Aldeburgh and the UKBA

Thursday, March 21st, 2013



Thanks to all those who supported my previous post out there in the ether. It was both heartening to see so many people agreeing, and awful that so many people have had terrible experiences with the UKBA. To those who were offended by my reference to pre-war Germany: I wasn’t suggesting that there was a direct comparison between Nazism and the present-day UK, but trying to make the point that greater evils begin with lesser ones.

I’m sorry to be making life difficult for Aldeburgh music, though I hope that raising the problem might ultimately be a small nail in the coffin of what is an iniquitous system. Aldeburgh is legendary for its support of young artists from all over the world, and the fact that they have to treat UK performers as potentially foreign criminals is not their fault (as many have pointed out). There’s a response from them in the Comments below my previous post.  What makes the UKBA’s policy even more sinister is that it’s clearly aimed at young artists: a quick ask-around of non-UKBA sponsored promoters revealed that they rarely had problems with visas as these were organised by performers’ agents, which performers at the beginning of their careers are much less likely to have.

Although most people were either shocked by the actions of the UKBA or had already had dealings with them so knew exactly what I was getting at, a small number favoured ID cards and the like and had no problem with showing their passports. Some people, mistakenly, thought it was a security question (terrorism is taken care of very efficiently by our security services, and an efficient terrorist will be way beyond Passports 101);  one in particular (a fellow tenor, so maybe it takes one to know one) thought I was on some kind of  ego trip (and thanks to Alan Fairs for putting him straight!). There were also those who didn’t read it closely enough and thought I had literally  been confronted by a border guard in the dressing room.

I don’t have a problem with confirming my identity – for years self employed people have had to give their NI or TR numbers, and European promoters often require an A1/E101 form which asks for similar information. It’s a pain but you just get on with it. As several people pointed out (see Mark Swinton’s succinct comment below the previous post) there are plenty of ways to confirm identity which we’ve all been doing for years. But a passport is specifically to allow you to travel unhindered between countries – to get you out of your country, into another one and back again. It’s basically for use in a foreign country, so to use it internally is to make you a foreigner in your own country. That’s my objection.

I know it’s a small problem compared with the main work of the UKBA, which is policing overseas workers coming into this country, and which it does robustly (to put it politely – Google them). Their basic assumption is that anyone coming in, whether a teacher, student or musician, may be illegal, and with a bizarre kind of equality they apply the same assumption of guilt to UK Citizens. Surely a government department that reckons the entire population is potentially here illegally has lost the plot somewhere along the way.

Some people wondered what would happen at the concert next week if I’m not there. Firstly, let me apologise to David McGuiness and my wonderful fellow musicians. I know they don’t like the situation any more than I do and that they fully support Aldeburgh’s plight. They’ve also been touchingly supportive of my position too. It’s a freewheeling kind of event, and although it will obviously be a bit different if I’m not there, there are plenty of ways of doing it without me. It’ll be a great gig, and if it wasn’t already sold out I’d be urging everyone to go along.


Tuesday, March 19th, 2013

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