COMPAS book review: The Windrush Betrayal by Amelia Gentleman

Published 18 December 2019 / By Rob McNeil

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Journalism is having a hard time in these days of ‘fake news.’ Trust in journalism is lower than trust in estate agents, but at it’s best journalism can be a vital force for good: holding power to account, exposing injustice, providing a voice for those who might otherwise be ignored. It can also prick the conscience of a nation, and unite people in a common shared humanity.

The Windrush Betrayal documents journalism at its best. The book tells the story of Guardian journalist Amelia Gentleman’s exposé of the impacts of the Conservative Party’s ‘hostile environment’ policies. The scandal rocked the government and forced even the most nationalistic of Britain’s newspapers to reflect on what political bluster and rhetoric had done to a nation that prides itself on a sense of fair play.

Gentleman, to her credit, does not make this a book about herself, or even about politics, as such. Her voice, while present throughout, varies between a guide – introducing us to the real characters and inviting us to hear their testimonies; narrator – filling in the gaps with emotive details and the stark, robotic responses from the faceless bureaucracy in which they are trapped; and increasingly a frustrated and angry friend to the wronged.

The characters at the heart of the book – Paulette Wilson, Sylvester Marshall, Vernon Vanriel and others – were typically born in the Caribbean and travelled to the UK as British commonwealth citizens in the 1960s and early 70s. They arrived with full rights to live here indefinitely, and while still just children. Most had lived in the country their entire adult lives, working hard and paying taxes, and then in the middle of the last decade suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’.

They were wrongly deemed to be ‘illegal immigrants’ as a result of being unable to produce 50-year-old documentation proving the date of their arrival. The bitterest twist being that the very Home Office that persecuted them as ‘illegal immigrants’ had been responsible for the destruction of the landing cards that would have proved their legal status.

Many were failed so badly by the system that they were pushed to the edge of suicide, others were deported or otherwise forced out of a country that was legally their home. Those who did remain lived as shadows in the UK - denied life-preserving medical treatments, losing their jobs and homes and facing the shame of being arrested and detained.

Gentleman’s dogged pursuit of the story is played-out through the book. The issue is largely seen as little more than a few isolated human-interest pieces when she begins, but as the enormity of the problem unfolds, with thousands of legally resident black and Asian British people potentially facing removal or destitution, the extent of Government carelessness and loss of perspective becomes political dynamite.

The Guardian’s stories and the exposure of Government incompetence and callousness brought about a shift in the public mood which exploded into a nation scandal, But the lives of those caught up in the hostile environment remained in tatters – a new stamp in a passport may confer legal status, but does little to heal years of anguish. As the book reaches it’s conclusion we travel with them through their experience of some vague sort of justice, but it leaves a bitter taste.

The eventual political outcome was the resignation of a Home Secretary and a contribution to the catalogue of woes that led to the collapse of Theresa May’s Government – as well as a bookshelf full of awards for Gentleman herself. But there is no sense of triumph in the book, which leaves us simply wondering – “what next?”

From the purely selfish perspective of a reader, the book provides a great story – a page-turner with the pace and intrigue of a good novel, and filled with characters whose stoicism and dignity in the face of state sponsored racism and betrayal is a testament to the strength of human spirit.  Gentleman’s great achievement in this book is really this, to recognise that the real heroes of the piece are not the campaigners or journalists who brought the issue into the public consciousness, but these ordinary, flawed but decent people whose lives were shattered by the devastating combination of ‘tough’ politics and Kafkaesque bureaucracy.

Disclaimer – I should mention that both Madeleine Sumption and I worked to help Amelia during her reporting on the Windrush issues, and spoke to her during the writing of this book.