Ladies and Gentlemen,
The men and women who stepped off the Empire Windrush at Tilbury in June 1948, just a few months before I was born, had left behind all that was familiar to them in order to strive for opportunity in a land they barely knew. Many of them had served with distinction in the British Armed Forces during the Second World War, just as their fathers and grandfathers had in the First World War. Now they came to lend their hard work and skill to a country rebuilding in peacetime, and to forge a better future for themselves and their families. They could hardly have imagined how they, and those that followed them, would make such a profound and permanent contribution to British life.
Today offers an opportunity to express the debt of gratitude we owe to that first Windrush generation for accepting the invitation to come to Britain and, above all, to recognize the immeasurable difference that they, their children and their grandchildren, have made to so many aspects of our public life, our culture and to every sector of our economy.
I hesitate to single out any area of this activity but, as Coronavirus lockdown begins to ease, I did want to say a particular word about our National Health Service, of which people of African and Caribbean descent have been an indispensable part since its very beginning. Amidst this public health crisis that continues to confront us all, I would like to pay tribute to the doctors, nurses, and everyone working in our hospitals, as well as those in every kind of critical role on the frontline of this epidemic, including on our public transport system. At the same time, I know that the Black community has been hit particularly hard by this pernicious virus. To those who have lost their loved ones in such heartbreaking circumstances, when it has been impossible for them to comfort their relatives in hospital, I can only convey my most profound sympathy; and to everyone on the frontline who has been put under such intense pressure over the last three months and risen heroically to the unprecedented challenge, I want to say on behalf of all of us how inordinately proud we are of them and the way they carry out their onerous duties.
Ladies and Gentlemen, three years ago my wife and I were invited to visit the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton – an inspiring place, dedicated to collecting, preserving and celebrating the histories of African and Caribbean people in Britain. It offers a compelling reminder that our society is woven from diverse threads, drawn from so many parts of the world, which strengthen and enrich the fabric of our national life, as well as the remarkable tapestry of the Commonwealth. Recognizing the rich diversity of cultures which make this country so special – and in many ways unique – lies at the heart of what we can be as a nation.
Each thread comprises individual human stories of courage and sacrifice, ingenuity, determination and remarkable strength of character. It is vital, it seems to me, that the full range of these stories is heard and valued. We can only understand who we are as a Nation, where we have come from, and what future path we should take, if we are able to look at the past, present and future from each other’s perspectives.
We might perhaps reflect for a moment on the work of the great Jamaican British poet, James Berry, who sailed to the United Kingdom in 1949, inspired by the Windrush pioneers. He never avoided the difficult issues of injustice in history, or in the present, but always sought for mutual understanding. His poem, “Benediction,” stresses the need for us truly to hear one another, and truly to see, and through so doing, to understand. He said:
Thanks to the ear
that someone may hear
Thanks to seeing
that someone may see
Thanks to feeling
that someone may feel
Thanks to touch
that one may be touched
Thanks to flowering of white moon
and spreading shawl of black night
holding villages and cities together
Today, as we honour the legacy of the Windrush generation, and the invaluable contribution of Black people in Britain, I dearly hope that we can continue to listen to each other’s stories and to learn from one another. The diversity of our society is its greatest strength and gives us so much to celebrate.