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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser