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Could the Windrush scandal end identity politics in Britain?

The unjust treatment of the ‘Windrush children’ is a defining moment in the history of race relations in Britain. In the past, such a grave injustice against non-whites would have been exploited by groups claiming it as proof that the white majority is racist. Instead, it is being seen by all ethnic groups as a blundering bureaucratic injustice that must be put right. There have been a few attempts to define it as a racist outrage, notably by Channel 4 News, but in the main it has united the whole country in condemnation of an obvious, unforgivable injustice that, as Fraser Nelson argues in this week’s Spectator, results from clumsy and negligent enforcement of a Tory policy that no one really believes in.

Since the 1980s there has been a struggle between two kinds of anti-racism. The first can be called sectarian anti-racism, because it exploits race-related problems to deepen grievances and enhance division. The second is liberal anti-racism. It recognises our common humanity and shared citizenship in a democratic political association. Until the Windrush scandal the sectarian anti-racists had been winning. They typically tried to portray anyone who disagreed with them as a racist, but the vast majority of us are liberal anti-racists who regard an injustice against migrants as an injustice against us all.

By coincidence, it is 25 years since the murder of Stephen Lawrence by thugs who hurled racial abuse while attacking him. Stephen’s father, Neville Lawrence, has announced that he has forgiven the murderers, but in 1993 his grief was ruthlessly exploited by activists who wanted to show that the police were racist. The Macpherson inquiry found no racism and said so in the clearest possible language, but Lord Macpherson, the sole author of the report, let everyone down by putting in his report the deliberately deceitful term ‘institutional racism’. It is often forgotten that the Macpherson report said that it had found no racism:  ‘In this Inquiry we have not heard evidence of overt racism or discrimination’. (page 20) And a few paragraphs later, despite accusing the Metropolitan Police of ‘institutional racism’ the report said:

‘It is vital to stress that neither academic debate nor the evidence presented to us leads us to say or to conclude that an accusation that institutional racism exists in the MPS implies that the policies of the MPS are racist. No such evidence is before us. Indeed, the contrary is true.’ (page 24)

We can only guess what was going through the mind of Macpherson when he wrote those words. He accused the police of ‘institutional racism’, the term that everyone now remembers, and yet he found no ‘overt racism’ and the finding of ‘institutional racism’ did not mean that the policies of the police were racist. This is unadulterated double-talk.

It was useful to campaigners because it obliterated the distinction between ‘true’ and ‘false’. Institutional racism existed if anyone said it did. Once said it was above criticism.


It is true that the police botched the investigation but they failed to solve other murders at the same time, including another notorious case, much publicised in the 1990s, that of Rachel Nickell. The murder of Stephen Lawrence could have brought everyone together in a common effort to improve the performance of the police and condemn the lawless conduct of his murderers. Instead, it resulted in twenty years of tearing the police apart under a barrage of false accusations of ‘institutional racism’.

Why has the debate about race been so poisonous? It is mainly because from the 1990s our political culture has become more calculating and less principled. This change in the approach of political parties of the left began in America under Clinton. The Democrats had realised that they could no longer win elections by appealing only to blue collar voters. They needed to get votes from minorities and middle class voters and opted to increase their appeal to middle class voters by disassociating themselves from traditional blue-collar, especially trade union, concerns. Clinton infamously argued that blue-collar voters had nowhere else to go and so alienating them did not matter. This strategy seemed to work in presidential elections in 1992 and 1996 and Tony Blair set out to emulate it in Britain in 1997. The decline of manufacturing meant that there were no longer enough workers to get Labour elected and Blair’s strategy was to invent ‘New Labour’, denounce ‘Old Labour’, and appeal to middle class voters by, among other things, denouncing racism and appealing to ethnic minorities.

When Jack Straw, as Home Secretary, published the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report in February 1999, he made his political strategy clear:

‘I want this report to serve as a watershed in our attitudes to racism.  I want it to act as a catalyst for permanent and irrevocable change, not just across our public services but across the whole of society.’

The strategy was reflected in the 2002 Hate Crime Manual, published by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). Under the heading ‘the new agenda’ the report says:

‘Hate crime is a most repugnant form of crime. The police service alone cannot be effective in combating it. The active support of police authorities, local authorities, other partner agencies, groups, leaders, communities, witnesses and victims is essential to effective pre-emption (changing attitudes), prevention and investigation.’

‘By working together against hate crime we can turn the tables; we can include the excluded and liberate the fearful. Joint action across society can change attitudes and push racism, homophobia and other group hatreds outside the limits of acceptability. The police service is committed to making a significant contribution by taking positive action against racist and other hate behaviours.’

The police were no longer there for impartial enforcement of the law. Now, it was all about ‘changing attitudes’.

The Windrush scandal has a good chance of being a watershed moment in the manipulation of race for party-political purposes. Injustices are no longer grievances that can be used to uphold victim status and gain political advantage. The era of identity politics based on victimhood is coming to an end. We are all citizens of this land and injustices should be put right and victims compensated, regardless of group identity.

The Windrush scandal also coincides with the 50th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech in 1968, which poisoned the debate about immigration for decades. Powell made it about race rather than numbers by appearing to agree with the opinions of a constituent who said he could foresee a time when ‘the black man will have the whip hand over the white man’. The question for any liberal anti-racist was: should it matter if the racial composition of the population changed in favour of ethnic groups? We have all seen the pictures of families from the West Indies filing off ships in what they would have called their Sunday best. Many were churchgoing evangelical Christians. Moreover, it would not matter if the black newcomers who ‘had the whip hand’ were all like Neville Lawrence, who under the influence of religion has forgiven the people who murdered his son; or like Anthony Bryan, the 60-year-old painter and decorator who has become a familiar face on television as one of the victims of the Windrush scandal. Despite being arrested and held in an immigration removal centre, he has shown no anger. Instead, he retained his good humour and ultimate faith in British justice. Both have lived up to the ideals that most of us admire.

Perhaps we have finally achieved Martin Luther King’s hope in his 1963 ‘I have a dream’ speech: ‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character’.

David Green is Director of Civitas


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