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16 April 2018updated 28 Jun 2021 4:39am

Why Theresa May can’t blame anyone else for the Windrush scandal

The narrowmindedness and bureaucratic heartlessness of deporting British-Caribbeans is consistent with everything May has said or done over the last eight years.

By Jonn Elledge

This weekend, Downing Street refused to schedule a meeting between the Prime Minister and representatives of 12 Caribbean countries to discuss the immigration status of Windrush-generation Britons. The first Theresa May learned of this was this morning, when she was alerted to the problem by a letter signed by 140 MPs from multiple parties – at which point, her office hastily announced that it would be scheduling such a meeting after all.

That, at least, is the official line, but I’m not buying it. Missing the brewing scandal would have required the Prime Minister to have spent the weekend offline, without phone signal and probably in a cave. But mostly it’s because this whole mess is so completely consistent with everything else Theresa May has done since she first joined the Cabinet. When people show you who they are, Maya Angelou once wrote, believe them: Theresa May has been showing us who she is for a very long time.

Let’s remind ourselves of the immigration policies pursued by May’s Home Office. There was the “hostile environment” policy in which landlords, banks and doctors would all be deputised as unwilling immigration officers, and the authorities were ordered to adopt a strategy of “deport first, ask questions later”.

Around the same time, there were the “go home vans”: lorry-mounted billboards which spent the summer of 2013 driving about London encouraging illegal immigrants to bugger off, which managed to combine being utterly useless (total departures: 11) with being so unpleasant that even Nigel Farage said it was going a bit far. Then there was that conference speech in which May referred to “the illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because, and I am not making this up, he had a pet cat” – a story which was swiftly debunked by the entirely shocking and unexpected revelation that she had, in fact, been making it up.

These policies, and the statements that accompanied them, are all terrible – offensive, obviously, but also ineffective in terms of achieving what they were apparently intended to do. If you assumed the purpose was to attract the votes of angry racists, though, then at least then they made some kind of sense. The thing that makes me think there’s more to this than that – that this isn’t just about a sort of inverted vice-signalling, intended to appeal to the Daily Mail (“vermin-signalling”); that Theresa May actually means this shit – is her position on international students.

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Universities love foreign students, who pay them a fortune and allow them to run courses and employ academics they otherwise can’t afford. Businesses and the Treasury love them, too, for giving a £20bn boost to the British economy every year. Even the public is relatively warm and fuzzy towards them: a 2011 Migration Observatory poll found that, although 69 per cent of people wanted immigration to come down, just 29 per cent thought students counted as immigrants.

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As far as we know, in fact, there may be as few as one person in the entire country who thinks that international students are a problem to be solved, rather than a major boost to our exports and soft power. It’s just unfortunate that that one person followed a six-year stint as home secretary by becoming Prime Minister. In 2012, her policies resulted in overseas students in London queuing through the night to register their presence with the authorities. Who was meant to benefit from this was never exactly clear – yet Theresa May has consistently refused to back down.

Why does May have such a problem with the idea of foreigners coming to Britain and spending their lives – even a part of their lives – here? The obvious answer is that she simply doesn’t like foreigners very much, but there are other possibilities. Perhaps she worries about social cohesion, or the impact that population growth will have on public services. Or perhaps she worries about the electoral prospects for conservatism in an increasingly diverse world. Perhaps she’s not a racist: she just thinks that the electorate is.

Whether the prime minister personally holds racist views, though, doesn’t really seem to matter. Whatever the contents of her heart, the fact is she has pursued xenophobic policies, which have emboldened racists, aggravated racial tensions, and risked wrecking the lives of legal migrants and ethnic minority Britons alike.

As the government scrambles to clean up this latest mess, it’s possible that spokespeople will try to push the blame on to misunderstandings or junior staff. Don’t believe them: the narrowmindedness, bureaucratic heartlessness and complete lack of interest in the human cost are all entirely consistent with everything May has said or done over the last eight years. The problem is not that the prime minster actively wants the children of the Windrush deported. The problem is that she didn’t care enough to make sure that they weren’t.