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Oi you – welcome to the United Kingdom!

December 5, 2018

In my last post I had a moan about the fact that nobody in my country, the United Kingdom, knows what new arrangements we will have to endure when we travel to European Union countries after Brexit. Perhaps it won’t be that bad, especially if by some miracle we are still be able to go through those sexy e-gates that are being installed in most major airports within the EU.

The trouble with e-gates is that in the UK we’re approaching the point at which we have no option but to use them, which is fine as long as the computers don’t break down. This can cause chaos. When my wife and I arrived at Heathrow the other day the system seemed to be working well. But about 150 people had been kettled into line for the e-gates. There were, however, only ten people waiting at the two desks manned by humans. So we decided to go for them.

When I reached the desk, the officer, who was quite young, asked me if I was travelling alone. I said no, and pointed to my wife at the next booth. For some reason that she didn’t make clear, she ordered my wife to line up beside me. She then ticked us off for bothering her when we could have gone through the e-gates.

Given that if we had gone through the e-gates, we would have done so separately, I have no idea why this official insisted that my wife joined me at the same booth. I can only assume that she was having a bad day, or that donning the uniform of the so-called Border Force turned her from a normal person into a gauleiter every morning. Or perhaps even that she was taking Theresa May’s recent ravings about immigration queue-jumpers a little too literally.

Feeling tired and testy myself, I was tempted to bite back, but being mindful that the “Force” bit might lead to a few hours in a cell somewhere in the bowels of Heathrow, I bit my tongue.

This, I concluded, is what happens when a Service, or in our case an Agency, turns into a Force. A few years ago, the folks that checked our passports wore ordinary clothes. More often or not, they were courteous and friendly. Then they became the Border Force and squeezed themselves, some with difficulty, into snazzy uniforms. My experience of the older officials is that they continued to be courteous and friendly. But the younger ones, like the person we encountered the other day, are sometimes less so.

At around the same time as the Border Force was emerging from its chrysalis, the immigration officials of Saudi Arabia, who from time immemorial were dressed like soldiers and were notorious for their arrogance, were undergoing a happiness transplant. They flung off their uniforms in favour of their traditional white thobes, and started treating those who had arrived in their country to work, do business or carry out the pilgrimage as something close to customers. What’s more, they were seated at desks rather than armour-plated booths. The transformation, about which I wrote at the time, was startling. This was Saudi Arabia, after all – hardly a haven of liberal values, as subsequent events have abundantly proved.

It’s a bit of an irony that while the Saudis were dressing down, our officials were dressing up, and in their shiny new paramilitary uniforms are now staring from their elevated booths at the supplicants below.

Regular readers of this blog would be disappointed if at this point I failed to note a political dimension.

I have no idea whether or not the decision to create a uniformed Force coincided with the policy of the UK Home Office, under the direction of our current Prime Minister, to create a “hostile environment” for immigration. It was certainly a reaction to years of bumbling failure on the part of senior officials who were supposed to be controlling our borders. Uniforms, shaping up, esprit de corps, that sort of stuff.

In fairness, I should point out that those who staff the e-gates look more like airline cabin crew than terminators. But for those arriving at British airports who are not EU citizens, e-gates are not an option. They have to face the robocops.

I’m exaggerating of course. The vast majority of officials are still courteous and professional. But unfortunately the minority defines the majority. And I suspect that the officious person my wife and I encountered is not the only one. In fact, my daughter had a similar experience a couple of years ago when she was accused of not being the same person as the one in her passport photo. Nobody seemed to have pointed out to this official that between the ages of 18 and 26 people often change their appearance quite a lot. It’s called growing up. My daughter was quite intimidated by the questioning.

No doubt there are large numbers of people in the UK who are quite happy to see entrants to the country being given the third degree. I needn’t say how they would have voted in the EU referendum. But even they would surely admit that without the millions of tourists who visit the country every year we would be much the poorer.

So when I see massive lines of people at Gatwick and Heathrow waiting for their grilling, I wonder how many would wish to repeat the experience. We are in danger, in this and many other ways, of becoming facsimiles of the United States, whose Homeland Security officials seem to start their questioning on the basis that you’re a terrorist or mobster at worst, and a liar at least.

Yes, I hear you say, but “the world is a very dangerous place”, as the most dangerous US president for a century is also fond of saying. We have to be on the alert for the bad guys trying to get into our country. True, but let’s not forget that there’s a difference between calm, intelligent questioning and bullying.

I fear that once the old-timers have retired, we’ll be left with a “Force” of officials whose personalities are defined by their uniforms, and whose model of best practice is that of the shaven-headed hominids who think their mission is to keep America safe from child migrants, Muslims and Mexican drug mules.

I know, I’m exaggerating again, but in an era when authoritarian behaviour seem to be the coming fashion, if we don’t want our country going that way, we shouldn’t let examples of such behaviour go unnoticed.

At least the Border Force hasn’t been privatised yet. Those who are caught in their net are, it seems, in for a rougher ride. Staff running an immigration removal centre, who work for the private security giant G4S, have been accused in a newly-released report of being both draconian and laddish towards the inmates. An interesting combination.

Time for a bit of training in both organisations, perhaps. But I doubt if the Home Office budget would stretch to that, especially as we’re battening down the hatches in preparation for Brexit.

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