Look for example at this from the Guardian (at the time of writing, no 2 story on their website):
This is FAB emotional media stuff. Any mention of "bringing in the army" is always designed to highlight the absolute seriousness of a situation. Think back to the riots in the summer and the calls to "bring in the army". It appeals to the dramatic sense that these are the last defenders of order: we are one step away from chaos, disaster, and only the army can save us. It resonates with the calling of the Army into Northern Ireland or the imposition of martial law around the world. When the Police or other public services cannot cope, the army will prevail. Look too at this, again from the Guardian:
Dirty Bombs, Radiation and Nuclear Material
"Dirty bombs"... "Radiation"... "nuclear material"? Is this for real? Do people believe this is a serious, credible likelihood of one day's not checking passports? What exactly is going on here? There are different possible interpretations. On the one hand this could be seen as an attack on the reckless unions for putting us all at danger of nuclear attack by being so selfish as to argue for a better pensions deal. Given it is a lefty newspaper, another possibility is that it is seeking to portray the Government as willing to risk the safety of our land and borders because it will not budge. A third interpretation is that this is simply the classic driver of so much in our lives: FEAR.
Fear sells. Fear grips people. When I look at the stories about "keeping our borders safe" I somehow imagine Fortress Britain under siege from foreigners. There are terrifying people seeking to scale our walls - millions of them who would burst in to our country at a moment's notice if we let our guard down for *one* second. They'd either be bringing in their dirty bombs, or there would be millions of grubby little brown faces storming our fair green island looking for jobs or claiming benefits. Our borders must be KEPT SAFE and they must be KEPT OUT.
We saw this so clearly during the attack on Theresa May - she had apparently committed one of the worst sins possible: the BBC reported that the Home Secretary admitted she "did not know how many people came into the UK without proper checks". A bit like the Trojan Horse, instantly we imagine who got inside our safe haven, and is now wandering around, ready to attack us. Look at this from the Mirror: hundreds of thousands of people may have entered the UK without critical anti-terrorist vetting:
Labour of course took this up with gusto. They attacked her for giving the "green light for weaker controls" and attempted, in the usual depressing way in British politics, to score political points. Yes there are very good grounds for having done so on the point about her not being in control of her own ministerial area of responsibility; this however became a more simplistic point about her having put OUR COUNTRY AT RISK. Such a point of course resonates with voters and there is no doubt the Tories would have done the same the other way round. The narrative is always the same: there is a "list of terror fanatics" who want to get in and moreover "strong borders" will stop them. She dropped the ball and now we're all in danger. Is any of this true, reasonable or balanced however?
What Are Borders?
First a bit of historic background. Up until World War One it was possible to travel from St Petersburg to Land's End without showing a passport. The passport, in essence a feudal permission to move away from your immediate place of residence, granted by your overlord, had disappeared and border controls had been abandoned with the advent of the railways. Despite fears that the "Irish would be moving all over the country" the railways had now caused widespread social breakdown in the UK or elsewhere. Before WW1 paranoia that German tourists on holiday drawing sketches of the Dover cliffs were actually spies led to the Official Secrets Act 1911. Similar fears on all sides later led to the imposition of border controls across Europe.
Borders are artificial things. We humans have drawn them on maps. The local Dutch and Low German dialects on both sides of the border where my Mutti grew up are the same. The border between the two has developed artificially, historically and politically. It culminated at a certain point in a long barbed wire fence and two officials checking a piece of paper that determined if you could cross or not. I do not need a passport to go from Mossband in Cumbria to Gretna in Scotland, yet I needed one to travel the 10 minutes from Freilassing in Bavaria to Salzburg in Austria. Arguably the latter two are far closer from a cultural and historical perspective. A bird flying overhead wasn't stopped, but I was. We've made these things up. They are, in my opinion, social constructs to control/ check and constrain people's freedom by the State.
If that is true, the next question is to ask if the inconvenience they involve is proportionate, whether they serve their purpose, and where exactly we should have them. Isn't it a fair question to ask why people are free to travel from Norfolk into Suffolk without the State demanding a piece of paper from me to make sure I'm permitted to? Let's face it HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of people crossed the River Waveney last month without any anti-terrorist vetting. That is a fact. Literally anything may have been transported down the A140 with *no* checks.
The United States is well over 2000 miles wide. There are 3.79 million square miles you can travel about in without showing your passport (the whole of the UK is a tiddly 94,500 square miles by comparison). Liechtenstein on the other hand is 15 miles long and 6 miles wide. It had its own border controls until very recently. Because of these passport controls am I correspondingly far safer in Liechtenstein than in the UK, and again far more so here, than in the US? Think about this critically: at what point geographically do we impose travel checks? Should movement of 15 miles be controlled? Or 100 miles? Or 500 miles? Or is it okay to have border free areas of 2000 miles? At what point do we lose a grip on safety and security by not having State check points every X distance?
Am I being a Dick?
You quite possibly think I'm being a dick for somehow belittling the incredibly serious threats that face us. Such threats are much more serious in the modern age than they were before 1914. You may not question the fact it is entirely obvious we need "strong borders" to keep our threats from abroad: both terrorists and migrants.
I actually, however, have problems with believing that people are queuing up outside Britain, specifically, ready to attack - or indeed to migrate to this land of milk, honey and freely available work and benefits for all illegal immigrants. I think it is actually a bizarre, unsustainable, fear-driven notion. I would like to know where the evidence for it is, other than in these sweeping headlines and unchallenged assumptions. I think that what borders do is to cause real hassle and inconvenience to the hundreds of millions of absolutely innocent, peaceful people who wish to travel around - rather than stopping a tiny minority of people who may or may not be trying to use mainstream ports of entry to come into this country.
With ever increasing numbers of people travelling internationally, attempts to keep up "vigorous checks" are, I believe, completely unsustainable. The passport lines for EU travellers at Heathrow or Gatwick are unmanageable: no wonder biometric checks on European nationals and warnings index checks on children for the EU were "abandoned" for a period this summer. So what? To me it is a massive non-story. People working in this field, far better informed than I, took this decision because the attempts to man the walls of Fortress Britain in this way are in fact impossible.
It is in large part the practical impossibilities of controlling the movements of the majority that led to the creation of the Schengen zone. It covers twenty states including several outside the EU (e.g. Norway, Iceland and Switzerland) and functions like a single state for international travellers. You are subjected to a passport control when you first enter (just as in the US) and then can travel round an area of 400 million people without a single internal border.
There is a single visa to enter for non-EU nationals that require one: there is no free immigration for everyone: there are still checks for those coming from outside. Of course anyone applying for a job then needs to show they have the necessary permit, so it is not allowing 3 billion Chinese or Indians to just come over and settle - even if they had the money for the fare or inclination to do so (which seems to be the assumption in all immigration related matters).
|Schengen Area in Blue; Applicant States in Green|
I recently took the train from Budapest to Vienna. The first time I did so, in the summer of 1989, we were held at the border: penned in like sheep whilst guards checked our visas, our police stamps, under our seats and in our bags. Nowadays we simply crossed without a single check and the train didn't stop. Even between Germany and Holland I remember passport checks very clearly: now there is simply a sign indicating the name of the village and you're in the next country.
Is the whole of the massive Schengen area *really* less safe for the lack of passport checks? Has this nightmarish anarchistic creation led to millions of people travelling the continent freely committing crime, transporting "dirty bombs", nuclear weapons, radioactive material and/or claiming benefits - or any of the other evils that our "vigorous checks" supposedly prevent? That is the risk we seem to think will occur if our external borders are left unmanned. The answer is of course not: look at the evidence of the past 16 years of operation across the countries involved. 400 million of our nearest neighbours live within a huge no-passport zone quite safely, quite happily.
House of Lords Committee Reports
Don't take my word for it either: the House of Lords have twice considered in great detail the operation of Schengen. The first report was in 1999. The committee listened to expert evidence from the Intelligence Services, the Police, Border Staff, civil servants and the government.
Here are some key points:
- The (then Tony Blair) government had made its position on maintaining frontier checks clearly and repeatedly and left the Lords under no doubt of their conviction on this
- The Lords said that they did not believe the status quo of border checks "remains a long term option". The steadily increasing numbers of people entering the UK necessitates closer cooperation with other Governments, "as all our witness made clear"
- The Government's main arguments for keeping passport checks were they prevented clandestine immigration and prevented crime. They doubted other Schengen States would police the external border to "our standards" and that our island geography made our case "special" [never mind Iceland of course]
- The Government however "failed to convince" the Lords committee that "systematic border control as currently practised is the most effective use of resources to control illegal immigration or is focused on the main sources of illegal immigration"
Okay. The facts here are that we, like all countries, face terrorist threats. Here's a bit of a scary thought to those who like to keep the idea up of our "strong border" though - I'm pretty sure I'm correct in saying every single terrorist attack to date has either comes from home-grown (i.e UK) terrorists or from the Republic of Ireland (part of our Common Travel Area). People INSIDE this country come up with these plans and manufacture these weapons. Border and passport checks do absolutely nothing to stop them. Alternatively they import weapons from outside, but you can be pretty sure they will get them into the country if they want to. They do not bring them in their suitcases through Heathrow on a flight from Paris. In the same way, as the Lords found having heard the evidence, the major ports of entry are not the source of illegal immigration into this country. They get through anyway.
What keeps this and every other developed country as safe as they are is in fact the work of intelligence services and the Police within the country. However, the really serious criminals operate internationally, so our own intelligence services require the help also of others abroad. Part of Schengen is an incredibly detailed and sophisticated pooled resource for gathering information on serious crime. It is called the "Schengen Information System". It is far more appropriate to the modern world than one country seeking to stop terrorism on its own, by checking and looking at each and every person's passport at Dover. The Lords looked at this again in 2007:
- The Schengen Information System, and its development into a second generation system are matters of the highest relevance to this country
- We believe this is understood by the police, the prosecuting authorities, and all those involved in the combating of serious cross-border crime. They appreciate the benefits to be derived from this country's participation in the information system
- We are less sure that this is fully understood by the Government. They are content not to participate in the current SIS, and likewise content that the UK should be one of the last countries to participate in SIS II. We find this hard to reconcile with their stated commitment to fighting cross-border crime
Now what I'm wondering is, how many people reading this blog even knew that the House of Lords had looked at these questions in such detail and come to such clear conclusions? The Government (then Labour, don't expect the Coalition to be making any changes either) are pandering to the "Fortress Britain" narrative without any actual objective ability to conclude that we are in fact safer for it. The Dutch relied on cutting the dykes when the Germans invaded during WW2. It had worked against the Spaniards in the 16th century; the Germans just flew over in May 1940 and dropped in paratroopers.
Just because the populist view out there follows the narrative set out time and time again that "the security of our borders" is the country's top priority and will be protected by systematic passport checks, it does not mean the Government should ignore the evidence for political reasons, does it?
There are 4 things going on here: 1) I have yet to see any evidence that there are in fact hundreds of dragons and foreign armies all around us, singling out Britain, trying to get inside our castle; 2) Even for the odd few there might be lurking from time to time, our castle walls are already screwed: you can walk round the back and so checking everyone at the drawbridge won't keep out the bad guys; 3) We've got our own bad guys from within the castle community, so the walls won't help against them; 4) We're relying on a medieval defence system in an age where we should using the modern tools at our disposal.
The key to keeping our community safe would be to pull down the walls, allow all of us peaceful folk to travel about freely - and rely on our security services, with the best information available to them (which they currently do not have because of the insistence that they waste their time manning the drawbridge) - to ensure our safety.
That is looking at the matter mainly from a Schengen perspective. From a wider more libertarian type perspective, however, should there be any borders or border controls in this world? Should the EU still have visa restrictions at least for countries at the same stage of economic development? Why can't I go and live in the US, Australia or Canada if I can move to Germany or Sweden? At least why can't I travel there without having to queue up for ages with a silly little passport that an official checks? As the world becomes an increasingly smaller, more integrated, more coherent whole I believe there is a lot to be said for the great Labour politician Ernest Bevin's view:
"My foreign policy is to be able to take a ticket at Victoria and go anywhere I damn well please."