The mobility of deservingness: race, class and citizenship in the wake of the ‘Windrush scandal’

This post, guest authored by Luke De Noronha, is part of a symposium on Robbie Shilliam’s new book Race and the Undeserving Poor: From Abolition to Brexit and follows related contributions by Robbie, Sara Salem, and Naeem Inayatullah.

My core argument, then, is that elite actors have racialized and re-racialized the historical distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor through ever more expansive terms that have incorporated working classes, colonial “natives” and nationalities. Elite actors have always been driven in this endeavour by concerns for the integrity of Britain’s imperial – and then postcolonial – order. That has been the case from Abolition to Brexit.

(Shilliam, 2018)

Robbie Shilliam’s book – Race and the Undeserving Poor: From Abolition to Brexit – offers a rich genealogy of race and class in British politics. It helps us read Brexit, and the widespread invocations of the ‘white working class’ as ‘left behind’ with renewed historical perspective. The book offers up some co-ordinates for a richer critique of the times we are in, providing ‘a history of political domination told through the moralizing discourses and rhetoric of the undeserving poor’. Shilliam’s analysis is sharp and clear, his writing to the point, and his insights profoundly generative for those of us wrestling with cognate questions. He states:

“Deservedness” is a racialized discourse and rhetoric that works to consistently offset the disorders necessarily engendered in the pursuit of empire’s capital. Put another way, political domination in (post)colonial commercial society leaves its trace in the racialization of the underserving poor.

In my reflections on the book, I will not try to summarise its many arguments or its elegant movement through historical periods. Instead, I want to think about its argument in relation to the ‘Windrush scandal’. For me, this is not just about adding a postscript to the text, which was written before the Windrush debacle, but is intended to open up some additional questions about race, class and deservingness in relation to mobility.

The ‘Windrush scandal’

The so-called ‘Windrush scandal’ concerned people who moved to the UK from the Caribbean before 1973, over 45 years ago, and yet who had been caught up in the UK’s ‘hostile environment’ immigration policy. The ‘hostile environment’ (now the ‘compliant environment’, which makes very little sense), was introduced by Theresa May when Home Secretary, legislated through the 2014 and 2016 Immigration Acts, and designed to comprehensively exclude ‘illegal immigrants’ from all public services in the hope that their lives would be made so unliveable that they would leave.

In practice, it means excluding illegalised non-citizens from access to employment, housing, healthcare, a driving licence, a bank account, and an education. These processes of disentitlement are bolstered by increased surveillance, data sharing, and enforcement activity (i.e. employment raids, immigration detention, and deportations), all of which symbolically and materially demonstrate the UK’s commitment to ‘controlling immigration’.

Surely then, the ‘illegal immigrant’ is a member of the ‘undeserving poor’ par excellence, and this reminds us that citizenship, membership and mobility are central to the construction of deservingness. Put differently, the racialisation of the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor is most apparent at the border – a border which is everywhere and everyday, designed to ‘weed out’ ‘illegal immigrants’ who are aggressively barred from what remains of Britain’s welfare state.

The scandal, however, was that the ‘Windrush migrants’ should not have been defined as ‘illegal immigrants’. Those who arrived from former colonies before 1973 were granted indefinite leave to remain when the UK’s 1971 Immigration Act came into force. Amelia Gentleman at the Guardian, along with a few others, began to collect the stories of these long-settled British Caribbeans – people who had lost their jobs, houses, and access to healthcare because they had been illegalised – and the story picked up steam, leading to the Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s resignation.

What was so surprising, at least initially, was the consensus on this grave wrong. It was the first time, at least in my memory, in which a Home Secretary was accused of being too harsh, too aggressive, and too inhuman when it came to immigration control. For me, it was curious that it was this particular story that opened up space for a broader critique of the UK’s immigration regime, however temporarily. Remember, the UK currently detains nearly 30,000 non-citizens each year, without time limit, in privately run detention centres; the number of suicides and deaths inside these prisons reached a new high in 2017. Indeed, the UK’s detention estate is designed to facilitate deportation, and non-citizens are routinely deported (or banished) to persecution, abjection and death. In this light, we might question why a scandal about the destitution of long-settled Caribbean migrants became the catalyst for a broader debate about the cruelty of the UK’s immigration system?

Crucially, it was because the ‘Windrush generation’ were definitively ‘not-migrants’. The scandal was not about policies which were too harsh on immigrants (I am not sure where the limit point is with regard to ‘illegals’), but about immigration controls affecting the wrong people (some of the discourse on Brexit among the liberal left has a similar thrust). The ‘Windrush generation’, it was widely claimed, were citizens.

Compulsory myths about ‘Windrush migrants’ being invited over to help rebuild Britain after the war were thrown around – despite the fact that the opposite is true – and the borders of the nation were (re)demarcated publically, with the ‘Windrush generation’ brought within and ‘illegal immigrants’ most certainly kept without.

I want to consider why the Windrush migrants garnered such empathy, and what the contours of this collective empathy tell us about race, class and deservingness in relation to mobility.

Mobility and deservingness: the ‘Windrush generation’ as not-migrants

In explaining the consensus on the deservingness of the ‘Windrush generation’, we must first recognise that they became a pawn in a political game surrounding Brexit. The consensus on their suffering was secured through the Daily Mail’s outrage, complemented by Jacob Rees-Mogg’s intervention, when he piled in to denounce May and Rudd in their aggressive pursuit of the ‘hostile environment’, which he described as ‘fundamentally un-British’. We can think about this manoeuvre in relation to the Brexiteers’ strategy of returning to some variation of the Commonwealth after the UK leaves the European Union.

In short, the space to talk openly about the violence of immigration control within the mainstream largely opened up because there were dividends for the right-wing tabloids and conservative backbenchers in pressing this issue. Of course, the Labour party also seized the opportunity to inflict some wounds, but threw ‘illegal immigrants’ under the bus in the process (Diane Abbott stated on Question Time that the Labour party would ‘bear down on the numbers of ‘illegal immigrants’’ – apparently for their own good).

There is, however, something interesting going on with race and Britishness here. The defence of the ‘Windrush generation’ allowed the British establishment to remind everybody that they were ‘not racist’. By contingently and selectively incorporating ‘black Britons’, we are reminded of Britain’s tolerance and embracing of its multi-racial composition. This is the national version of the ‘I’m not racist, I have black friends’ narrative, and the ‘Windrush scandal’ reminded us that in protecting ourselves from migration we became clumsy, reckless perhaps, and ended up harming our ‘black friends’. Absolutely central to our friendship, however, is the fact that the ‘Windrush generation’ are not-migrants.

The ‘Windrush generation’ could be folded into the national ‘we’ because they migrated safely ‘back then’. No matter that they might share their lives with people who migrated after 1973; no matter that their nieces and nephews, or their partner’s children, might be struggling with the very same violent immigration regime; no matter that controls introduced against Commonwealth migrants in the last five decades have destroyed transnational family lives; and no matter that British nationality law itself is born of racism, colonial amnesia, and the denial of slavery’s afterlives. Instead, the ‘Windrush generation’ are allowed to claim Britishness because they migrated ‘way back when’, and only for as long as they distance themselves from ‘illegal immigrants’. What is this if not a question about deservingness and mobility? One which distinguishes between those racialised as black along lines of legal status.

The ‘Windrush generation’ do not summon images of ‘illegal border crossings’, or ‘breaking point’, or uncontrolled migration, or terrorism, asylum or Islam. The ‘Windrush generation’ are elderly, they have worked hard and paid taxes, and they are defined by stasis, not by unruly mobility. ‘Illegal immigrants’, on the other hand, even those who have been here for twenty years, remind us that there are many more like them, who might flout immigration restrictions and move to the UK, and worse still, they might stay. ‘Illegal immigrants’ are mobile, and their mobility is dangerous, and this is central to their undeservingness.

Bridget Anderson notes that the unruly person who moves, the vagrant, has long been considered ‘the chrysalis for every species of criminal’ (Anderson, 2013). Control over the mobility of the poor has long been the concern of the British state (and all states), and the ‘illegal immigrant’ is the descendant of the vagrant:

‘Benefit scroungers’ and ‘migrants’ are often imagined as competing with each other for resources, and both exemplify the contested relation between mobility and labour that was expressed first in the Statute of Labourers’ understanding of vagrancy, and later in the legislation governing poor relief. The requirement for the population to be fixed in order to claim poor relief and to be mobile for the purposes of selling their labour continues to have relevance today.

(Anderson, 2013)

My point is that thinking about mobility and its control can complement Shilliam’s account of race, class and deservingness. It is through fears about mobility, and the political and economic need to ‘keep people in their place’, that racial and class hierarchies are produced and have been produced historically. Crucially, those who move without authorisation are by definition undeserving.

Thinking about mobility – in relation to citizenship, race and class – is productive, especially in an increasingly globalised and yet bordered world of ‘walled states’ and ‘waning sovereignty’ (Brown, 2010). Further, mobility is central to the production of racialised and classed subjects:

Through the production of patterns of movement (statelessness, deportability, enclosures, confinement), different categories of subjectivity are produced. Regimes of movement are thus never simply a way to control, to regulate, or to incite movement. Regimes of movement are integral to the formation of different modes of being. But movement is also a lens through which to trace the models within which subjectivity is framed.

(Kotef, 2015)

Perhaps this means that the Windrush migrants, a group who did not exist in discourse in the same way before the scandal, have been subjectivised in new ways. Shilliam argues that the poor within Britain, at various points, were ‘“blackened” in the process of being made to carry undeserving characteristics’. Might we even suggest that the ‘Windrush generation’ have been ‘whitened’ through their new found deservingness?

We need to be careful here, and Shilliam reminds us that to be racialised as black is precisely to be constructed as irredeemable. Indeed, the ‘Windrush generation’ will continue to be racialised as black, and while they might be constructed as part of the nation within political and media discourse, for as long as the news cycle permits, their lives will remain distorted by British racism. In fact, there is a separate essay to be written about the other main story within the British media during the time of the ‘Windrush scandal’, the moral panic around ‘knife crime’ and ‘gang violence’ in London, which relies on implicit (and not so implicit) invocations of black pathology. Reading these stories together provides a window onto the complex configurations of British racism at this juncture, with the ‘Windrush generation’ constructed as ‘good blacks’ – which is related to their age, employment and family life – and urban youth as ‘bad blacks’ – the violent ‘gangsters’, or perhaps just disaffected teenagers, who lack ‘decent role models’, and seem to symbolise Britain’s moral decline.

Stopping short of suggesting that the ‘Windrush generation’ have been ‘whitened’, it is clear that in very selective ways, certain people who are racialised as black have been incorporated, partially, into the nation, and this gets negotiated explicitly in relation to British citizenship.

My argument is that the ‘Windrush generation’ have been incorporated because they are contrasted with new-comers and ‘illegal immigrants’. In short, they do not rouse ‘our’ fears around ‘migration’ and hence they can be accepted into the nation. The ‘Windrush generation’ are not associated with mobility, save for that historic docking at Tilbury, rendered safely in black-and-white.

There are real dangers in playing up to this politics of deservingness through stasis. Especially when politicians are so fond of invoking their black and brown constituents who also feel concerned about immigration:

The prevailing contemporary logic seems to be that ‘we’ still do not like ‘migrants’, that migrants are now often white since they come from Europe and that ‘we’ includes Black people; therefore, it is not racist to say that we do not like migrants

(Anderson, 2015: 2)

Instead, a much more radical politics, and a much wider critique of British racism and imperialism, would be one that takes up the cause of ‘illegal migrants’ – those illegalised in the UK and those let die in places of scarcity, those trapped in Calais or at Europe’s borders, and those detained indefinitely in ‘our’ detention centres, within earshot of Gatwick and Heathrow’s runways. Perhaps with mobility as a lens, we might find that our cause is with the ‘fenced out’ rather than the ‘left behind’ (indeed the ‘left behind’ implies those who are fixed in place, in ‘our land’, but who have been excluded from ‘our time’). Shilliam’s analysis offers some crucial resources for a more historically and globally situated critique of our current predicament.

In these dark times, the question of border violence is more urgent than ever. And this is something Shilliam points to in his concluding chapter:

The first legislation to re-introduce conditionality into welfare provision concerned asylum seekers; and nowadays, welfare is conditionally granted to all. Hence, the socialist left must recognize that it is in the micro-sites – usually coloured as “ethnic” or “immigrant” – that the battles for tomorrow are first won or lost. The suffering of Grenfell Tower residents should, in principle, be apprehended as the post-Brexit fate that awaits the “just about managing” in the North as well as the inner-city South. Justice for Grenfell is justice for all.

Shilliam’s final chapter – Brexit: Viewed from Grenfell Tower – is a reminder that the stakes could not be higher for the left, as it works out how to talk about race and immigration. Justice for Grenfell is justice for all, just as justice for ‘illegal immigrants’ is justice for the ‘Windrush generation’. Thinking about mobility, citizenship, and illegality – in relation to race, class and deservingness – is necessary for those of us trying to refine our analysis and our politics in dark times.


Anderson, B. (2013). Us and them? : the dangerous politics of immigration control. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Anderson, B. (2015) ‘Book Review: Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control: Subject by Examination’, British Journal of Criminology.

Brown, W. (2010). Walled states, waning sovereignty. New York: Zone.

Gilroy, P. (2004). After empire : melancholia or convivial culture? London: Routledge.

Kotef, H. (2015). Movement and the ordering of freedom : on liberal governances of mobility / Hagar Kotef: Durham ; London : Duke University Press, [2015].



4 thoughts on “The mobility of deservingness: race, class and citizenship in the wake of the ‘Windrush scandal’

  1. Pingback: Seeing Class through Race: Britain’s Racialized Moral Economy and the Construction of a ‘White Working Class’ | The Disorder Of Things

  2. Pingback: Shilliam’s Undeserving Refusal. Or, why a relational politics of liberation was always (is always) possible | The Disorder Of Things

  3. Pingback: Race and the Undeserving Poor: Response | The Disorder Of Things

  4. Pingback: Race and the Undeserving Poor | Robbie Shilliam

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s