A Jeremiad on UK Visas

Recording of my speech at Goldsmiths College with Tony Benn.

Goldsmiths
The view from the panel

Last Monday night I spoke on behalf of English PEN alongside Tony Benn at a meeting a Goldsmiths College Student Union, on the problem of the UK’s new points-based visa system.  The system has caused hundreds of writers and artists to be refused entry to the UK, even for short-term visits such as a one-off gig or book launch.  Academics and university support staff are particularly concerned with how the system affects relationships with their students:  The system places new monitoring requirements on professors to log attendance at individual lectures and inform the UK Border Agency of any ‘suspicious behaviour’.

It was clear that, at Goldsmiths at least, neither staff nor students support the new measures.  The general mood is that staff should boycott any extra tasks that the UKBA demands they perform.  Many were frustrated that such a boycott is not already in operation.  However, co-ordinating such action – which really amounts to a simple work-to-rule action, because there is nothing about surveillance of students in any staff contract – nevertheless requires organisation and a sense of momentum.

From the floor, we heard the story of a student who has been harassed and harried at every turn in her bid to stay and study at the college.  She has spend over £2,600 in legal costs and ‘fees’ for processing various immigration applications.  The university cannot give her much help, since they do not want to “act as solicitors”, and she even had to represent herself and an immigration tribunal.  The ‘helpline’ she has been given to assist with her problems costs £1.20 per minute to call… and she is frequently put on hold whenver she calls.

Belle Ribeiro, the NUS Black Students officer, said that in general, international students do not get enough support when they come to study in the UK, despite contributing a huge amount in fees.  The new rules that insist that foreign student carry an ID card will mean that BME students are likely to be disproportionately hassled to identify and justify themselves.  And when ID card fraud inevitably occurs, it will be the overseas students who suffer.

My own speech was a jeremiad (hat-tip James Fallows for that word) on how this country was sending itself into a horrible cultural decline.  The approximate text, corrected for grammar and general semantic sense, is reproduced below.   You can check it against an recording.  The Rt. Hon. Tony Benn was also on the panel:  I’ve put an MP3 of his remarks online too.


Thank you.  I had a hilarious joke planned, about how Tony Benn, the veteran human rights campaigner, was my warm-up act.  And now it turns out I’m going first, so I actually have to do the speech in full and not say that he’s stolen all my ideas.

I learnt a new word last week, which is ‘Jeremiad’, from The Book of Jeremiah.  That means (and I quote)

“a piece of prose, in which the author bitterly laments the state of society and its morals in a serious tone of sustained invective, and always contains a prophecy of society’s imminent downfall.”

I’m going to apologise, because my speech today is going to be a bit of a Jeremiad, detected a slight tone of Jeremiad, I’m afraid.  The thesis is that we are in danger of sqandering, heamoraging, our cultural capital, if the ruling class doesn’t rethink its approach to this issue, of how we give people access to this country.

So, I’m the campaigns manager at English PEN. We are one of the oldest human rights organisations, older than Amnesty International, and we’re older than the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  We’re an association of writers from around the world, founded on the idea that literature and free speech are indivisible.

Over the years we’ve campaigned for Solzhenitsyn, Vaclav Havel, Wole Soynika, Ken Saro Wiwa, Salman Rushdie.  Currently have 650 cases on our case list, of writers around the world of people who are threaten, or in prison, for what they have written. But that’s in the background for what we are discussing tonight.

We were founded in 1921, here in London. The first President was John Galsworthy, who wrote the Forsyte Saga and won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Our second president was H.G. Wells, and it was these two writers who drafted our PEN charter, in 1933, which is in many ways a forerunner to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, particularly Article 19, which deals with freedom of expression.

Anyway, our PEN charter begins:

“Literature knows no frontiers, and must remain common currency among people in spite of political or international upheavals.”

And it seems, when we look at this visa issue, that actually in this new century, literature does know frontiers. A great big huge barrier to the flow of ideas, of literature, of art. And the sign on that barrier reads: “UK Border. Welcome.”

We’re here to discuss the points based immigration system, because that’s what has introduced these new rules and responsibilities that have really made universities in particular outposts of the Border Agency.  But its not just about these points, the points based system: “if only we could just get everyone more points, then everything would be fine!” Its not about that.

Its about the way this government approaches the issue of immigration in general. We do live in this reactionary climate, one where foreigners are seen as security threat, and an economic burden. The default position is always about how they are going to erode our culture. It is always, “what are they going to take from us?” and never “what are they bringing, what can they do for us?” This does go way back, to before the creation of the points based system, and before the creation of the UK borders agency itself.

My own personal experience of this was in 2006. I went all the way to Reading (well, not all the way, its only half-an-hour on the train) to interview the Thomas Mapfumo, who many of you may know is a Zimbabwean singer.  He’s probably the most influential musician in Zimbabwe, his music in the 1970s was the theme tune, if you like, to the uprising against Ian Smith’s racist Rhodesian government. But in past years, he has been very critical of the Mugabe regime, saying “what have we fought for, what have you done, Comrade?” And of course Mugabe threatened him, and eventually threw him out of the country.  Now he has asylum in the USA.

So in 2006, when the British Government, the Foreign Office, was saying how awful Mugabe was, how terrible it was that opposition was being crushed, was being threatened, was being kidnapped and killed, what happened when Thomas Mapfumo, the greatest indigenous critic came to sing his songs in Britain?

Turned away. “We think he might try and settle in the UK.” Never mind that the US Government – which not the most liberal, let-them-all-in government out there – had given him asylum. Never mind he had his recording career in Tennessee. Never mind he had his family and friends and a home over there. These are all things that the Home Office didn’t seem to know about, or didn’t seem to care about.

What it shows, is that the Home Office, and now the UKBA, has been given one directive, which is to keep people out, to the exclusion of any other consideration. Including, the British Government’s own foreign policy.

There are other examples, where we have one branch of government at odds with another branch. Or actually, one quango at odds with another (because the UK Border Agency is a quango).   I was talking to some colleagues at the Arts Council the other day, we’ve had the Chief Executive of the Arts Council intervening on behalf of certain artists, I think on behalf of opera singers, in particular, who haven’t got visas, but are required to sing at the Royal Opera House. And going in at that high level is massively inefficient and ridiculous, really.

had to get involved in order to reverse a UKBA decision on a high level opera singer, I think, who couldn’t get through immigration.

The most ridiculous example, which actually goes on to academia, is something that the Manifesto Club go into more detail in their forthcoming report, is the example of a New Zealand student, who applied for a visa to study here, while she was studying in Japan – so it was the Tokyo embassy that issued it.And so when she arrived at Heathrow, the UKBA down that she was Japanese, not from New Zealand.  So:  “I’m sorry, you’re papers aren’t in order,” and they sent her back to Wellington, or Christchurch, or wherever it was, at huge personal cost.

Now, this sort of error, where one arm of the operation gives false information to another arm of the operation, to create a complete mess, the military have a technical term for this, which is: Clusterfuck.  And that is really what is happening here.

So major problem we have is with the UKBA itself. It does not seem to be particularly accountable, and the only person it is accountable to is the Home Secretary.  But the decisions it is making involves the Arts, so why aren’t Department of Culture, Media and Sport involved in holding it to account as well?  And of course the decision affect Higher Education too, and – I think the deparment is now called Business, Innovation and Skills, it seems to change every week – they all need to be to be involved too. And there’s not much indication that they have any input into these policies at all.

Now what the UKBA  say, is that they’re “erring on the side of caution”. It is better to keep a terrorist out, and we don’t mind inconveniencing a lot of students and artists along the way.  And this attitude, seems sort of reasonable at first glance, but what its doing is slowly eroding our cultural standing and our cultural capital overseas. I think that is worse in the long run, than the short-term chaos that is caused by the very limited number of terrorist attacks and terrorist scares we have. And it is certainly far worse than the minimal loss of tax revenue that any individual immigrant might cause, by working when they shouldn’t.

Now we all know what happens with poor customer service. If your train late or your flight is delayed, then you write in, you complain, you tell absolutely everyone about it.  Whereas if you have a really good, smooth experience you don’t really tell people about it in the same way.  And this is what is happening with this system.  When the Border Police turn people away, sometimes really aggressively, the message that sends out is: Don’t bother. And, this is what we at PEN have been hearing from our international correspondents – simply don’t bother. And that’s what they tell their friends: Don’t bother.

And so instead of visiting the UK, and learning about our rich, liberal, bolshy culture, they just stay at home and learn about the UK on the news. Where it is Afghanistan, Iraq, all day long. So we are winning no friends, winning no champions, from overseas, through this policy.

And this is a far cry from the ‘Great Britain’, ‘Cool Brittania’ brand that we peddle. The greatness of Britain, even when it was at its most unpleasant, most imperial, was always about looking outward, about interaction with overseas. This interaction was the idea that PEN was founded on.

“Multiculturalism”, said Hanif Kureishi, “is the idea that you may be changed by other ideas. The idea that purity is incestuous.”

I love that quote, and I tell it in pretty much every speech I give, but its really apt here. It is something that is not understood by whoever it is who has devised these policies. Instead, they’re promoting a pure, refined, but ultimately very stagnanting culture, and it has no grasp of the international way in which art is made.

I’ll skip through because I’m conscious of time.

One thing I will say:  there is going to be an election coming up.  And everyone will be turning on the patriotic chat, about what a great country we are.  The Conservatives are a lot better at this than the Left, which tends to be more Internationalist. So I think if we make the argument that Britain is losing cultural influence, that will grate with the Tories, and maybe they’ll act.

A final point, David Cameron, our likely next Prime Minister, he talks about civil society taking more responsibility away from government. Well, instead of making our Universities outposts of the UK Border Agency, I wonder if he could give that responsibility to the arts organisations and cultural groups who are inviting these artists over.  They really want to take on that responsibility, put their credibility on the line, and say, “Yes, you may not have heard of this person, they might not be famous yet, but we think they are valuable and we think they should be in the UK.”

This current idea that ‘if your name’s not down, you’re not coming in’, this idea that you can’t go and see your favourite artists, that you can’t go and see you favourite novelist speak… is simply not fair!  It makes our lives just that little bit more unpleasant and grey, and it is something that we really need to fight against.

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