There are two tragedies to the Windrush scandal. The first one is, of course, the act itself, the monstrous act of a government deporting elderly people who have lived in Britain their whole lives to a country they do not recognize. The second, quieter and maybe more poignant tragedy, is how quickly people became used to it. There was a small time in purgatory for Amber Rudd, some sorry words from the government; aside from that, very little was done, and we quickly slid back into the traditional discourse on immigration.
Of course, it would be very hard for Theresa May to learn anything from Windrush. It happened not only partly because of policies she pursued in the Home Office, but because of her core beliefs: that immigration is inflicted upon the country, something to be curbed and discouraged, and those who can’t be sent away can never be allowed to forget they were allowed in as a favour. Yet these beliefs do not make Theresa May uniquely evil among her predecessors in the Home Office. On the contrary, her kind is the rule, not the exception.
If this sounds harsh, consider the rhetoric about immigration across the years, all of them full of derogatory adjectives about asylum seekers and immigrants. Some of them were under Theresa May, Amber Rudd or Sajid Javid, yes, but you’d find many under New Labour, with its long string of authoritarians with something to prove, including Blunkett, a man whose famous “swamped” quote needs no introduction.
History shows this kind of attitude towards migrants is hardly novel to the neoliberal consensus. Labour governments of the 60s and 70s took hardline anti-immigration positions, exemplified by James Callaghan’s shameful response to the Kenyan Asian refugee crisis. The 1968 Commonwealth Immigration Act stripped millions of their right to move to the UK, deliberately excluding those with a grandparent born in the country; a de facto racial barrier enacted by a Labour Home Secretary.
Leftists often, rightly, find in Diane Abbott’s position in the Shadow Cabinet and in a possible Corbyn government a cause for consolation when they look into this bleak history; the argument is often that someone with her history and politics would mean a breath of fresh air into the Home Office’s decrepit structures, and restore fairness to its priorities.
Reality differs: while the Labour manifesto had some improvements on immigration, like abolishing the spousal visa income threshold, with the end of free movement the party was advocating a harder policy on immigration than anything mooted under New Labour. More to the point, Abbott has begun to take a much tougher line on borders and safety than she ever had before. To point this out is not to single out Abbott; she is simply trying to fit into what is expected of her position.
Furthermore, even if Corbyn proves himself bolder in power than in opposition, would that be enough? The Home Office isn’t simply the person heading it. It has its own bureaucratic language and structure. Can any one reforming minister go deep enough to weed out the institutionalised prejudices that have grown through the decades?
The Home Office as currently constituted is skewed to create situations like Windrush. The solution then, should not be one of reform. The department should be abolished and its responsibilities divided between existing ministries.To have immigration – an essentially beneficial process – in the same place where organised crime is dealt with creates that very sort of culture that spills ever so often into real life, and makes the entire process of coming into the country a difficult one for new migrants.
One partial solution could be to strip immigration powers from the Home Office, as advocated by the Lib Dems. Under their proposals, work and family visas would go to the expanded Business department, student visas to Education, and asylum seekers would go to International Development, the ministry with the most explicitly humanitarian mission.
Handing off control of immigration targets to the relevant departments would combine a “common-sense” approach to immigration with liberalisation in practice. At the moment one department takes the political damage while seeing none of the social and economic benefits of immigration. With higher numbers being in the interest of every ministry, economic benefits would drive ministers to fight for liberalisation across the government, without having to face down one of the major offices of state.
But we can go further. It makes little sense for drug policy is handled by what is essentially a national security outfit, and it should be handed off to the Health Department. Likewise, low-level crime issues, anti-social behaviour policy, gangs and the like might be better served by integration with the Ministry of Justice, itself an offshoot of the Home Office, which runs the prison system and deals with rehabilitation.
What would be left would be a department covering issues of national security, controlling major crime, anti-terror and the police, fire and border security services. This Security Office would maintain the existing institutional failings and strengths of the Home Office within a narrower remit. This office might even further split. One would deal with more “domestic” issues and the other with the ones that demanded a broader scope, such as counter-terrorism, national security and economic crime. For a reforming minister, it might provide a narrower target than the mammoth task of overhauling the Home Office in its entirety.
These solutions are not perfect, of course. In particular, our mooted “Security Office” could be dangerous in the hands of an unconstrained authoritarian. But this is the nature of democracy; there are no fail-safe assurances against a bad government. What we can do is remove old institutions that exist to reinforce outdated and harmful prejudices. No Home Secretary could be expected to enact the comprehensive liberalisation the people being failed by the department desperately need. The root of the problem goes too deep.
It’s time for a new approach: abolish the home office.