Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: What hope for tolerance if we treat foreign artists like dirt?

Some of the most accomplished from abroad are being humiliated, refused entry or sent packing. The Russian poet Alex Galper was thrown out

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British politicians know that to win seats they must satisfy the powerful tabloids and never, ever come out against the anti-immigration delirium. This is the hysteria that cyclically sweeps through the nation, dangerously so, for example, during the last election, leading to populist promises and a surrender by both main parties to baleful forces. For millions of indigenous Britons, all their economic woes, their pain, societal upheavals and lack of ease can be blamed entirely on those who came to stay and the zillions they think are trying to sneak in, using whatever dastardly trick they can invent. The issue is toxic, word of the moment.

That's why government ministers and the UK Border Agency are in a tizz, implementing senseless entry laws and immigration regulations thus revealing both a lack of foresight and basic skills of governance. Just one example – many more follow – to show their snout goes in one direction while the back legs try to run the other way. Universities minister David Willetts, has gone off to Brazil to buy us 10,000 fee-paying university students, who would or so he believes, the two-brainer, bring sacks of cash to our universities. But at the same time, Theresa May, the Home Secretary, is cutting by at least 85,000, the number of non-EU students coming to study in Britain. Universities object and they are ignored. Please tell me how this adds up to a coherent policy? Officials should arrange for these two to have coffee soon.

Then there is the failure of soft diplomacy that this hysteria represents. Last week I interviewed Lord Malloch-Brown, previously at the UN and briefly in Gordon Brown's cabinet. We talked about England's enduring appeal even in regions of the world blighted by colonialism or more recently, catastrophic wars started by vainglorious leaders. I am writing a book on how the old land still draws global citizens to its ample lap.

People want to come here and we should feel pride that they do and worry that soon they may give up altogether. May's matronly, "just say no" approach is leading fast to some serious culture wars too. No surprise there. These Tories, led by the Chipping Norton set, are obstinately philistine. Their idea of a great time is champers, tickets for Wimbledon and Henley.

Our summer days are alive with festival music, concerts, big sounds, also countless literary gatherings in beautiful places, film seasons, plays, untold pleasures. Visitors fly in to take part or just to join in – it's what we are famous for and rightly in the creative and open nation which showcases the best talent, wherever it was born.

Now, some of the most accomplished from abroad are routinely being humiliated, refused entry or sent packing. The Russian poet Alex Galper, a protégé of Allan Ginsberg and an American citizen, was invited over for a poetry reading. He was detained and thrown out. Some musicians at Glastonbury complained they were treated as if they were the Taliban by border control staff. I personally know brilliant playwrights, screenwriters and actors from several countries who, furious with the way they have been treated by immigration officers, say they will go to Stockholm, Berlin, Rome, but no, not London, their favourite city.

According to one Indian arts promoter more and more artists are turning their backs on Britain. Idrissa Soumaoro, a Malian musician expected to play in Manchester with the hugely popular Malian singers Amadou and Miryam. They made it so hard for him to get a visa, he never came. Grigory Sokolov, one of the greatest pianists ever has been a victim of the iniquitous system; the Caribbean dancer Vybz Kartel had to cancel his European tour because the UK would not grant him a visa and Iraqi artists were not allowed to attend an exhibition of their own work in Manchester. A survey by the GLA found 70 per cent of arts organisations have had programming badly affected by these asinine rules.

When successful and famous non-European visiting artists are treated like scum by our agencies, it is another small victory for the relentless xenophobes who next will want their land cleansed of any "foreign" presence. The biggest lie told by politicians (and their campaigning anti-immigration friends) is that "tolerance" of immigrants gets better if the state is hard on new incomers and visitors. The exact opposite happens. State bigotry leads to intolerance flooding into the lives of even third-generation migrants. I do not wish to slander those Britons who are receptive, fair, internationalist and egalitarian, but am describing those who are not, and who contaminate the air, creating a fog of prejudice. Nothing diminishes their hostility because they hate not what we do necessarily, but who we are.



So, I am on Dateline London, BBC News Channel, on Saturday morning, discussing the News International saga and say, in jest, that Murdoch is a "bloody foreigner". It was a joke, guys. That was it. A deluge followed attacking all incomers, migrants, settlers, refugees, asylum seekers, Muslims, and most rancorously and tellingly, non-Anglo Saxons who don't quietly clean lavatories at dawn and instead overreach themselves.

Yes, I'm on this list of treacherous high achievers, so too the benign Lenny Henry, "that half-caste" Leona Lewis, Shami Chakrabarti, the Russian owners of The Independent, and Sayeeda Warsi, the co-chair of the Conservative Party – she really gets to them, she does. One prominent Asian businessman said to me just last week: "I get so sick of this, so sick, who do they think they are, or we are? I feel like shouting, 'I'm an Immigrant. Get Me Out of Here!' I have over nine hundred people working for me, many English – isn't that enough? Forty years and never taken a penny from the state. At a family wedding this year, half the guests didn't get visas. My company would collapse if I was as scared as them."

But they are scared, just as they have been of the Murdoch empire. The latter may lose its grip, but not the fear of immigration, which always brings out the worst in our leaders at the best of times. And these are not the best of times.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk



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