New York City welcome

Jonn Elledge begins his North American Odyssey in the traditional manner - stuck in a queue waiting

In the immigration hall at New York's Kennedy airport there hangs a picture of a happy, helpful custom official. Beneath it, in large, friendly letters, a caption promises that the US Custom and Border Protection Agency 'pledges to cordially greet and welcome you, and treat you with courtesy, dignity and respect.'

As reassuring as this is, it's of precious little use when you find yourself standing in line for an hour and a half, surrounded by overheated Welsh teenagers, at a time your body insists is 3am.

The reason for the hold up was that the ever helpful Department of Homeland Security now requires every foreigner who enters the US to provide two finger prints, a retinal scan, and a convincing justification for their visit. Doing this 400 times takes a while.

After we'd been waiting 20 minutes, the tannoy crackled and an irritable voice warned us that any mobile phones in use in the queue would be confiscated and destroyed. After 30 minutes, a second voice chided us that our bags were clogging up the carousel, and announced they were about to be dumped on the floor. After 40, another flight landed, the queue doubled and three of the five immigration booths in use were helpfully designated "US Citizens only".

This combination of delays and suspicion is likely to be familiar to anyone who's visited the US in recent years. A 2006 survey ranked the country as the most unfriendly in the world to international travellers, with half of respondents complaining that immigration officials are rude and two-thirds admitting they expected to be detained because they "said the wrong thing". (One friend of mine once made the mistake of wondering aloud what the hold up was. The customs officials sent him to the back of the queue.)

None of this seems to be worrying the authorities too much: there are, after all, more votes in tight security and immigration controls than there are in being nice to foreigners.

But the tourism industry, at least, is starting to fret. The Discover America Partnership, which sponsored the survey, warned it was denting revenues by driving visitors away. Others worry that it will wreck the country's competitive edge. The more unwelcome foreign grad students feel in the US, the more likely they are to stay at home - and the more likely it is the next Google will come from Bangalore rather than Berkeley.

Only after nearly two hours of courteous treatment at the hands of US immigration we were finally allowed to escape the airport and make our way to the hotel we'd booked in Manhattan. This, it turned out, was a former transient hostel with bin bags on the mattresses and a sign on the wall reading 'No spitting.'

Welcome to New York.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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The UK is dangerously close to breaking apart - there's one way to fix it

We must rethink our whole constitutional settlement. 

When the then-Labour leader John Smith set up a report on social justice for what would be the incoming government in 1997, he said we must stop wasting our most precious resource – "the extraordinary skills and talents of ordinary people".

It is one of our party’s greatest tragedies that he never had the chance to see that vision put into practice. 

At the time, it was clear that while our values of equality, solidarity and tolerance endured, the solutions we needed were not the same as those when Labour was last in power in the 1970s, and neither were they to be found in the policies of opposition from the 1980s. 

The Commission on Social Justice described a UK transformed by three revolutions:

  • an economic revolution brought about by increasing globalisation, innovation and a changing labour market
  • a social revolution that had seen the role of women in society transformed, the traditional family model change, inequality ingrained and relationships between people in our communities strained
  • a political revolution that challenged the centralisation of power, demanded more individual control and accepted a different role for government in society.

Two decades on, these three revolutions could equally be applied to the UK, and Scotland, today. 

Our economy, society and our politics have been transformed even further, but there is absolutely no consensus – no agreement – about the direction our country should take. 

What that has led to, in my view, is a society more dangerously divided than at any point in our recent history. 

The public reject the status quo but there is no settled will about the direction we should take. 

And instead of grappling with the complex messages that people are sending us, and trying to find the solutions in the shades of grey, politicians of all parties are attached to solutions that are black or white, dividing us further. 

Anyone in Labour, or any party, who claims that we can sit on the margins and wait for politics to “settle down” will rightly be consigned to history. 

The future shape of the UK, how we govern ourselves and how our economy and society should develop, is now the single biggest political question we face. 

Politics driven by nationalism and identity, which were for so long mostly confined to Scotland, have now taken their place firmly in the mainstream of all UK politics. 

Continuing to pull our country in these directions risks breaking the United Kingdom once and for all. 

I believe we need to reaffirm our belief in the UK for the 21st century. 

Over time, political power has become concentrated in too few hands. Power and wealth hoarded in one corner of our United Kingdom has not worked for the vast majority of people. 

That is why the time has come for the rest of the UK to follow where Scotland led in the 1980s and 1990s and establish a People’s Constitutional Convention to re-establish the UK for a new age. 

The convention should bring together groups to deliberate on the future of our country and propose a way forward that strengthens the UK and establishes a new political settlement for the whole of our country. 

After more than 300 years, it is time for a new Act of Union to safeguard our family of nations for generations to come.

This would mean a radical reshaping of our country along federal lines where every component part of the United Kingdom – Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions – take more responsibility for what happens in their own communities, but where we still maintain the protection of being part of a greater whole as the UK. 

The United Kingdom provides the redistribution of wealth that defines our entire Labour movement, and it provides the protection for public finance in Scotland that comes from being part of something larger, something good, and something worth fighting for. 

Kezia Dugdale is the leader of the Scottish Labour party.