Cosmopolitanism and the Mixed Blessings of the Windrush Scandal - An Interview with Kwame Anthony Appiah

Has the Windrush crisis redefined Britishness? And can a cosmopolitan worldview benefit all?

‘Mother-of-five Windrush kid in UK for 50 YEARS branded illegal immigrant’, ‘Brits born in Caribbean are fired, denied NHS care and could be deported’, read the headlines in The Sun newspaper. The political crisis over the deportations of people who came to the UK between 1948 and 1971 from the Caribbean has changed the discourse on immigration in the UK. Is the British identity being redefined, as a result? We asked leading theorist of cosmopolitanism Kwame Anthony Appiah to comment on the case. Raised by a Ghanaian father and an English mother in the UK, and now living in the US, where he is professor of philosophy and law at New York University, Appiah discusses how public attitudes to race and national identity have transformed over his and his father’s lives, and whether cosmopolitanism can be a solution for all.

Paula Erizanu

PE: What were your first thoughts when you read about the Windrush crisis?

KAA: I suppose I thought that at that time between the late 1940s and the early 1950s when those Caribbean people first arrived, my father was in England, and he was a West African; a black man. His own experience was pretty good. He felt that he was treated respectfully, mostly, by the white British people he interacted with. He had good memories of that time.

And I wonder whether things got worse in relation to the British racial relations. That when they arrived, things were good but they got worse later. It struck me that the attitudes that led to the government’s attempt to deport seem worse than the attitudes prevalent in the 1940s and 1950s, though by the time I was a teenager in England in the 1960s, Enoch Powell (Conservative MP between 1950 and 1974) was around and there was an explicitly racist form of politics in England and now various forms of nationalist politics have developed.

I think that the Windrush generation arrived at a time when people were not so racist and what’s happening now is a reflection that things have gotten worse. I’m not super confident that this is what happened but these are the thoughts that I had when I first read about this story.

PE: Home Secretary Amber Rudd told MPs that the crisis happened because the Home Office had ‘become too concerned with policy and strategy - and lost sight of the individual’ – would you say that this is a right diagnosis of why the crisis has come about?

KAA: One has to ask what the policy was and it’s hard to make sense of the policy except as one trying to affect the racial character of the country. If you’re trying to get rid of people from the dark Commonwealth and people from Eastern Europe at the same time, that seems to me an ethnic cleansing project. I don’t mean to compare it to the worst kind of ethnic cleansing but it seems to me in that territory.

And when you come to that territory you do stop thinking about what you’re doing to the lives of individual people. Instead of thinking about them as people with lives you think of them as a vast category of illegal immigrants or aliens, and you treat them in a way that is therefore insensitive to their moral rights.


"If you’re trying to get rid of people from the dark Commonwealth and people from Eastern Europe at the same time, that seems to me an ethnic cleansing project.


PE: Is cosmopolitanism a solution to this? How do you envision the promotion and implementation of a cosmopolitan agenda? What could the May government do to be more cosmopolitan?

KAA: I think these are dark times for the cosmopolitan impulse around the world.

In my country, the US, there’s a huge upsurge of hostility to foreigners  –  both when they come here as visitors or immigrants, and when they live in the rest of the world – a kind of indifference towards the people suffering elsewhere, in Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, in refugee camps in Turkey or Lebanon, or other parts of the world.

So yes, I think that part of cosmopolitanism is about recognising our common humanity, recognising that we have an obligation to play our part in shaping a world in which people are safe and secure and able to lead good lives. That part is, I think, morally obligatory, everybody should recognise that.

But it would be made easier by adding in the other part of cosmopolitanism, which is engagement with, and taking pleasure in encounters with people who are not like us.

Now one of the paradoxes that has happened with the Windrush generation is that because they had been in England all their lives they are not terribly different from other English people. They’ve got different coloured skin and some of their ancestors are from elsewhere.

One of the things that a cosmopolitan perspective urges you to recognise is not just that you are different from some people but that you have things in common with people who you normally think of as different from yourself.

So if I was advising the May government on this I would tell them that they need to insist that these are British people, who have lived here all their lives, they are decent citizens and that they should be treated that way.

PE: So are you saying political discourse is the main solution to promoting cosmopolitanism?

KAA: No, that’s why I say that these are dark times. I believe in the importance of rhetorical leadership, I believe in the importance of governments framing things correctly and speaking about people respectfully and encouraging those attitudes but there’s no guarantee that you’ll get an uptake just because you say something like that. It takes time and further attention to actually change the attitudes of people who thought it was sensible to deport people who have lived here all their lives. But it’s a start. What’s that Churchillian phrase, it’s not the end, it’s not the beginning of the end but it could be the end of the beginning.


"Scapegoating is unkind and cruel to immigrants, who in the North Atlantic world are typically more law-abiding than non-immigrants, and it’s cruel and unkind to try to take away from the Chinese, who, as I say, have come out of poverty in hundreds of millions." 


There has been a recognition on the part of the government that something terribly wrong has happened here and a surprising admission – many governments would be less frank about admitting they made a mistake here – even if I think they haven’t given a sufficiently deep account of what the mistake was, and that they owe apologies and restitutions to anyone who’s been treated in this way. That’s also an important thing to do.

One of the things about contemporary populism is that it produces an atmosphere in which even if there is elite consensus across the board, even if the whole of the House of Commons voted on it, and all the leaders of all the parties would speak unanimously about it, there would be people who would be racist about it, and chauvinist in their attitudes. And that’s basically something we have to accept. It’s a feature of cultural life not just in Britain but in Europe.

PE: Many people with anti-immigrant feelings are losers of globalisation. Yet you once said that we have the resources to accommodate all people and keep opera and Radio 3, by focusing on giving people what they need, rather than on equality or getting the most we can get. How could we reach a world where everyone has what they need?

KAA: That’s a long way from where we are now. Let’s think about what people mean by saying they’ve lost out. Part of what they mean is that the bottom 15 per cent income distribution in the UK is doing very badly.

Part of that is because certain working class jobs that were part of the legacy of industrialisation and the vast growth of industry in the 20th century and they’ve gone for two reasons – one is automation and the other one is offshoring. Automation is affecting people all around the world. It’s a real phenomenon and it’s important for all governments to think about what to do about it. It’s a serious problem.

But attacking immigrants isn’t going to solve that problem. It might make a few jobs available but it will fix a tiny part of the problem. It’s wrong to blame immigrants or the people offshore, say in China, who are now doing some of the production work that people in North America used to do, not least because that process of transferring those jobs overseas has been part of what has increased the total world trade system in ways that means that hundreds of millions of people in China and India and other places have been taken out of poverty, which is a good thing from a cosmopolitan point of view – the point of view that everyone should be able to meet their needs.

The best thing that happened for poverty around the world isn’t aid, it’s trade, and the growth of the global economy.


"Now I think it is possible to be black and British in the minds of many Britons." 


One consequence of that is that even poorer people in the UK have access to things they wouldn’t have access to if the jobs hadn’t gone overseas – for instance, cell phones they can afford, which cost less because they have been produced in places where labour costs are lower. And even in the bottom 15 per cent of British income distribution, people have cell phones. So it's not like they're getting nothing out of it.

That’s not to say that they aren’t in a bad situation, and that a proper analysis and a proper attempt to do something about it is the obligation of the British government, as it is in my country, in the US, where I live. Nobody’s doing a good job of it. We ought to be thinking about it.

But scapegoating immigrants is completely unhelpful. It doesn’t help solve the problem, and it’s cruel and unkind to those people. It’s unkind and cruel to immigrants, who in the North Atlantic world are typically more law-abiding than non-immigrants, and it’s cruel and unkind to try to take away from the Chinese, who as I say, have come out of poverty in hundreds of millions. It’s wrong in any conceivable way from a cosmopolitan point of view and just from the view of basic ethics.

PE: Would you say that the Windrush crisis is reinventing British identity? That given the anti-EU climate, and the Sun publishing sympathetic stories about the Windrush generation, the Commonwealth is an identity that more British people might be attracted to?

KAA: I suspect that the answer is yes. In essence, this is an imaginative replacement of foreign migrants from the European Union with people from the old British Empire. Because as a result of the sentiments around Brexit, the xenophobic feelings, particularly towards Eastern Europeans, people are saying: "Why don’t we stick to the people we know, who come from the old Commonwealth?" I’m sure it is part of it.

I have this sense that over the course of my lifetime it has become easier for people to imagine that you don’t have to be white to be British. I’m not sure you can be English and not white. I once was giving a talk in London and a woman in the back row asked me why I had said I was English, and I said, well, you know, my mother was English, and her father was English, and I can trace back to the 13th century down that line. She just looked sceptical. And it occurred to me that it was because I wasn’t white. I don’t think that that’s true anymore in the minds of everybody, which is good, that’s progress.

But the attachment to the Commonwealth is a bit of a mixed blessing because that’s associated with nostalgia for the Empire, and that’s not particularly attractive, since having gotten rid of the imperial relations was one of the great achievements of Britain in the 20th century.

PE: What are your hopes for what will come out of the Windrush crisis?

KAA: I found it good that the situation now means that the British government has to accept that this sort of treatment of people, which clearly has a racial component to it, is unacceptable. That’s a hopeful thing. I’m famously someone who looks for signs of hope, and I think that is a sign of hope. I’m not sure that having Powell in the government means that would have gone so smoothly. And in that sense the fact that a Conservative government has to make it clear that you can be properly British and black – that’s good, and that wasn’t obvious to everybody even in the Windrush generation when they came to Britain. They may not have been treated particularly badly but even the people who treated them well didn’t think of them as becoming British. Now I think it is possible to be black and British in the minds of many Britons.

PE: Is this a proof, and example of, your idea that national identities can get reinvented?

KAA: Yes, I think this is an instance of re-imagining the nation, which nations do all the time. Sometimes they do it in a way that is positive and productive – as it is in this case, and sometimes they do it in a way that is negative and unproductive, which is part of what happened in the lead-up to Brexit.

People have to decide together in a democracy what their notion of identity is, and who they want to keep out. And I think that it’s obvious that one restriction on forms of nationalism is that they shouldn’t be racist. So developing a less racist notion, or even a non-racist notion of British identity is good.

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