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
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.