which makes such deals difficult (how to reconcile them with an immigration cap in the tens of thousands?) and also rather unattractive to the non-British party (who wants their nationals to be exposed to so hostile an atmosphere?). This is yet another version of the contradiction in Brexit whereby a vote which mobilised nativism is being used to endorse a policy of (a certain sort of) globalism.
The Windrush scandal and Brexit both disclose what happens when, as Ian Dunt describes it “a country completely loses its mind about immigration”. Even if Brexit does not go ahead, there is an urgent need for the country as a whole, and the political class in particular, to regain its senses. A part of that would be to think about the benefits of immigration in more than the narrow, transactional, economic terms which are about the only ones that even pro-immigration arguments get made. If Brexit does go ahead, then that task will arguably be even more urgent.