The author (who reminds us that she is married to the prime minister’s younger brother, Jo Johnson) deservedly won the 2018 Journalist of the Year award for her work uncovering the scandal for The Guardian. Awkwardly for the Conservative government, Gentleman’s exposé coincided with the Commonwealth summit held in London that year, as well as with the 70th anniversary celebrations of the arrival of Empire Windrush in 1948.... Gentleman’s book, for all its cliché-ridden journalese (“encountering endless red herrings and failing to see the wood for the trees”), is campaign journalism at its most urgent.
Gentleman meticulously details the specifics that led to one of the biggest political scandals of the decade, providing a context for her reports that even those who closely followed the story will find valuable. The Home Office’s “hostile environment” policies attempted to inject hostility and suspicion into every interaction with the state. Through first-person accounts from the people affected, The Windrush Betrayal knits together a devastating picture of the human cost of punitive immigration policies... Her candid admissions of rage as she recalls the unfolding of the scandal are refreshing to read. Equally winning is her decision not to let this anger poison her view of Home Office staff. She tries to understand the pressures on those enforcing hostile environment policies, revealing poor practices, budget cuts and low morale. The compassionate approach works in her favour; one of her sources is revealed as a former employee of the department in charge of storing vital data. Her reporting proves why an independent free press is so vital for democracy. The book is dense with facts, but the real thread running through it is a human one.
...it untangles the wretched story of how Home Office intransigence and inertia ruined the lives of so many people who were the descendants of that first Windrush generation. Panicked by the rise of Ukip, Theresa May and other politicians oversaw a drastic tightening of immigration guidelines without giving much thought to how it would affect those who had lived here for decades...Gentleman, a Guardian journalist who broke the story of the Windrush affair and who is married to Boris Johnson’s brother Jo, passes from initial bemusement at the number of cases of injustice she uncovers to downright shock at the examples of official indifference and incompetence. It’s a depressing story, told in discreet, unsensational prose.
If much of this story is familiar that’s largely due to Gentleman, whose reporting for the Guardian on this shameful episode saw her named journalist of the year at the 2018 British journalism awards. It’s still shocking to read about people who had given so much care to this country – nurses, NHS drivers, special needs teaching assistants – being treated so coldly. Jocelyn John, who was four when she arrived from Grenada in 1963, was expelled by the Home Office and told she had a baggage allowance of 20 kilos – “You will be expected to pay for any excess.”
In her final chapter, she quotes the historian David Olusoga on the mythology of Windrush. “The revelations of Home Office behaviour exposed the ‘falsehood of British harmony’. He told me he found it ‘difficult to imagine that this would have been tolerated had these people been white.’ ”
Olusoga is undoubtedly correct, but the truth is that there are different kinds of harmony, and a variety of falsehoods, depending on the kind of narrative you want to choose. This story of racist misbehaviour on the part of civil-service departments is merely a blip in the long process of racial struggle that continues to redefine Britain and Britishness.