Britain: You're not welcome

Tougher immigration checks have made travelling to and from the UK a drag for everyone.

My memory plays tricks, but I’m pretty sure one of the first things I saw when I arrived back home at Stansted Airport the other day was a poster with the slogan “Britain: You’re welcome”. 

It’s a lie in two fundamental ways. Firstly, it implies the kind of cheerful customer service that doesn’t exist in Britain, where you’re generally regarded with hatred, suspicion and withering contempt if you dare to offer money in the hope of obtaining a product or service. 
 
Secondly, you’re not welcome. That much is made clear when you head towards the baggage reclaim area and arrive in the now familiar queues at border control. You’re not welcome: you might be a potential TERRORIST or CRIMINAL. You need to be shunted into queues in a drab, joyless expanse of grey carpet, and made to stand and wait, and wait, and wait. You need to stand and watch as the ultra-expensive biometric passport scanners fail to work, again. You need to be made to feel like a piece of crap, for having the nerve to want to enter Britain in the first place. 
 
The queues experienced by a long line of miserable passengers at Heathrow recently might be explained away as exceptional, unfortunate, whatever – but they are just an extreme example of something that has been happening for a long time. 
 
This has been coming for a while. “Tougher checks take longer,” mewl the electronic displays as you stand in the seemingly endless queue at whatever airport you’ve decided to come to. As if it’s your fault, as if you somehow demanded tougher checks at some point. Do you remember doing that? I don’t. I don’t recall thinking what a wonderful idea it would be to make the experience of entering the country a miserable, tedious and loathsome one. If I wanted to be treated like scum for crossing a border, I’d go to the United States. I don’t want it here. 
 
But then this is the state that New Labour made, attempting to portray itself as being ‘tough’ on immigration, a war it would never win against tabloids who were desperate to portray the former Government as deliberately opening the borders to all kinds of undesirables, tapping into their readers’ spectrum of opinions ranging between mild xenophobia and out-and-out racism.
 
It was Labour, too, who snipped back all kinds of civil liberties, with the simple explanation of “Because of terrorism” every single time. The balaclava-clad paramilitary special forces who took to the streets the other day during a bomb alert were part of the same legacy, as is the ultra security lockdown of London ahead of the Olympics, including missiles on tower blocks. 
 
To scare us, our leaders talk of “heightened” terror threats, of “Cobra” and “Gold Command”, things that sound like they should be in the kind of books read by sad men who dress in camouflage gear in their bedrooms and have a hard-on for Guns-and-Ammo type magazines. Our lawmakers are so terrified of being blamed for another terror atrocity, of letting someone slip through the net, they find themselves buying into all this macho garbage. 
 
Which means, when you come to Britain, you’re not welcome. You’re made to stand in a queue snaking around a tiny room, or one of many queues in a space especially reserved for queuing misery. The Tories won’t dismantle it, even though they try to vaporise as many public-sector workers as possible – so the end result is even longer queues, meaning even more travellers get their first impression of Britain as a place that couldn’t run a hot bath, let alone a border control.  
 
For those of us who live here, and who have the misfortune of having to go through Britain’s border every now and then, it’s becoming more and more tedious. And it’s just for show: it doesn’t stop home-grown terrorism; it doesn’t prevent criminality; it doesn’t do anything other to show that it’s there, to be seen to be doing something. It’s a great waste of time, money, resources and workers, and it makes Britain look hateful and incompetent. 
 
“You’re welcome,” says the sign. Not any time soon, you’re not. 
Passengers queue at Heathrow airport. Photo: Getty Images
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.