This one-act play might be slight, from a dramatic point of view – it’s three Border Agency officials poring (and in some cases, arguing) over a visa renewal application, but the content is dynamite for those hoping for an insight into the shadowy and robotic world of ideology tainted Whitehall bureaucracy.
There are two stories here. The first, and most illuminating, is the officious and often incomprehensible scrutiny an applicant is subjected to. The case before the mandarins is that of a UK national who’s married a Moroccan immigrant. The common sense and human approach would be to note that denying the application would separate the couple and kill their relationship. Cue the rubber stamp. Instead, the thought police spend inordinate amounts of time looking at photographs and phone records, text exchange transcripts – days and dates, trying to work out whether these people are indeed in love, as they audaciously claim, or are gaming the system like a bargain basement Gérard Depardieu in Green Card.
Having decided they are, on balance of probability, legit – both applicant and sponsor (the technical term, in this instance, for man and wife) look to be in the clear. But a casual statement, included in the appendices of the application, triggers the technocrats, and the couple are reduced to economic units and the threat of government mandated oblivion.
To the casual observer, it’s extraordinary that anyone should be evaluated in this way. As Paul Gambaccini – the immigrant chairing the after-show debate made clear, it wasn’t always thus. We used to trust people’s motives. Hell, once upon a time, particularly if you were white and from a rich country, like Paul, you’d be granted indefinite leave to remain without having to ask. But long before Brexit that attitude transmogrified into suspicion, race-based prejudice, and the boiling down of human beings to their earning potential (with all the assumptions around skilled work that implies).
The second story told here is how a system conditions thinking, perhaps attracting individuals to police it that lack a certain empathy. The two swaggering cocks, flanking the jittery and sentimental female official, barrack her with cold, partial information and technicalities. She’s not an audience proxy, however – as it’s clear that, unlike us, she’s trying to square the circle of aligning her own moderate instincts with the process she’s been programmed to follow. She’s twitchy, like a malfunctioning android.
Ultimately, despite some flashes of empathy, the system wins and her humanity’s excised. If people seeking a better life in the UK are relying on lightning to hit these Johnny Five’s, they’re likely to be in for one hell of a disappointment.
The aforementioned after-show debate, which at my performance was attended by Labour MP Wes Streeting, amongst others, including a human rights lawyer whose bank balance swells thanks to appeals against denied visa applications, provides further damning illumination.
We learn the system acts like a capricious child – changing want it wants every three months or so, and being driven by the selfish whims of successive governments. No one can agree on what basis people should he admitted to the country, it seems (debates around English proficiency and culture and belief systems informing successful assimilation into the parent society are not touched on here).
Border Control leaves you feeling a little confused, then, not to mention grubby and ashamed. We can do better, and we must.