16 Aug 2018

Farewell my love: A letter from Barbados to Britain

As I sit on the 14:30 train from King’s Cross to York for what is my last train ride across England, in pursuit of trade links with Scarborough, there is a certain ambivalence to my taking leave of the UK at the end of August after what has been a rewarding four years as High Commissioner for Barbados.

The links between Barbados and Britain are considerable. Foremost is that we are the Caribbean destination of choice for Brits, and to borrow from an early hit from our female icon Rihanna, “I drink to that”. One must appreciate, as the country that founded the production of quality rum on a commercial scale, we “drink to” much. But there is so much more.

Historically, through the being the originators of the sugar industry, we provided initial capital for the expansion of much of what became the British Empire. That fact has bittersweet connotations not only because of the enslavement then of what is now the majority of West Indians but also the contemporary failing of the British Government to address the implications of the past genocide and the historic extraction of wealth from our region which has left many of the post-Independent Commonwealth Caribbean countries vulnerable and reliant on overseas development assistance.

But I can’t be more indignant, for the simple reason that this is the land of my birth and the home of the Queen of Barbados Elizabeth II, one of her many titles. Furthermore, 5 of our 8 prime ministers were Oxbridge or LSE trained. I am proud of my Commonwealth heritage, a Barbadian Father and an Indian mother, who produced, much to everyone’s surprise including me, Barbados’ first London-born high commissioner.

Over time Barbados and her diaspora have given much to Britain through the likes of the Rt Revd Wilfred Wood, KA, the first black CofE bishop, Sir Michael Stoute, prolific champion racehorse trainer, Moira Stuart OBE, veteran broadcaster, and Karen Blackett OBE, marketing and communications guru, to name a few. However, this contribution did come at a cost.

70 years ago, when the post-WWII call came from Britain to her then colonies for workers to migrate here to address the critical labour shortages, we heeded the call from the ‘Mother Country’. Between 1948 and 1973 approximately 550,000 West Indians (15% of the Commonwealth Caribbean population) migrated.

But this journey was not without peril and migrants faced outright racism. Some recall the infamous Teddy Boys and Notting Hill race riots, and the signs which read, “No Irish, No blacks, No dogs”. Nonetheless they persevered, and with some blood, toil, tears, and sweat played a pivotal role in helping to build a modern, global Britain.

It is against this backdrop that many of these migrants recently despaired when confronted recently by a new wave of hostility. This time, it was predicated on their “irregular status” in a “hostile immigration environment” which resulted in the denial of their right to work, denial of benefits, denial of healthcare and also for some detention and deportation.

April this year for me, could only be described as a modern-day miracle. In less than a week, the Windrush scandal that was for too long begging for attention became front page news and in the process won the hearts of a nation and engaged the mind of the UK Government who apologised, and offered full British citizenship with compensation for those who suffered, and the inauguration of a Windrush Day.

I endorse the commitments made on Windrush by Prime Minister May and on her first day as Prime Minister when she stated: “I want to see this country working for everyone – a country where, regardless of where you live or what your parents do for a living, you have a fair chance to build a

life for yourself and your family”. Notwithstanding the sentiment, the reality, based on the summary findings from the Ethnicity Facts and Figures by the Cabinet Office Race Disparity Audit, is that the situation among blacks in Britain is grim.

* Asian and Black households are more likely to be poor and to be in persistent poverty

* Attainment for Black Caribbean pupils in education is very low

* Around 1 in 10 adults from a Black, Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Mixed background are unemployed compared with 1 in 25 White British

* Black men are almost three and a half times more likely to be arrested than White men

* Black adults are more likely than adults in other ethnic groups to have been sectioned under the Mental Health Act.

I raise this as a concern not only for the Caribbean diaspora, or for black, Asian and other minority ethnic groups in the UK, but for the entire nation for as Martin Luther King Jr held: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The is an urgent need to bring a sense of unity in the kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland; and there is no better time to start that now. In 2018, on the seventieth anniversary of the arrival the MS Empire Windrush, on the fiftieth anniversary to the day of Enoch Powell’s odious “Rivers of Blood” speech, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, the incontrovertible truth is that Britain appears ill-at-ease with matters of race and migration.

Perhaps, the lessons to be learned by Windrush will help give effect to the reality as stated by Lyndon B Johnson that: “Until justice is blind to colour, until education is unaware of race, until opportunity is unconcerned with the colour of men’s skins, emancipation will be a proclamation but not a fact.”

Perhaps, in addition to the work of the Windrush Commemoration Committee to advise on how best to create a permanent, fitting tribute to the Windrush generation and their descendants, consideration will be given to the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission.

While the Commission in South Africa to examine the effects of apartheid is best-known, there are multiple examples in the Commonwealth. The 2008 Canada Commission investigated the human rights abuses of their indigenous people, and the 2009 Mauritius Commission explored the historical impact of slavery and indentured servitude.

Perhaps Windrush will provide the opportunity to finally bring this multicultural society together and eliminate the vestiges of intolerance, discrimination and cultural denigration, which constitute the legacy of a horrific past, and in the process give birth to a truly, united kingdom.

In the meantime, I will head back to Barbados with many fond memories, and even more hopes and prayers for Barbados and Britain, the lands that I love.

Guy Hewitt
High Barbados High Commissioner
October, 2014 – September, 2018