UK’s ‘hostile environment’ for overseas visitors makes the Festival’s words of welcome to Edinburgh ring hollow, writes Joyce McMillan
When the Prime Minister visited Edinburgh earlier this week, she was greeted by Festival passers-by with what one paper enthusiastically called a “barrage” of booing and jeering. Some demanded that she stop Brexit, while the irrepressible Glasgow comedy star Janey Godley invited her to visit some of Scotland’s “nice food banks”; for in truth, there can rarely if ever have been a British Prime Minister who seemed more out of tune, in both policy and instincts, with the spirit of Edinburgh at festival time.
Every year since 1947, Scotland’s capital has hosted a Festival born to transcend the borders and divisions of a scarred and post-war Europe, and to bring people together again around their great shared inheritance of music, dance and theatre; in the decades since, its reach has become global, as artists from around the world have arrived in their hundreds and then in their thousands to take part in the Festival and its huge Fringe, the Military Tattoo and – for the last 35 years – the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
It’s therefore hardly surprising that a booming festival city whose people now enjoy thinking of themselves as citizens of a wider world, and that voted by a margin of 75 to 25 per cent to remain in the European Union, should be less than impressed with a Prime Minister who is not only implementing an extreme form of Brexit, but in 2016 offered her famous and woefully narrow-minded edict that people who think they are citizens of the world are really citizens of nowhere. And it’s perhaps grimly appropriate that when the director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival felt moved to speak out, this week, about the growing difficulties faced by writers – particularly those from Africa and the Middle East – in obtaining visas to take part in the Festival, he was in effect tracing the impact of Theresa May’s signature policy during her six years as Home Secretary; the attempt to create what she called a “hostile environment” for people trying to enter the UK, particularly those suspected of wanting to stay. Just last month, the musician Peter Gabriel expressed “alarm” over their effect of those policies on the Womad world music festival, which lost three major African acts this year after they were unable to obtain visas.
And both festivals emphasise that while they can usually resolve visa issues in time – with the expenditure of long hours of lobbying effort, and the support of MPs, MSPs, and senior diplomats – they and many other British-based international organisations, including the Edinburgh International Festival itself, remain ever more anxious about the “chilling” impact of Britain’s aggressive visa system on the UK’s long-standing reputation as a thriving international centre of cultural and academic life. Most ominously, festivals are beginning to find that artists are simply unwilling to subject themselves to the systematic rudeness, hostility and intrusion involved in the UK visa application process, which can involve senior writers being asked to provide a year’s worth of bank statements to prove their financial solvency, with explanations of any large deposits or withdrawals, despite written guarantees that the festival will meet all their costs while they are here; or even, in some cases, to take biometric tests to prove that they are who they say they are. The truth is that the whole British visa system is now based on the assumption that most applicants are confidence tricksters trying to sneak into the country in order to take up permanent residence; and people who may be traveling for very different reasons – for work or cultural exchange or urgent medical treatment, to visit a dying relative or attend a family celebration – can only take so much of being treated in that aggressive and hostile manner, and essentially addressed as if they were criminals.
What we are seeing, in other words, is the making flesh in day-to-day administrative practice of the decades of hate-filled anti-immigrant propaganda pumped out by some sections of the British media, regardless of the facts; the facts that migrants contribute far more to the economy than they cost, that they support our public services with their labour, rather than putting additional pressure on them, and that they have a lower crime rate, and a lower rate of benefit claims, than the rest of the population.
The result is a visa system hopelessly out of kilter with reality, which exhausts itself and its applicants by applying systems designed to catch criminals to ordinary people going about their lawful business; and it exists because a generation of third-rate British politicians, including the present Prime Minister, decided at some point in the last decade to accept the virulent anti-immigration prejudice of some sections of the British electorate as an immutable political fact, rather than a failure of information, judgment and basic moral decency which should have been challenged at every turn.
Now, as in the Brexit debate, this determination to act on the basis of reactionary myth rather than fact is beginning to inflict real, practical damage on vital aspects of British life, and on areas of it where we could, until very recently, genuinely claim to be “great”. For us in Scotland, of course, the visa debacle raises questions about whether we can afford, for much longer, to remain chained to a system that reflects such a blinkered and damaging set of values.
Even more pressing, though, is the question of what the UK as a whole can do to disentangle itself from this painful downward spiral into the kind of xenophobia that is bound to harm us far more than those we seek to exclude. “Welcome All” say the big yellow Festival banners all over Edinburgh this month. In truth, though, at the moment, those words ring hollow in any part of the UK; and if any leader of the Brexit movement tries to persuade you that this is all about leaving the EU the better to embrace the rest of the world, just take another look at our visa system, and how it bears down on the people of Asia, Africa and the Middle East – and then recognise those leaders again for the unparalleled gallery of rogues, opportunists and liars they most undoubtedly are.