On the eve of the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, if I may conjoin those last two words without inviting the wrath of the International Olympics Committee, every newspaper, magazine, radio station and television channel is apt to tell us how the world is set to judge the remarkable city on something beyond its capacity to produce a memorable display of fireworks. The city will be judged on everything: from its openness and enthusiasm for the games, to its infrastructure and the security arrangements. Heavens forbid, it might even be judged for its weather.
However history comes to judge the forthcoming games, that the weeks leading up to it have caused this government considerable headache, most will allow. First, there were concerns about unending queues at Heathrow, thanks partly to the chronic shortage of staff at immigration controls in Heathrow, and partly to the draconian method of dealing with visitors from outside the EU. Then, the incompetence with which the security arrangements with G4S were handled came to light, which resulted in army personnel being deployed in large numbers, often denying them their brief vacation. Worst of all, the strike threatened by employees at the UK Borders Agency was not called off until the last minute.
Yet, for all the problems and linguistic blunders, the games will probably proceed without a fuss. The opening ceremony will probably impress, Britain will win its golds and silvers, every thing will proceed smoothly at Heathrow if only for a few weeks, and, with the exception of disgruntled taxi drivers and those Londoners who rely on public transport, the rest of the city will just take it on the chin and people will get on with their lives. Many might even cheer.
But, there is something duplicitous in the way Britain has, it appears, opened its arms to welcome the world. Something, dare I say it, hypocritical.
It wouldn't be fair to accuse London, the London of Londoners, not of bankers and politicians, of hypocrisy. It is the most international city in the world: the most accepting of people regardless of race, nationality, language, sexuality, or what have you. Surveys repeatedly suggest that London is the least hostile to immigrants, be they from Europe or otherwise. It is unlikely that anyone who uses its public transport does not hear at least two different language in a single short ride, or can go a mile without seeing an ethnic minority. So, if any city be capable of welcoming the world, it were London.
Yet, one can't say the same about Britain: and certainly not about the current government. Whether it be due to the reprehensible and immoral sensationalism of the tabloids, or due to the propensity of politicians to let the headlines therein set their agenda, immigration remains one of the biggest concerns of the average British citizen, second only to the economy.
Xenophobia has become politically fashionable, as has the tendency to separate it from racism. Yet, few people seem to be threatened by immigration from North America or Northern and Western Europe. Indeed, one of the more recent immigration 'reforms' was to divide much of non-EU immigration into two tiers -- cue the joke about Britons and their class obsession -- the first tier for countries rich and whose citizens predominantly white, and the second tier for the 'rest,' the burden of documentation and finance being considerably heavy on the lower class. It does not occur to many that one prejudice is no more rational than another.
The last Labour government 'reformed' what was already a strict, but far less nightmarish, immigration system into an Australian-style points-based model. (For those with short memories, Australia had a white-only immigration policy till 1970s.) The steps that government took, so it seemed at the time, were ill-timed, ill-devised, and ultimately, painful to those burdened with additional bureaucratic measures. But even those changes pale into insignificance if we consider the almost mediaeval mindset with which this government has set about virtually shutting down the movement of people into this country from outside Europe.
In just under five years, Britain has, from being one of the most desirable places to move to, has become the most nightmarish countries in Europe to get into. The visa application form, previously merely four pages, has now become at least forty pages. The visa fees, around £100 then, has now become nearly ten times as much, if not more, for the average application. The decisions, which used to take around 24-48 hours, now routinely takes more than a month. Many get stuck in legal limbos for several months. Are these the signs of a welcoming Britain?
Tellingly, the worst hit are still the poor and the vulnerable. The super-rich can still enter, not pay taxes, and stay as long as they like. But, not students, who have been the worst hit, nor enterprising young graduates and entrepreneurs, and certainly not dependents of residents already assimilated. If art be the judge of a refined and open country, then, we have to wonder why internationally renowned artists, composers, musicians, and authors, with the exception of the super-rich pop stars, of course, find it impossible to get into the country. Pianists and opera singers have threatened to boycott Britain altogether. Some already have. Meanwhile, leading universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, have expressed concerns that students are abandoning Britain by the droves to seek knowledge, and their fortunes, elsewhere.
One project manager at Oxfam told me that five years ago, he used to oversee people from around the world on one or two-year fixed contracts. Now, the people he oversees are all white, and from the UK. One senior tutor at Cambridge quipped that having been the head of a famous college for more than a decade, and having been in academia all his life, never has the plight of international students been more regrettable, nor the conduct of the government been to him more infuriating.
Must not the Olympics also force us to think about this second-face of Britain which every immigrant, and their friends, family and colleagues will be familiar with? While we celebrate welcoming the world to this country, must we not also realise that we risk becoming culturally, economically, and demographically insular, sclerotic and backward-looking? Or, even as we cheer the presence of more than 200 nationalities, is this what we really want: to close ourselves, along with our borders?
Today, ahead of a press-conference with the gaffe-prone Mitt Romney, the Prime Minister, Mr David Cameron, was at pains to emphasise how good Britain was 'at welcoming people from around the world.' Mr Cameron is right in one way. The UK has long played host to refugees and dissidents from around the world, were it not for whom, the richness of its culture and economy would have been but a dream. How many of those who arrived here on Kindertransport went on to become academics, poets, and business leaders? Yet, taken at face value, and in the context of what his government has turned Britain into, his quip is more than a tad insincere.
Make no mistake: the Olympics is a grand old thing, which we are apt to enjoy and celebrate, cheer those miraculous athletes, and burn in the enthusiasm it engenders. It is perhaps easy then for us to forget that it is also a show: an expensive, corporate, and political show. But, Britain's apparent openness for the next few weeks is much less a show than an illusion: it is also a painful reminder to many of their own unwelcome presence.