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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Hannan Fodder: This week, Daniel Hannan gets his excuses in early

I didn't do it. 

Since Daniel Hannan, a formerly obscure MEP, has emerged as the anointed intellectual of the Brexit elite, The Staggers is charting his ascendancy...

When I started this column, there were some nay-sayers talking Britain down by doubting that I was seriously going to write about Daniel Hannan every week. Surely no one could be that obsessed with the activities of one obscure MEP? And surely no politician could say enough ludicrous things to be worthy of such an obsession?

They were wrong, on both counts. Daniel and I are as one on this: Leave and Remain, working hand in glove to deliver on our shared national mission. There’s a lesson there for my fellow Remoaners, I’m sure.

Anyway. It’s week three, and just as I was worrying what I might write this week, Dan has ridden to the rescue by writing not one but two columns making the same argument – using, indeed, many of the exact same phrases (“not a club, but a protection racket”). Like all the most effective political campaigns, Dan has a message of the week.

First up, on Monday, there was this headline, in the conservative American journal, the Washington Examiner:

“Why Brexit should work out for everyone”

And yesterday, there was his column on Conservative Home:

“We will get a good deal – because rational self-interest will overcome the Eurocrats’ fury”

The message of the two columns is straightforward: cooler heads will prevail. Britain wants an amicable separation. The EU needs Britain’s military strength and budget contributions, and both sides want to keep the single market intact.

The Con Home piece makes the further argument that it’s only the Eurocrats who want to be hardline about this. National governments – who have to answer to actual electorates – will be more willing to negotiate.

And so, for all the bluster now, Theresa May and Donald Tusk will be skipping through a meadow, arm in arm, before the year is out.

Before we go any further, I have a confession: I found myself nodding along with some of this. Yes, of course it’s in nobody’s interests to create unnecessary enmity between Britain and the continent. Of course no one will want to crash the economy. Of course.

I’ve been told by friends on the centre-right that Hannan has a compelling, faintly hypnotic quality when he speaks and, in retrospect, this brief moment of finding myself half-agreeing with him scares the living shit out of me. So from this point on, I’d like everyone to keep an eye on me in case I start going weird, and to give me a sharp whack round the back of the head if you ever catch me starting a tweet with the word, “Friends-”.

Anyway. Shortly after reading things, reality began to dawn for me in a way it apparently hasn’t for Daniel Hannan, and I began cataloguing the ways in which his argument is stupid.

Problem number one: Remarkably for a man who’s been in the European Parliament for nearly two decades, he’s misunderstood the EU. He notes that “deeper integration can be more like a religious dogma than a political creed”, but entirely misses the reason for this. For many Europeans, especially those from countries which didn’t have as much fun in the Second World War as Britain did, the EU, for all its myriad flaws, is something to which they feel an emotional attachment: not their country, but not something entirely separate from it either.

Consequently, it’s neither a club, nor a “protection racket”: it’s more akin to a family. A rational and sensible Brexit will be difficult for the exact same reasons that so few divorcing couples rationally agree not to bother wasting money on lawyers: because the very act of leaving feels like a betrayal.

Or, to put it more concisely, courtesy of Buzzfeed’s Marie Le Conte:

Problem number two: even if everyone was to negotiate purely in terms of rational interest, our interests are not the same. The over-riding goal of German policy for decades has been to hold the EU together, even if that creates other problems. (Exhibit A: Greece.) So there’s at least a chance that the German leadership will genuinely see deterring more departures as more important than mutual prosperity or a good relationship with Britain.

And France, whose presidential candidates are lining up to give Britain a kicking, is mysteriously not mentioned anywhere in either of Daniel’s columns, presumably because doing so would undermine his argument.

So – the list of priorities Hannan describes may look rational from a British perspective. Unfortunately, though, the people on the other side of the negotiating table won’t have a British perspective.

Problem number three is this line from the Con Home piece:

“Might it truly be more interested in deterring states from leaving than in promoting the welfare of its peoples? If so, there surely can be no further doubt that we were right to opt out.”

If there any rhetorical technique more skin-crawlingly horrible, than, “Your response to my behaviour justifies my behaviour”?

I could go on, about how there’s no reason to think that Daniel’s relatively gentle vision of Brexit is shared by Nigel Farage, UKIP, or a significant number of those who voted Leave. Or about the polls which show that, far from the EU’s response to the referendum pushing more European nations towards the door, support for the union has actually spiked since the referendum – that Britain has become not a beacon of hope but a cautionary tale.

But I’m running out of words, and there’ll be other chances to explore such things. So instead I’m going to end on this:

Hannan’s argument – that only an irrational Europe would not deliver a good Brexit – is remarkably, parodically self-serving. It allows him to believe that, if Brexit goes horribly wrong, well, it must all be the fault of those inflexible Eurocrats, mustn’t it? It can’t possibly be because Brexit was a bad idea in the first place, or because liberal Leavers used nasty, populist ones to achieve their goals.

Read today, there are elements of Hannan’s columns that are compelling, even persuasive. From the perspective of 2020, I fear, they might simply read like one long explanation of why nothing that has happened since will have been his fault.

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