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This is a slightly edited version of the original to make it (hopefully) a bit clearer. There’s a response from Aldeburgh in the Comments below.

Imagine the scene: one of the most beautiful concert halls in the world, you turn up at the stage door to rehearse and are met by a border guard who assumes you to be a criminal threatening the state unless you can show him your passport to prove otherwise. No passport, no entry, and presumably the risk of being detained indefinitely.

Kafka,  Orwell or John Le Carré maybe?  Germany before World War II, or somewhere in the Eastern Bloc after it?

Wrong: Aldeburgh today (or rather, next week). No entry for British performers unless you can prove you’re British.

I was booked for a concert on Easter Saturday with Concerto Caledonia, James Bowman and a whole bunch of fabulous musicians, but have had to pull out as I’m not going to show my passport to a concert promoter in my own country. It’s fundamentally wrong.

Aldeburgh Music is a ‘licensed sponsor of the UK Border Agency’. When I first got wind of this my  thoughts were along the lines of  what’s one of the country’s great musical institutions doing in cahoots with something I’d only heard of in connection with cruelty to children and pregnant women and the possible closure of London Met. Then it dawned on me that the UKBA assumes that EVERYONE IN THE COUNTRY is an illegal immigrant unless they can prove otherwise. This is completely mad – who on  earth dreamed up a scheme that assumed a whole country’s citizens to be illegal immigrants?

Towards the end of my time as an academic I was sometimes asked to provide my passport number when visiting other UK universities, and also to get the passport numbers of visiting lecturers at York. I just assumed this to be yet another example of the university not trusting its staff, another layer of pointless bureaucracy. But I now realise that ALL ACADEMICS ARE ASSUMED TO BE ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS unless they can prove otherwise. No wonder HE institutions throughout the land are terrified of losing their ‘highly favoured’ status and going the way of London Met.

We have to wake up. The comparison with totalitarian regimes is not an idle one – it’s the incremental undermining of fundamental freedoms that leads to the total erosion of  everything else. The Kafka and Orwell comparisons are apt too: we seem to have ended the Cold War so that the UK Border Agency can go to war against its own people.

There are things we can do. Academics: don’t go anywhere in the UK where you’re required to produce your passport; post your lecture online – students won’t be disadvantaged and your employer might begin to take this problem seriously. This especially applies to emeritus staff and people of my generation: we really don’t need to go along with this stuff.

Performers: I know musicians have to work, and the system perpetuates itself because we can’t afford to say no. Well, some of us can, and we should. Most concerts have several performers and will still work perfectly well with one missing (like the Aldeburgh gig). Only one person need make the gesture – an empty chair and some explanation to the audience will work wonders in raising consciousness.

Are there any benefits to being a UKBA sponsor? Yes, they get to employ foreign artists without their having to get visas in their own country. All well and good (though it’s a pity those countries don’t offer reciprocal arrangements, as anyone who’s ever had to go through the dreadful US visa process will know). And of course they keep out the undesirable Johnny Foreigner and producing your passport is a small price to pay for that, Daily Mail readers will say. Well it isn’t and I’m not paying it.  A British Citizen should have the right to work in his own country without having to prove he isn’t a criminal. Even the Daily Mail should get that one.

By the way, I’ve finally made it to Twitter: @johnpottermusic




  1. Shoel Stadlen says:

    Some thoughts from Aldeburgh Music:

    We completely understand why artists are surprised and annoyed about the new UK Border Agency (UKBA) rules. Following a recent UKBA audit we have been instructed to view and copy passports of all visiting artists and having taken advice we feel we have no option but to follow this new guidance, so as not to jeopardise our ability to invite musicians from around the world . It’s a huge administrative burden on Aldeburgh Music and feels like an invasion of privacy for the artists. It’s ironic that this is our founder Benjamin Britten’s Centenary year and he was a composer who did so much to further the causes of peace and artistic links across borders.

    While we are not the first organisation to be asked to do this, it is likely to be something which more and more arts organisations will have to respond to in the near future. Hopefully the arts sector will be able to agree a collective view on this and common sense will prevail. In the meantime we have to proceed as instructed and hope that this doesn’t disrupt the exciting summer of music making that we have planned.

  2. John Potter says:

    I should say that my anger wasn’t really directed at Aldebugh – for which I have the greatest admiration – and most people seem to have realised this. I absolutely understand the problem, but I hope that bringing it up will, as you say, contribute to a collective view. And we should remember that the main problem for UKBA spnsors isn’t the Brits – it’s the overseas artists, whose careers we certainly wouldn’t want to put in jeopardy.

  3. Jeremy Hare says:

    So what about British musicians who don’t have passports? Are they not allowed to perform?

  4. John Potter says:

    I guess not. I suspect the UKBA hasn’t thought this one through. Maybe all illegal immigrants have passports so the problem doesn’t arise.

  5. Ellen Winhall says:

    If staff at the Aldeburgh Festival collectively feel that they ‘have no option but to […] proceed as instructed’ by the UKBA, I hope that the same individuals feel that they have no option but to make clear the reasons behind missing musicians to members of an audience. There are plenty of influential movers and shakers who attend Aldeburgh Festival (a British institution of a festival if ever there was one) most of whom I imagine would be stirred by the stark implications of the assumption that a whole country’s citizens are illegal immigrants (as JP puts so succinctly). If ever an opportunity has arisen to make this ludicrous situation clear in a very simple way to a captive audience – some of whom may have the power to actually do something about it (Lord so-and-so and Joe Bloggs MP) – Aldeburgh has it.

    Shoel (above) hopes that ‘the arts sector will be able to agree a collective view on this and common sense will prevail.’ But the ‘arts sector’ doesn’t exist by itself: individual people exist – individual people within ‘the arts’ and individual people within ‘Aldeburgh’. I do hope that individuals don’t hide behind an institution and do take a stance to bring such a ludicrous situation to the fore. To take the position to not say anything to audience members about the reasons behind an empty musician’s chair, is, in my opinion, the same as positively supporting the view that everyone in the country is an illegal immigrant.

  6. liz garnett says:

    I experienced this at as a guest lecturer at a UK university, and the person asking was most embarrassed and apologetic. Well, she’d known me when I was an undergraduate in the department, 20 years before…

    It seems to be driven by a combination of factors:
    – the systemic mistrust you identify
    – a careless willingness to increase other people’s administrative burdens without any regard for the proportionality of the inconvenience involved
    – a culture of craven arse-covering in the face of the first two

    Thank you for making a stand, and for talking about this publicly (and thanks to Alex Constansis for the link to this!)

  7. John Potter says:

    Thanks Ellen and Liz. It’s so heartening to get this kind of response. You’re both absolutely spot on. If enough of us refuse to be intimidated we may be able to make a difference. Ellen, does the Australian government have a similar policy with Australian citizens?

  8. Mark Swinton says:

    Hello John! Very interested to read this – and I couldn’t agree with you more. I realise that the Border Agency has a harder task than ever nowadays, but you’d think that the Right Hand would know what the Left is doing. If they must insist on verifying the citizenship of performing artists, why not (for instance) simply check with HMRC, who can surely confirm via your tax returns of the last x years that you are British and have a right to work in the UK?

  9. John Potter says:

    Yes, absolutely right Mark. We’re all used to providing NHI numbers and tax details etc (or A1/E101 if we’re working in Europe). None of those questions your nationality or citizenship. Going the passport route is perncious and alienating and needlessly adds to the Home Office’s reputation for using sledge hammers to crack nuts.

  10. Ellen Winhall says:

    ‘Ellen, does the Australian government have a similar policy with Australian citizens?’

    No – I don’t think so. In my experience they ask whether you are a citizen/permanent resident and ask for your Tax File Number. It seems that they do whatever they need to do through the Aussie equivalent of the HMRC – similar to Mark’s suggestion above for the UK. Seems to work well.

  11. John Potter says:

    That sounds sensible. I’ve no objection to having my identity checked – it happens to everyone all the time (and sometimes it’s even necessary). The trouble with the passport as a means of proof is the implication that somehow you might not have the right to live in your own country.

  12. Simon Cosgrove says:

    Thank you John for taking your stand.

    Surely the place for passports is at the border (except in certain carefully defined situations) – and the place of the Border Agency is also at the border! (where according to reports it apparently struggles to perform its proper function…)

    Indeed, it used to be the case that the UK was distinguished from some non-democratic regimes by the fact that its citizens only needed their passports when crossing the border. Are freedom-loving traditions abandoned so easily in the face of some anti-migration hysteria?

    Again, thank you John.

  13. John Potter says:

    Thanks Simon – you’re absolutely right, and I really appreciate your understandin and support.

  14. Dear John – I have been in touch with Aldeburgh Music and have had a high-level meeting with the UKBA lately. The visiting officer and Aldeburgh Music between them managed to come to a tediously common misunderstanding on this matter. The fact is that the UKBA cannot compel any sponsor to take copies of people that are not employees. They can penalise companies for not being able to prove that employees are legal to work here. This sits on slightly dodgy legal ground when it comes to UK nationaals. The misunderstanding generally comes from the nature of the work you do. As far as I am concerned you are self-employed, not an employee of each venue / promoter you work with. Hence they do not need to sight your passport as employment / immigration law does not apply. I have had this confirmed by the current head of the UKBA’s work visa system and 2 senior policy officials. I just thought you’d like to know. Whether Aldeburgh change their policy is down to them – I’ve advised them they can do so legally.

  15. John Potter says:

    Thanks for this Steve. It’s very refreshing to hear something positive about all this – and to get some hard fact rather than bureaucratic knee-jerking. Over to you, Aldeburgh Music…

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