Heathrow border control
The immigration minister, Liam Byrne, says that we all want “compassionate” but “stronger” borders – to prevent illegal immigrants, identity fraudsters and the like entering our fair country. Hence fingerprinting visa applicants, plus other “compassionate” schemes – increased deportation powers, ID cards for visa holders etc.
When I came back from the APA in Chicago to Heathrow Terminal 4 last week, I thought things had already changed, even for us UK passport holders. Maybe I haven’t been concentrating on what has been happening there recently, but (if you were a suspicious soul, unlike me, of course) it seemed to have taken a few steps further towards the police state.
Of course, shamefully, I am a paid-up member of biometric Britain, so I whizzed through the iris-recognition booth with no delay at all. But my colleague was wanting to wave his passport, for which there was a large queue – so I had plenty of time (some 25 minutes) to observe the surroundings, while I waited for him. It turned out to be even worse than the USA, where at least citizens slip through quite quickly, even if visitors are herded into a long and twisty line.
As it happens, even if I hadn’t been waiting for the friend, I would anyway have been hanging around the luggage carousels for ages. It appears to take the combined talents of BAA (OK, at least they weren’t on strike like they might well have been) and the world’s favourite airline almost an hour to deliver your luggage from the plane.
But the changes? The first was a big notice, behind the immigration staff, saying “UK border” –as if that wasn’t obvious.
And then there was what appeared to be an array of orange metal barriers, completed with wire mesh, looking as if they were designed to hold back a mass invasion either of illegal immigrants or of disgruntled, queuing passport holders Neither prospect seemed too likely to me. But the effect was to make the whole experience feel like entering some down-at-heel Eastern European republic.
More to the point, this was the first time I had actually registered that the immigration officers were wearing uniforms rather than ordinary civilian clothes. This was all part of New Labour’s plans for border control – and it rested on the argument that the officers would be invested with greater authority if they were uniformed.
For me it works the other way. Uniforms, with the possible exception of those worn by the upper echelons of the military, signal low-grade, underpaid functionaries – or, at best, boy scouts.(Hence in the old days, to take a hospital analogy, nurses were made to wear silly frilly hats, and symbolically white aprons, while consultant doctors wore whatever they liked, even if it was usually a suit.) I have more respect for those who are trusted to wear their own clothes, than those made to wear what someone else chooses. In my view, these people have been down-graded, rather than up-graded.
The cheap response: if they really think that uniforms invest the wearer with authority, why don’t MPs devise one for themselves?
(I seem to remember that someone in the reign of Nero suggested that slaves should wear uniform. The proposal was quashed on the grounds that it would show to the slaves how many they were.. which is another story.)